Australian Ballot 2: A modest proposal for learning from Down Under (again)

ballots

What a mess.

You know what I mean, so I’m not going to list all the problems and alleged irregularities that have plagued the presidential election; there’s plenty about it in the news and on the social media already. Perhaps the underlying problem is that the constitutional arrangements leave too much (i.e. almost all) of responsibility for elections to the states. This is fine for the state and local elections, but produces widely differing outcomes when it matters the most: the national poll. And while many states (too many to name, but big ones like Florida and Texas stand out) perform very efficiently, others verge on the Third World standards (with a caveat that some developing nations have much better safeguards against voting fraud, for example).

Can it be fixed? Absolutely. Will it be fixed? Probably not, because that requires the acknowledgment from everyone that there is a problem and the willingness to do something about it, which is absent among those who benefit from the chaos – mainly the big city Democrat party machines, Tammany Hall onward, through Mayor Daley’s Chicago, to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and others today.

There are many useful lessons that can be learned from the states that work, and indeed from overseas, from other advanced democracies. Australia, likewise a federation (first of colonies, then of states) has throughout its history been at the forefront of electoral reform, with the state of South Australia being the first in the world to adopt (in 1856) universal male suffrage (extending also to Indigenous Australians), followed a few years later by giving the vote to property-owning women. Later in the 19th century, South Australia was the second jurisdiction in the world (after New Zealand) to grant universal female suffrage; all these innovations quickly adopted by other Australian states and then, after 1901, on the national level. But perhaps the most important process innovation has been the secret ballot, something we all now assume as obvious but certainly wasn’t so in the early days of democracy. This is why in places like the United States, this method of casting vote was first known as “the Australian ballot”.

So if you indulge me, below are some additional – and more modern – suggestions for improvement. The Australian system is not perfect (for one, the voting is compulsory, which might or might not be a good or right approach), but it has been almost completely free of controversy and all sides of politics recognise its integrity. Like Caesar’s wife, it’s not just beyond reproach, it is seen as beyond reproach. There are, in my mind, five 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 five.

Genuinely independent electoral commissions –  Governments and political parties have no role to play in the conduct of the elections, except for the legislatures 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.

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 enroll 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 is 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 – government-issued, bank/credit card, even a utility bill addressed to you as an account holder can provide an identification of sorts at a stretch – and the tiny remainder who don’t can be accommodated separately. Two thirds of the states in America already have some ID requirements; it’s crazy and unfair that the other one third don’t.

Electoral rolls also need to be cleaned regularly of deceased voters and those who have moved out of the area. In Australia, elected representatives play a big role, monitoring death notices in newspapers and compiling “return to sender” lists from their mailouts to electors. All such relevant information is passed to the electoral commission, which makes its own inquiries to double check and then adjusts the rolls accordingly (the fact that the commission in impartial and unbiased of course helps to insure the integrity of the process).

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) that are subsequently counted by hand. It might take a lot more time and human resources to count the votes such way, but isn’t that worth an absolute peace 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. In Australia, ballots are numbered sequentially at each polling station, to keep track of how many have been issued during the day, and to make sure no more than that total are found in the ballot boxes at the end of the day and subsequently get counted.

Ballot issuing – Above all else, end “ballot harvesting” and universal mail-in ballots, unless you work out proper safeguards to ensure that votes are indeed cast by the addressees. Voting in person, either on the election day or at a more limited number of polling stations in a period leading up to the election day (called pre-polling in Australia, with one such pre-poll station per each voting district), should be prioritised. Postal (absentee) voting requires significant extra protections. A good place to start is to look at the states which mail out all ballots – see what works and what does not work in places like Oregon and Utah.

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” or “observers” 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 ballot boxes 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. I can only wish the same experience for everyone involved with the democratic process in the United States.

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