Dear American friends
You probably don’t need those pesky foreigners butting in and telling you that the recent – and continuing – controversies in Florida and Georgia (themselves only the latest in a seemingly never ending succession of controversies surrounding election enrolments, procedures and counts) are sad and pathetic. Nevertheless, take it from this pesky foreigner: they are sad and pathetic. And worst of all unnecessary. The leader of the free world and the world’s largest developed democracy can do better than have the results of its nation- and state-wide elections constantly overshadowed by the allegations of electoral fraud. It’s tearing the United States apart and it’s doing nothing to your international reputation.
I write this not with condescension or glee but as a friend who wants to help. Furthermore, I write as an Australian, from a country, which has always been on the forefront of electoral best practice and thus has much to offer by way of experience and example. In 1856, the state of South Australia adopted universal male suffrage as well as secret ballot as a way to conduct election, the latter reform adopted later that year by Tasmania and Victoria and over the next few years by the remaining states. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, political reformers in the United States and Great Britain would fight – eventually successfully – for the adoption of “the Australian ballot”, as it became known overseas. It is now the international standard. It seems to me that it’s time for America to again look Down Under for inspiration on how to improve its democratic process. Our Australian system is not perfect and it’s not 100 per cent foolproof (what is?) but it has been by and large free of fraud or the perception of fraud and its integrity is acknowledged by all sides of politics as well as the general voting public (voting in Australia is compulsory but I don’t recommend it for the US).
There are, in my mind, four different elements of the electoral system in Australia, each making a significant difference towards the transparency and reliability of the democratic process. Each one, if adopted and adapted, could make a great deal of positive impact for the American democracy, never mind all four.
Genuinely independent electoral commissions – Governments and political parties have no role to play in the conduct of the elections, except for the parliaments setting up the general legal regime governing the process. Australia has a federal electoral commission and each state has got its own state body; the former handles nation-wide elections and referenda, the latter conducts elections at the state and local level (as well as, increasingly, trade union ballots). The commissions are strictly apolitical; there are no partisan appointments to their management and personnel and there are clear and precise policies regarding political neutrality of their employees. I’ve dealt with hundreds of federal and state commissions’ workers over a quarter of a century and have never encountered any issues of political bias or interference. To what extent completely independent and apolitical electoral bodies would be feasible in the United States where partisan politics is much more pervasive and divisive than in Australia is debatable. Where the proverbial county dog-catcher is an elected position it might be difficult to built a depoliticised bureaucracy, but the least you could do is try. Anything will be an improvement on the disgrace that is Broward County
Secure enrolment – Tired of non-citizens enrolling (and voting Democrat (allegedly))? Or counties where more people end up enrolled (and voting) than are actually eligible to vote? Easy – to enrol to vote in Australia you need to present a driver’s licence or a passport or have someone who is already enrolled confirm your identity. This last option potentially opens the door to mischief, since you could make a chain of fraudulent enrolments based on the first, genuine link, but even with that proviso, the Australian system seems to me a lot tighter than the American seemingly free-for-all. Before an election, every person on the electoral roll is mailed a little card by the electoral commission with the voter’s details and a unique barcode. To be able to receive a ballot at the polling station you need to either present the card to be scanned or if you have forgotten to bring it with you you need to show a valid ID for your name to be marked on the voters’ list. Failing either, you can query your absence on the electoral roll and lodge a provisional vote, whose validity will be carefully assessed as part of the overall count, but it is a relatively rare occurrence. To an Australian, an argument that requiring an ID to vote is tantamount to “voter suppression” seems pretty ridiculous. Virtually everyone has got some sort of an ID; the tiny remainder can be accommodated separately.
Paper ballots – Forget about e-voting and voting machines, which can malfunction or get hacked – nothing beats a piece of paper and a pencil (or a pen). It might take a lot more time and human resources to count the votes, since it has to be done manually, but isn’t that worth an absolute piece of mind? Not every technological advancement automatically equals progress, and electronic voting is a perfect case in point. Go back to basics as fast as you can.
Scrutiny of the vote counting – Every candidate standing for the election in a given district can nominate a certain number of their supporters per each polling station to be the “scrutineers” at the vote count. While the voting is conducted by the electoral commission staff, nothing connected with vote tallying takes place without the presence of the scrutineers. Before voting opens in the morning, the boxes where the voters drop their paper ballots into after filling them in are sealed with special seals in the presence of the scrutineers, and after the vote is over the boxes are opened in the presence of the scrutineers, who ensure that the seals have not been tampered with during the day. Then the electoral commission staff commence the vote count. Scrutineers can’t touch the ballots but they can observe the process from up close (usually the two major parties will have a scrutineer each for every staff member counting the ballots). Potentially invalid votes can be challenged, counters can be alerted if they put a ballot in the incorrect pile or where a staff member otherwise makes a mistake counting. Scrutineers stay in the polling station until all votes are counted, the number of ballots issued tallies with the ballots received, and the results are officially calculated and communicated by the staff to the commission headquarters. If all ballots cannot be counted that evening, they are sealed again in boxes and the count resumes on Monday (all the elections in Australia are held on Saturdays). There is virtually no way the electoral fraud can be committed during this process, even if the commission officials were somehow secretly acting on a party’s behalf; no new boxes or piles of ballots can magically be discovered in the aftermath of an election as all the ballots issued during the day are accounted for on the election night. The fact that a candidate’s scrutineers witness everything that happens during the count guarantees that everyone has got an absolute faith in the integrity of the count and knows that nothing untoward has taken place. The count of absentee, pre-poll and provisional votes happens at the commission HQ for each district and can likewise be witnessed by the scrutineers.
Since becoming an Australian citizen some 27 years ago, I have voted as well as scrutineed in over two dozen federal, state and local government elections. I am reasonably certain that only real, alive people who were eligible to vote actually cast their ballots, and I’m absolutely certain that the ballot counts I have witnessed were 100 per cent accurate and not a figment of the counters’ imagination, putting their fingers on the scales of democracy.
If you never want Florida to happen again, you have to go to Australia. The climate is similar but the elections are anything but.
The Daily Chrenk