Thoughts and Feelings: The Australian Voting System

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I’ve been wanting to create a “Series Title” for blog-posts and/or vlog-posts that deal with my thoughts and feelings surrounding current events, or as current as I’m ever going to be. I’m super slow to react to stuff, by the time I form a response, there’s almost no point to publishing the response.

I wanted to talk about how, in Australia, eligible citizens experience mandatory voting. I was planning on discussing this topic in a video, but then I found a video that explains exactly what I wanted to talk about, except it’s way better produced and it’s far more coherent in its coverage of the subject matter. I’ve included the video down below:

The video does a good job at covering the basics, but there are a few things I wanted to expand upon, however, I think I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps I should explain what prompted this discussion in the first place.

I was watching Brexit: What Is Democracy? by Oliver Thorn and he mentioned the fact that the UK doesn’t have mandatory voting. This surprised me,  as the Australian legal system is an adaptation of the Westminster system, I had thought that the UK also had mandatory voting. It turns out that mandatory voting isn’t a common practise in other countries.

Now, I understand that Oliver is trying to give his audience multiple points of view, and it makes sense that Oliver would want to add nuance to his discussions. Given the adverse reaction to mandatory voting that I have seen, this may be the first time some of his viewers are encountering the idea of mandatory voting, so it’s important to cover multiple bases, however, the analogy Oliver used irked me.

Annabelle Lever’s analogy of giving people a fine for not eating their vegetables is a flawed analogy and shows a lack of first-hand knowledge or experience with the subject at hand. If the Government were to make Vegetable Eating mandatory; then the Government is also then responsible for making sure that the citizens it governs have easy access to Vegetables.

When Voting is voluntary, it becomes the responsibility of the citizens to vote, it is not the Government’s responsibility to make sure that all citizens are able to vote. It is not the responsibility of the Government to make sure it’s citizens have equal access to all possible voting methods.

From my observations of the elections that occur in the United States of America, this often leads to a lack of accountability when certain groups of voters are discriminated against. It’s also an easy way to victim-blame citizens as well when the voting outcome goes against “popular consensus”, which has happened the UK and USA recently. The problem with the Vegetable Fining analogy is that it shifts the Burden of Evidence.

The Burden of Evidence is no longer on the Government to provide equal access of Vegetables for its Citizens, it is now the responsibility of the Citizen to be able to prove (whenever the need should arise) that they have in fact eaten a Vegetable of some kind within a given time period (assuming this is how it would work). Citizens are guilty until proven innocent, which isn’t how mandatory voting works in Australia. I’m going to go through the voting process and break it down into smaller points.

Voting Registration
In Australia, eligible citizens are required to register to vote with the Australian Electoral Commission when they turn eighteen years of age. Citizens have to keep their details up to date, details such as residential address or if they change their name for any reason, however, I want to point out that citizens only have to register once, that’s it, citizens are registered for life and for all elections. Voting registration applies to all levels of Australian Government: Local, State, and Federal.

Multiple Voting Options
While Voting normally occurs on a Saturday, not everyone is free on voting day, and some people (like myself) have to work on a Saturday. There’s also the fact that Australia is a country with a large geographical area. There are rural and remote areas as well as rural and remote Indigenous communities that won’t be able to get to a voting station. How does the Australian government solve this problem?

Postal Voting is an option people can consider. The Australian government sends out a letter, people fill out a form and send it back, the Australian government then sends out a postal vote to a person’s home. For those who live in metropolitan areas, they can also apply for postal votes, but there are also early voting stations available, such as hospitals.

In the previous election, Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation (across the road from the Royal Melbourne Hospital in the Melbourne CBD) had an early voting station set up in the lobby, this way patients and medical staff (who would most likely be working on Voting Day) were able to vote. I would like to point out that the Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation only had the early voting station set-up for two days, in my view, they should have had the early voting station set-up for a whole week.

Employment within Australian Electoral Commission
Early Voting Stations and Election Day Voting Stations are set-up and implemented by paid employees, hired by the Australian Electoral Commission, although I would like to point out that it is only temporary employment and, for some positions, you will a need a driver’s licence, however, it is still paid employment. Preparing for an upcoming election and setting up Voting areas is a paid service.

The Act of Voting
Primary Schools are often used as Voting Stations, so I often go there to vote, which means you have to walk past the various political party representatives trying to tell you how to vote (smiling politely and trying not to take their pamphlets). Then you line up with everyone else, and when it’s your turn, you stand in front of a desk with a person who has acquired an enormous collection of binder folders.

They ask for your name and your address, they find your name and address in one of the binders, if you don’t live locally they will search your name in the relevant binder that corresponds to your area, this is why it’s important to update your details. You don’t have to show identification to prove you live in that particular area, the Australian voting system makes that kind of pointless, in fact, if you should offer to show identification, the AEC worker will give you a weird look.

Once the AEC worker has found your name, they will ask if you’ve already voted (it’s illegal to vote more than once), and they will cross off your name from the Big Book of Voting. Side Note: With regards to voting, the Government doesn’t just take your word for it that you’ve only voted once, they double check the Big Books of Voting to make sure you haven’t voted twice. The AEC worker gives you a piece of paper to vote for a representative in The House of Representatives and another a piece of paper to vote for a representative in The Senate (the above video explains in greater detail).

At this point, I want to make something very clear: no one can make you vote if you don’t want to. You have to get your name crossed off but there is no one standing over your shoulder. Voters can invalidate their voting papers (such as writing the number 1 in all the boxes) or they can leave them blank and, as paper voting in Australia is anonymous, the only person who will know is you. When you’re done with voting, you can possibly purchase a Democracy sausage, aka a Democrasausage (in Australia we combine words together or make them shorter).

How it works is that you donate a gold coin (for non-Australians that’s a $1 or $2 coin) and, in exchange, you receive a cooked sausage in bread, sometimes barbequed onion is also offered. The stalls are not just limited to selling sausages, some of them can sell cakes or a full continental breakfast, it depends.  The gold coin is usually collected for fundraising on behalf of a local community group or it could go towards the primary school (different places will be raising funds for different organisations).

Other Points
I don’t encourage people to not vote or to “donkey vote”, being able to vote is a right and a privilege, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted. In saying that, Mandatory Voting can only work if the Government is forced to make voting as accessible possible, and is held accountable when they don’t. The Australian Voting System isn’t perfect, the Voting process could stand to be more transparent and improved (every system can be improved).

The Australian Political system and Voting system in place is far from perfect and it’s not free from discrimination. Indigenous Australians were not allowed to vote until the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was amended in 1962 to include them, which means Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could enlist in the Military for World War One and Two, but could not vote. There’s also a barrier against Homeless people being able to vote as the voting system requires a fixed address.

In this video, Peter Coffin talks about how voting is important but it isn’t the only factor that needs to be considered, and I agree with this. Voting isn’t useless but isn’t always enough to guarantee progressive change and, if we are to improve our society for the better, more needs to be done outside of an election period. While a lot of people object to mandatory voting, I’ve seen the problems that arise from non-compulsory voting, and the corruption and discrimination that can arise from it (such as what happens the USA). So I understand possible objections to mandatory voting, however, I think that mandatory voting is the better option.

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