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Woman with Down syndrome fighting right to vote in SSM survey

Shea MacDonaugh and her mother Fran are fighting the AEC’s decision. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied
Shea MacDonaugh and her mother Fran are fighting the AEC’s decision. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

PERHAPS you've found yourself hot under the collar about the same-sex marriage survey, ranting and raving to anyone who will listen. Maybe you're a "yes "voter.

Maybe you're in the "no" camp.

Whatever the case, at least you actually get to vote.

That's not the case for nearly 29,000 adult Australians with disabilities. One of them is Shea MacDonaugh, 31, from Victoria.

After applying to be put back onto the electoral roll last month, Shea, who has Down syndrome, received a letter from an employee at the Australian Electoral Commission stating: "Unfortunately, I am unable to approve your enrolment because: The AEC has been unable to confirm that you understand the nature and significance of enrolment and voting."

Speaking to me over FaceTime last night, Shea describes opening the letter: "It hurt my feelings. I felt shitty."

"It feels that they are taking something away from me," she continues, "People like us [with disabilities] have a right to speak our own thoughts."

On the issue of same-sex marriage, Shea doesn't mince her words.

"I've got a cousin that's gay and she's got a partner. Gay people have the right to get married and be in love with their partner," she explains, "I believe that gay couples should [be allowed] to get married."

In case you still have a whisper of a doubt that Shea is capable of making up her own mind. Stop. Right. There.

Shea finished a couple of years of university study. She regularly co-facilitates sex-education classes for people with disabilities and often gives speeches and radio interviews about disability rights. She's crazy about dance and performance - she writes and performs in couple of hip-hop dance crews every week and acts on stage too.

In 2013, Shea featured in the in the 2013 indie movie Monster Pies.

Shea in a scene from Monster Pies: Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied
Shea in a scene from Monster Pies: Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied



For Shea's mother, Fran, the AEC's decision as "a slap in the face".

"She's always been brought up independently," Fran says, "She's always expected she'll do what everyone else does."

Sadly, Shea's situation isn't unique. According to a lengthy report released by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) in August 2014, "…28,603 people were removed from the electoral roll on the basis of the unsound mind provision from 2008-2012."

The so-called "unsound mind" provision of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 is an archaic section of our legislation, which the aforementioned report bluntly describes as "discrimination on the basis of disability".

The document goes on to say: "The ALRC recommends that these provisions be repealed."

Meanwhile, folk like Shea are in limbo. Like most of us, she went onto the electoral roll when she was 18. However about six years ago, Shea came to the conclusion that she didn't understand the preferential voting system well enough and after discussing the issue with her parents decided to go off the roll - a decision she has lived to regret.

Reflecting back, Fran recalls: "At the time we thought it was the right decision for her. Looking back now it was obviously not a good move."

As Shea grew older, her interest in current events and community activism has grown. Shea has therefore responded to the AEC's letter with a furious letter of her own (which is her right under Australian law). She writes: "With regard to your letter stating that you believe I do not understand the nature and significance of enrolment and voting, I can assure you I most certainly do!

"I demand my right to vote and demand that I am placed back on the electoral roll as I requested."

Due to privacy reasons, the AEC was unable to specifically comment on Shea's case.

However in a written statement provided to news.com.au, the Commission states: "The fundamental provisions for eligibility for enrolment and voting in federal elections is the same for all Australians. They must have turned 18 years of age and be an Australian citizen."

In order to be removed from the roll, the AEC statement continues, people need to fill out a special form on the AEC website. The application must be supported by a medical practitioner.

In the reverse situation - where a person wants to re-enrol after their removal - the same conditions apply.

"A medical practitioner needs to support the re-enrolment application in writing by attesting that the person now understands the significance of enrolling and voting. This is then reviewed and processed by the AEC delegate," the AEC statement reads.

The AEC notes that for people enrolling close to the August 24 cut off date to take part in the national postal survey, "there is minimal time and margin should a review of an enrolment application be required to ensure it satisfies the [Electoral] Act."

Shea’s letter in response to the AEC. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied
Shea’s letter in response to the AEC. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

However, Fran disputes that the AEC's website required medical documentation.

"Shea just put her details into the website. There was nothing on the website requiring us to supply some sort of letter of capacity. And we didn't get a call from AEC requesting extra information either," she says.
Federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner Alastair McEwin says it's "disappointing to see people with disability be prevented from exercising their right to vote".

"All people with disability have the right to vote on an equal basis with others," he said.

"The starting point should always be that each person with disability is presumed capable of exercising a free and independent vote."

Mr McEwin points to article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

"Australia is a signatory to the CRPD and has undertaken to incorporate it into domestic law," he says.

According to statistics on the AEC website, approximately 16 million Australians are currently enrolled to vote.

The AEC says "nearly a million enrolment transactions were processed in the close of rolls period leading up to the close of rolls 24 August 2017. Currently the national enrolment participation rate is at a high at 96 per cent".

Fran and Shea understand their case is under review by the AEC. They are anxious that they won't get a result before voting closes on Tuesday, 7 November 2017.

Mr McEwin urges anyone with a disability who feels they have been discriminated against, to make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Ginger Gorman is an award-winning print and radio journalist. 

Topics:  disabilities down syndrome editors picks same sex marriage

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