Election in the time of a pandemic


Today, the state of Queensland went to the polls to vote in local government elections and two state by-elections. It has been a rather unprecedented exercise of democracy at a very trying and peculiar time. Countries sometimes hold elections during war, but usually not with bombs threatening to rain on voters. This election might as well have been conducted under the imminent threat of a biological weapon attack. Not surprisingly, many Queenslanders were very unhappy about being forced to exercise their right under the shadow of Coronavirus. With the country inching ever closer to a level 4 lock-down, and unnecessary interpersonal interaction already either made impossible or severely discouraged, many have argued that holding the polls as scheduled was reckless and irresponsible and that the election should be postponed until after the emergency is over and it’s safe to get out of the bunker.

For whatever reasons, good (Councils need to be in place to implement any emergency measures) or bad (older people staying away benefits Labor, most importantly in the crucial Brisbane City Council election), the Labor state government, armed with the official advice of its Chief Health Officer, decided that voting is still safe enough as long as everyone keeps their proscribed 2-meter distance from one another.

It’s not just the election day, but virtually the whole campaign has been overshadowed by the spreading pandemic, both in the sense of Coronavirus sucking out all the news oxygen and as a looming concern for voters. While the trend in favour of postal voting and pre-poll voting has been noticeable for some time now, Queenslanders in record numbers chose not to queue up on the day, with over half the eligible ballots already cast in alternative ways:

More than 750,000 Queenslanders actually voted on election day, with polling booths unusually quiet following a record number of pre-polling and postal vote application…

Before election day, more than 1.2 million people had voted in pre-poll booths, while 570,000 had arranged to vote by post and 40,000 had cast their ballot over the phone – making up about 55 per cent of eligible voters.

The election day itself has been quite surreal, with the usual cast of party volunteers who hand out “how to vote” cards banned from polling booths and not even allowed to stand by the roadsides on the way to polling stations with candidate signs. A limited number of corflutes per candidate were allowed to be set up at every booth before the voting opened at 8am and voting guides were placed inside the stations or hammered in outside in the form of big signs that voters could photograph before entering the polling place. Absent too were the usual school markets with their cake stalls and BBQs. It was the first election in Australia without its traditional “democracy sausage” in living memory. Afterwards, scrutineers who normally hover around and peer over the shoulders of the electoral commission vote counters have also been told they will not be able to perform their duties as it would have breached the safe personal distance rule.

Despite voting being compulsory, all electorates (wards or divisions) have been reporting low turnout. It seems that despite the prospect of having to pay a fine for not voting, plenty of people decided not to potentially risk their health by exposing themselves to strangers in public places. While many if not most of the elderly, who have been consistently encouraged for weeks now to self-isolate as the most vulnerable to infection, would have voted already, mostly via postal ballot, it’s highly probably that those who have left it too late to apply for one would have decided to stay away rather than go in person to vote. When I voted at my local polling booth just after 11am, at the same time when during the last federal election there were long queues of people snaking out of the polling booth and onto the school grounds, now only three other people were exercising their democratic right (or, in the Australian case, obligation). There was no problem whatsoever with maintaining safe distance from others. Anecdotally, rather than overwhelmingly choosing to vote in the first three hours to get the chore over and done with as soon as possible, people have managed to stagger their visits more evenly throughout the day in an effort to avoid queues. The strategy seems to have worked, making for a steady trickle rather than big crests and big troughs.

The election at the time of a pandemic might have two lasting legacies for future polls.

Firstly, the tendency to vote before the election day will continue to grow. It’s usually easier and more convenient but the upshot is that the results will take days to count, so say goodbye to knowing who the winners are on the election night.

Secondly, there might be a drive towards permanently getting rid of the election day circus of often dozens of party volunteers trying to stick pieces of paper into voters’ hands as they brave the gauntlet from the street to the booth. Most people are polite, but most people hate it, and, most importantly, most people don’t need to be instructed how to fill out their ballots. The whole exercise is largely done for the benefit of the 10-15 per cent of voters in our compulsory system who don’t know and/or don’t care who to vote for – or who they hate the least of the options – and only make up their minds within the last few minutes before putting the pencil to paper. The theory goes that well-presented, smiling and polite volunteers who manage to put their party’s how-to-vote card in the hands of an undecided just might sway them in such a superficial way. If so, it’s a tedious and outdated model and it goes a long way towards making the voting experience less pleasant for the voters. Stick to a few signs and put how-to-vote cards inside booths for those who really need suggestions. I have been one of those irritating volunteers for 25 years and I won’t miss it if I no longer have to do it. I suspect very few will.

(Picture: the election day ghost town – the main street entrance to the primary school hosting my local polling station. No voters or volunteers in sight, except a cutout of a candidate and her dog)