November means the Melbourne Cup, jacarandas in bloom, and in an even year, elections in the United States.
The US elections always make me grateful I live in Australia and last week’s midterms more so than ever.
Not because of the outcome – a mixed bag from any perspective – but because we’re so much better at running elections.
For all the instability, silliness and sheer bloody-mindedness in Canberra, there’s one thing Australia gets so very right and that’s elections.
We have a few coming up: Victoria this month, NSW in March, and the federal poll … well, who knows, but probably by May.
As politicians prepare, school fundraising groups will be making plans of their own to capitalise on the captive market by running sausage sizzles and cake stalls. (If you’re in my neck of the woods, drop by for my husband’s vegan brownies.)
Voting in an Australian election is a pleasant community affair. It’s always a Saturday so most people are off work. You stroll up to the local school or scout hall, buy a snack, post a pic to Instagram (hashtag #democracysausage), chat to the neighbours while you wait in line and your kids run around. There might even be a jumping castle.
The atmosphere is festive and there’s a sense of camaraderie in doing your collective, civic duty and supporting the community at the same time.
The queue might be a hundred deep but it moves quickly, because inside there is a well-honed system operating the same way at every polling station in the country. Pencil and paper sounds archaic but unlike a broken voting machine, it just works. Paper ballots also make it easy for volunteers to scrutinise the counting – another pillar of our electoral system.
It couldn’t be more different in the US. Every year, reports emerge of voter suppression efforts and problems on election day and with the count afterwards, that could be incompetence or malevolence or perhaps both.
The US bills itself as the “greatest democracy on Earth” but that’s just good ol’ American exceptionalism. It’s one of the world’s oldest and most enduring democracies but the most democratic, it ain’t.
Frankly, if the US were a developing country, we’d be sending in international observers to monitor whether the elections were “fair and free”.
It doesn’t help that elections in the US are held on a Tuesday, when most people have work or college. Changing the day could require a constitutional amendment, but making it a holiday would not.
It gets far worse. Voters are routinely purged from the US electoral rolls on flimsy grounds. In Australia, it’s compulsory to enrol and the Australian Electoral Commission has the power to addyou to the electoral roll or update your address rather than remove you.
In the US voters are turned away from polling stations because of inadequate ID or a mismatch in the way the address is formatted. In Australia, we verbally confirm our name and address. Inquiries have rejected adding an ID requirement because it would inconvenience and disenfranchise voters, and reports of fraud are low anyway.
If the US were a developing country, we’d send in international observers to monitor whether the elections were ‘fair and free’.
The actual process of voting in the US is tedious and time consuming. Every election there are reports of huge lines because of broken machines, inadequate staff or some other stuff-up. This year some voters reportedly waited up to five hours. Such civic determination is noble, but the evidence is long wait times suppresses voter turnout in future elections. Black voters have to wait twice as long as white voters on average, the Joint Centre for Political and Economic Studies has found.
When voters do manage to get on the roll, get time off work, make it to the front of the line, and cast their vote, they’re doing so in a rigged system. In the US, redistricting is often a partisan process – in many states the elected representatives do it themselves, like putting the proverbial foxes in charge of the hen house. As a result, the system is full of gerrymanders.
In Australia, electoral boundaries are set by the AEC and its state counterparts and while parties can make submissions, they don’t get final say.
Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s famous gerrymander, which kept Labor out of power in Queensland for more than three decades, is the shameful exception rather than the rule. It ended in 1989 but it’s still wheeled out as Exhibit A.
So why is it so much better in Australia?
First, let’s hear it for the AEC. In the US almost every public official from president down to dog catcher is elected, so everything is partisan. Australians should be grateful to have a well regarded, independent agency doing the job – and resist all attempts to politicise any part of the public service, because it’s a slippery slope and the AEC might be next.
Then there’s compulsory voting. Many Americans consider it anathema to liberty but Australians generally consider voting to be a responsibility as well as a right – and take the pragmatic view that it’s easily avoided for those with a strong aversion.
The net effect is positive because candidates don’t need to focus on the get-out-the-vote effort. This lessens the influence of money on politics and means parties need policies to win the middle ground rather than galvanise their bases – so it’s a counterforce to political polarisation.
And in a system where everyone is expected to vote, the apparatus of the state will enable you to vote. As US experience makes clear, we can’t take that for granted.
Democracy sausage isn’t just a hashtag, it’s an emblem of our democratic culture.