At least a third of young people have not enrolled to vote ahead of the ACT election on Saturday — so should the paper-based enrolment system be updated to encourage people to express their democratic rights?

ACT Electoral Commissioner Phil Green says an estimated 67% of eligible 18-year-olds are enrolled to vote while an estimated 56% of eligible 19-year-olds are on the electoral rolls. Green says enrolment amongst 18 and 19-year-olds is often low, and it usually takes an election to drive people to the rolls (which is compulsory once you turn 18). But this time around enrolment is unusually low.

Green attributes this to online business and government activity, and thinks younger people today assume they will be enrolled automatically.

“I think it’s [low enrolment amongst young people] reached historically low levels, and we don’t really know why, but my gut feeling is that the society that we’re now in is so much driven by computers… and the electoral roll is still behind the times a bit, where it still requires someone to print a form out a put a signature on it before they can get on the electoral roll,” Green said.

Yellow squares are federal elections and green squares are for ACT elections

There are those who accidentally didn’t enrol, yet a straw poll of young Canberrans found there were some who were so apathetic to politics they simply did not want to engage with it.

“Graham”, 22, said “I don’t care” when asked why he did not vote, and did not further elaborate. “Darren”, 20, said he was simply too lazy to register, however, he also felt that his vote would not make a difference because politicians made their own decisions.

“Lance”, 34, says he disliked politics at all levels and voted reluctantly (the only person we talked to who planned to vote). “Jimmy”, 23, said: “I am just not interested in voting … I won’t vote this year.” “Derek”, 22, said he never enrolled when he turned 18 and did not enrol this year because he was unaware there was an election until after the cut-off date.

“Randall”, 21, was out of the country for the previous federal election which he was eligible for but he never enrolled. He said he forgot to enrol for the ACT election but also said he didn’t care about the results anyway, and would enrol for the next federal election.

According to the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1918, people who do not enrol when they turn 18 will be fined $50 and prosecuted. It seems though that the threat of a fine and prosecution is not enough to convince some people to vote. Lance said he was not on the electoral role until about five years ago. Although he now votes, it is something he says he does not enjoy doing because he dislikes politics. Derek, Lance and Randall all said that despite not enrolling for previous elections, they had never been fined the $50. Although the fine and prosecution are meant to be deterrents from breaking the law, Green says that is not the biggest downside to not voting.

“There is a $50 fine if you don’t enrol, enrolment is compulsory for citizens 18 years of age and over. It’s a fine that we don’t really like to enforce, we’d much rather encourage people to get on the roll and really the biggest penalty for someone not getting on the roll is that they don’t take part in elections and they don’t get to choose who governs them,” Green said.

ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher says more needs to be done to get young people politically engaged. “It is important that all Canberrans who are eligible to vote make their voice heard. The only way to do that is by casting a vote on election day,” she said.

Tom Sefton, ACT Liberal candidate for Molonglo, says young people should be as politically engaged as possible. “Young people and their views are often marginalised by governments. The only way governments are responsive is through people voting and lobbying governments to pay attention to the areas which they care about,” he said.

Amanda Bresnan, ACT Greens candidate for Brindabella, agreed young people should be voting so they can shape the future of their state: “I met some women at a recent event for multicultural women who were voting for the first time ever in their lives. They were taking it very seriously and researching all the parties, as they had come from countries where they were prevented from voting because of war, dictatorships and because they were women,” Bresnan said.