Election Day in Australia

I’m sitting in front of the television tonight watching the news reports on the results of our Australian national elections that were held today. The more I watch, the more it seems as though we are heading for a change of government.

I actually voted a week ago as I wanted to attend the biennial reunion of my colleagues at Control Data Corporation where I worked in the early 1980s It was a great company with a wonderful culture of innovation and support for its people and a number of us still regularly get together.

I’m writing this post mostly for my American friends, as the manner in which elections and the political system operate in Australia are vastly different from those in the USA. In my humble opinion, our Australian model is far superior and provides for a much fairer and a true democracy.

Polling place

For a start, whereas electoral boundaries, voter registration and the conduct of elections in the USA are conducted by each state and subject to significant political influence, all elections in Australia are conducted by the Australian Election Commission (AEC) It is an independent federal government organisation that is at arms length from politics It objectively allocates election boundaries across the nation to ensure that each has approximately the same number of voters. It conducts the elections, counts votes and resolves disputes. It does so objectively and without political influence.

Every citizen in Australia registers to vote with the AEC when they turn 18 years of age. Their name is entered on the electoral roll and they are then entitled to vote for whomever they like. Voting is compulsory with a nominal fine issued to those who do not vote. As a result, voting turnout in Australia is over 90% as compared to around 62% in the USA (in 2020). Compulsory voting ensures that democracy is as close as it can get to ensuring that everyone participates in democracy. Australians don’t have to actually vote for a candidate -they can leave their voting paper blank, write in “none of the above” or even draw a picture – but they do have to turn in a ballot.

The two main political parties in Australia (conservative and liberal) are quite centrist in their policies and programs. They differ at the edges but they are not radically different. Extreme positions are the place of the minor parties and independents. My American friends see a large gap between their Democrats (liberals) and the Republicans (conservatives). I find it interesting to observe that many of the policies of our conservative party are similar to those of the Democrats (liberals) in the U.S. From our perspective, the Republicans really stand out on the extreme right – somewhere near Genghis Kahn.

Different from some states in the USA that have worked to minimise early voting or voting by mail, in this Australian election, nearly 1/3 of votes were cast by mail or in pre-poll person votes before Election Day. The objectivity of elections as run by the Australian Election Commission removes almost every possibility of an election being rigged or disputed in the way that Donald Trump fictitiously proposed in America. That just wouldn’t be possible here. In addition, Australian voters do not need to provide any form of identification in order to vote – the system works without a need for that.

Unlike America, elections in Australia are not fixed on a certain date, but they do have to be held within a defined timeframe. The Prime Minister chooses the actual date. In Australia, elections are held on Saturdays to make it easier for people to attend a voting centre. As I understand, elections in the USA are conducted on a Tuesday (a work day) – a hangover from when that day of the week was the traditional market day.

In Australia, we use a system of “preferential voting,” a form of ranked-choice voting. Voters must rank the candidates in order of preference – 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on. If a candidate’s first-choice votes add up to a majority of the overall ballots cast, that candidate wins, just like in any other system. If no one wins a majority of the votes cast, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and their supporters’ votes are redistributed according to these voters’ second choices. This process of eliminating candidates and redistributing those candidates’ supporters continues until one candidate has a majority. This acts as a way of reducing gerrymandering – whether intentional or otherwise – where the concept of “winner-take-all” elections, where 51% of the votes yields 100% of the power. In that system, significant minority voting blocs end up with no representation, leading to frustration and alienation. Preferential voting eliminates what is, at times, called the “spoiler” problem in U.S. elections, where too many similar candidates split the majority’s vote, allowing a less-preferred candidate to win with a minority of the votes cast.

All these ideas – voting by mail, early voting, Saturday voting, ranked-choice voting, an independent redistricting commission and true proportional representation – make Australia’s democracy more inclusive and representative than in the U.S. I often wonder whether you could really call America a ‘true democracy’.

As a final note, unlike one part of America that has made it illegal to provide food and water to those standing in line to vote, at each polling place in Australia, local charities set up a barbecue or sausage sizzle and for a couple of bucks, voters can buy a ‘democracy sausage’ in bread with a dollop of tomato sauce. ‘Democracy sausages’ are now an expected and integral part of the voting experience in Australia


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