‘Caught unawares’: Covid is preventing Australians in hospital from voting

Australians unexpectedly admitted to hospital before the election are struggling to cast their vote due to a decision to abort mobile polling in health facilities due to Covid.

The Australian Electoral Commission announced before the campaign that it would not be sending mobile teams into hospitals to take votes in the lead-up to polling day, in an attempt to balance voting access with the risk of spreading Covid in vulnerable settings.

Those on long-term hospital stays were told to either vote early or use postal voting.

But the change has caught out Australians who went to hospital unexpectedly in recent days, who had not pre-polled or postal voted, and have no access to telephone voting, a service only available to Covid positive cases.

Dr Katy Barnett, a legal academic in Melbourne, was hospitalised unexpectedly on Thursday with a lung infection unrelated to Covid. When she realised she would be in hospital on polling day, she reached out to the AEC to ask whether she could use the phone voting service.

They told her she could not.

The nurses at her hospital initially believed that mobile polling teams – which typically visit health facilities in the lead-up to polling day – would be arriving as usual. They later learned the AEC had aborted the practice for the 2022 election.

Barnett said she and other patients were “caught unawares”.

“I am surprised by how distraught I am at the thought of being unable to vote,” she told the Guardian on Saturday. “I have never missed a vote before – even when I lived in England.”

“The nurses tell me that I am not the only one who is really upset at the difficulty in being able to vote.”

Barnett is now contemplating whether to leave the hospital in an attempt to cast her vote at a polling station.

She is struggling to walk and her pre-existing health conditions make Covid a significant risk.

“I am concerned about exposure to Covid if I go to a polling booth,” she said. “My husband is particularly worried given my pre-existing health conditions. If I did go I would stay in the car because I can’t really walk far at the moment. And I don’t think hospital wants me to leave – they said ‘we just got you back upright again’.”

Barnett is far from alone. Patients and nurses took to social media on Friday and Saturday to complain to the AEC about the lack of mobile teams.

The AEC confirmed to the Guardian it was not sending mobile teams into hospitals, but said it has never done so on polling day itself.

A spokesperson said hospitals had instead been supported by “a combination of nearby in-person early voting centres and postal voting”.

“We’ve been actively communicating with hospital staff, planned and long-term patients on their options,” the spokesperson said.

“As there always is … short-term, unexpected hospital admissions for which voting may not be possible for that individual, or a priority. We’ve never had mobile voting in hospitals on election day itself. In every election around the world there are always people who do not, or can not, access their vote due to difficult circumstances.”

Those in hospital are unlikely to be fined for not voting, the AEC said.

The Human Rights Law Centre is monitoring barriers to voting in the 2022 election, including due to Covid. It has set up a register allowing voters to report any issues preventing them from voting.

“It is vital that we record barriers to voting at this election so that there can be accountability and so we can ensure all Australians can vote in future elections. Our voting rights must be protected,” Hugh de Kretser, the centre’s executive director, said.

The AEC this week announced a last-minute expansion to phone voting to support more Australians in Covid isolation.

The commission had warned users to expect “teething problems” and possible delays but early on Saturday the phone service appeared to be working well, despite the added demand.

The ABC reported on Saturday that problems with access and a lack of interpreters had frustrated the efforts of Indigenous Australians to vote in some remote parts of the country.

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