Up to 40,000 Indigenous Australians will not cast a vote in the upcoming referendum, a senate inquiry has been told.
An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Indigenous people are not enrolled to vote on whether they wish to enshrine a First Nations Voice to Parliament in Australia’s Constitution on October 14, according to Australian Electoral Commission boss Tom Rogers.
Senators were told the government did not seize on a “lost opportunity” to draft and pass legislation in time to offer people on-the-day voter enrolment that would have offered a sizeable portion of Indigenous people living in remote and rural areas the option to participate.
Mr Rogers said the number of Indigenous voters in Australia was in the best shape it had ever been in, with a 20 per cent increase in enrolled voters since 2017.
“The number of the estimated unenrolled Indigenous population has sunk below 50,000 for the first time in Australia’s history,” Mr Rogers said on Wednesday.
As of June 2023, estimated rates of national voter enrolment reach more than 97 per cent, while the rates for Indigenous voter enrolment are at 94 per cent.
Thousands of incarcerated Indigenous Australians will also be unable to vote in the referendum, the Senate was told, despite Greens attempts to amend laws banning people who have been jailed for more than three years the right to vote in federal elections or referendum.
More than 30 per cent of Australia’s prison population identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The AEC commissioner told senators that he had written to jail bosses across the country about whether they’d support a law change and to ensure prisoners who were eligible to vote were able to do so.
“Some have said they’re happy for us to actually do in-person voting in the prisons, something that we used to do many, many years ago. Others didn’t prefer that as a method of voting because it was disruptive, and they would have preferred us to provide postal votes, which is what we’ve been doing effectively for the last for the last few elections,” Mr Rogers said.
Mr Rogers also flagged that the AEC had clocked an “extraordinary” outpouring of online aggression over recent weeks that has raised concerns for the safety of polling staff and volunteers on referendum day.
He cited an incident during the NSW state election where volunteers were filmed and harassed outside polling booths
“What we’re seeing at the moment is a greater level of aggression online than we’ve ever seen,” he said.
“We've looked at this in terms of the forthcoming referendum and for the future because it seems to be escalating at every event, this level of aggression and disinformation.”