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Votes are in and our plodding way of having a say wins in a landslide

Date: November 04 2012


Dear Australian Electoral Commission,

This is just a little note to thank you for being the way you are. And an apology for taking you for granted all this time. Like many millions of Australians, I'm guilty of thinking you a little fusty, with your anally retentive rules and your little cardboard demountable booths.

On occasion, I have rolled my eyes at you.

Like that time in, I think, 2004 when one of your electoral officials told Tony Abbott he had to remove his Liberal Party T-shirt before voting (no campaign material within six metres of a polling place). I'm all for sticking to the rules, but surely the broader cost to the sighted community on that occasion could have been weighed?

Or that time you reprimanded me for not voting in the NSW local government elections, when I was living overseas and couldn't care less who the mayor of Queanbeyan was.

But I take it all back, dear old Australian Electoral Commission. The scales have fallen from my eyes. After a recent close inspection of the American voting system, I returned to Australia with a strong urge to kiss your feet.

The United States of America will vote on Tuesday to elect a president. They will also vote to elect members of Congress, Senators, sheriffs, judges, members of the county soil and water boards, local lollipop guys and anyone else that county administrations with way too much time on their hands think ought to be elected. Including election officials. They're elected too, in a faintly disturbing hall-of-mirrors phenomenon I couldn't quite get my head around. If an election official is to be elected, then don't you need another election official to oversee that election? And shouldn't that election official be elected? And so on.

And why do they vote on Tuesday, anyway?

I am sure you know the answer to this one, O Omniscient Administered Agency, but barely anyone in America does. It's because, back in 1845 when this decision was made, the US was an agrarian society in which voters needed a full day to travel to town by horse and buggy to do their democratic duty. Weekends were out, because they were reserved for worship. And Wednesday was market day. So Tuesday it was. And Tuesday it remains, despite the fact that Tuesday is convenient for pretty much nobody.

Ridiculous? Yes. And it will never be changed, because the moment somebody tries to change it, they will immediately be accused of voter fraud, or being born in Kenya, or of trying to buy the election, or of calculatedly disenfranchising small Ohio-based religious sects who worship a graven image of Grover Cleveland from dawn to dusk on every day except Tuesdays.

Everything about the American voting system - who is allowed to vote, how they vote, and how the damn things are counted - varies from state to state and county to county. If you're a former jailbird, you may vote in New York, but not in Florida. And while in one county you might find yourself blinking into a retinal scanner or suchlike to register your democratic intent, 10 miles down the road another voter might be punching a bit of cardboard or colouring in dots on a prepared ballot, or sacrificing a Buff Orpington chicken rather than a Rhode Island White.

In Leon County, Florida, I got to play with an antique voting machine weighing one tonne, which was manufactured some time just after VE Day and boasted a privacy curtain and a series of levers to register voter preference. It looked like a mediaeval Tardis, or some kind of industrial-era chastity device.

All very funny, until Leon County's Supervisor of Elections informed me that this very machine was still in use four years ago in New York.

Most of New York, incidentally, does use paper ballots which are fed into computer vote-counting machines. But the machines then spit out paper receipts which are chopped into sections and manually totted-up by the New York Police Department.

I can sense your brow furrowing, dear AEC, at the very thought of all this. Your Howard Hughes-like obsession with order and cleanliness would never tolerate such a mess.

And all for what? Of all the adults in America who are eligible to vote - just over 200 million - only 57.1 per cent bothered to do so at the last presidential election. And that was thought to be a bumper turnout year.

I know, dear AEC, that you sometimes feel marginalised at international conferences, sitting at the unfashionable enforced-compulsory-voting table, which has only 19 global members (Hiya, Peru! How's it hanging, Luxembourg?)

But I hope you hold your head up high, old puss. There's nothing wrong with asking everyone their opinion, and asking it in a methodical, predictable, even plodding way.

In a world of Flash Harry operatives, cheap-jack dictatorships and democracies for sale or rent, you may be a bird of dull plumage, but you're our bird, and we love you. Or we ought to.

Annabel Crabb travelled to the USA to film a presidential election special for ABC's Foreign Correspondent, which airs on Tuesday on ABC1, at 8pm.

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