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Time to end the election day circus

A sausage sizzle and a vote is an old Australian tradition. But as a wise man once said, those who like democracy, just like sausages, shouldn’t know too much about how it’s made.

The truth is that no one, apart from a handful of overexuberant party faithful, likes or appreciates the election day circus any more. The voters, by and large, resent having to brave a gauntlet of party workers trying to stuff a how-to-vote card into their hands, followed by (often long) queuing in the rain, hail or shine to cast their ballot. The party workers, too, resent the increasing numbers of at worst abusive and at best sullen and impatient voters. One might argue that this is hardly a big price to pay every year or so for living in a democracy, but that’s hardly the point. Forcing people to suffer through the whole, rather undignified spectacle, is doing nothing to educate or enamour them in our system of government.

It’s time to scrap the circus.

For starters, make the voting voluntary. It’s illiberal and undemocratic to force everyone to vote at the pain of monetary penalties. Having been born and grown up under communism, I, for one, love living in a society where I get a say, however minor, in choosing those who govern. But I see no reason to force all those who simply are not interested enough, or who, like a man this morning whom I tried to give a how-to-vote card, believe that it’s “the choice between two pirates, which one of whom will rob you more”. I disagree with the “they’re all the same” view, but neither do I want to impose my opinion on others and force them to choose the lesser evil or vote informal.

Most democracies don’t force their citizens to vote. In fact only 22 countries do, including Australia, Belgium, Greece and Luxembourg. Others on the list are such beacons of democracy like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt and Bolivia. No other English-speaking country does, and no developed countries apart of the four mentioned above, plus Singapore. It’s time we too treated our people as adults. In any case, the success of the non-binding same sex marriage plebiscite suggests that when people are engaged enough in issues, you don’t need compulsion to make them vote in large and respectable numbers.

Secondly, scrap the election day extravaganza where innocent schools, churches and community halls get taken over and, like Laura Palmer, wrapped in plastic, and “decorated” with hundreds of corflutes and countless signs with positive and negative political messages, and negative messages about positive messages, and positive messages about negative messages. All this, while the hordes of party workers, dressed in their obligatory team t-shits and baseball caps hound every voter with an offer of a free piece of paper explaining how to put numbers in a few boxes.

The voters hate it, and increasingly so. For my many sins, I have been handing out HTV cards (or trying to), at every local, state and federal election since 1995. In more than two decades I have noticed a strong trend of more and more people refusing to take any HTV card from any party. In the last few elections my unscientific (and very limited of course) estimate would be around half of all people cruising into the polling booth with “no thanks” on repeat or simply surly looks to scare off party workers.

You can see the trend reflected in the numbers – at the 2016 federal election, nearly 30 per cent voted postal or at pre-poll (which also suffers from the partisan circus, but far less so than the election day, and is much more convenient for people). That number will keep on climbing as people no longer need to have specific reasons to request a postal ballot. A third of Queenslanders have been expected to likewise cast their vote before today’s poll.

Solutions? Make the parties disappear on the election day with all their volunteers, signs, plastic wrap, balloons, umbrellas, and HTVs. And/or encourage even more people to vote postal or pre-poll. It is not actually that difficult to foresee a time in the future where all voting might be conducted off-site.

The strongest argument for keeping the present election day arrangements is that it benefits the major parties, which have enough volunteers to man (and woman) the booths. A certain small percentage of voters make their decision only while going into the polling booth; therefore, every smiling face and every HTV can make a difference in securing that last few percent of the vote.

This might be true, to a degree, but it less true as the time goes by, and for many different reasons. Even the major parties are no longer mass parties of the past and they too are finding it increasingly difficult to find enough people to volunteer on the election day. The vote for major parties keeps declining as people increasingly look for other, smaller alternatives, despite all the efforts by the majors to keep their voters. Lastly, with the rise of other parties, organisations and movements it is no longer true that only the Libs and the Labs can bring the volunteers out on the day. The major party edge is declining.

The election day – don’t mend it, end it. You can have your sausage and eat it too – as well as vote – but without the annoying extras. The election day circus is a thing of the 20th century and the 20th century politics. It’s one tradition that most Australians will be happy to see gone.

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