We’ve just had a national election. I’m not here to opine about the result. (For the record, the incumbent conservative government was ousted on a wave of green and teal.)
What I am here to opine about is being a part of the magic that is a well run democracy. We are (increasingly, as it seems) lucky in Australia to have access to uncorrupted elections. Our electoral process is overseen by the independent Australian Electoral Commission. The AEC is responsible for maintaining voter rolls, drawing electoral boundaries to allow for equal representation and conducting federal elections. (Each state also has an equally independent state based commission to oversee state elections.)
Voting is compulsory in Australia (you are marked off the voter roll when you vote, sent a fine if you do not). You can argue whether this is overkill or not but I support the concept because it stops the major parties from only appealing to their base. There’s a vast middle ground that vote that they have to try and keep onside.
I have worked as a polling official at almost every state and federal election since 2007. In the beginning I loved it because it gave me a day away from the children with adult conversation and I got paid for it! But now, as a working mother of adult children, I love it because I get to help people participate in our democracy.
Last Saturday (did I mention that our elections are always held on a Saturday when most people are able to vote?) I was employed as an Ordinary Vote Issuing Officer (as opposed to a Declaration Vote Issuing Officer – as I’ve done in the past – which just means helping people outside the electorate of the polling booth cast their vote). This entailed not only issuing ballot papers to voters but also, on occasion, being Ballot Box Guard, Queue Controller or Hygiene Officer (this one is a new COVID role – wiping down polling booths, vote issuing tables and the pencils used to vote (sorry, did I not mention that all our ballots are cast on paper?)).
Why did I want to write this post?
I got to share in the excitement of those who were voting in their first election.* You could pick them. The excited faces, often accompanied by mum or dad (or both), the keenness to be a part of the process.
I was able to help a woman with an intellectual impairment undertake her right to vote with support from a carer. Those familiar with my blog will know that I work in Special Education. It thrilled me no end that I was the table this woman came to for her papers.
I loved the young families that came to vote. I would joke with the little children that they were here to help Mum and/or Dad vote and could they count to 9? (The number of candidates on the House of Representatives paper in that electorate. We have preferential voting and every box must be numbered to indicate your preferences. This is so that if your top choice doesn’t get enough votes to win, your 2nd, 3rd or 4th choice may get up.) On our Senate paper, you could vote ‘above the line’ for the parties or ‘below the line’ for the individual candidates. When I’d finished explaining this to one father, his little girl told me she could count to twelve. While Dad thought he should hurry her along, I waited patiently while she showed me her counting prowess. It filled my soul with joy and love.
During a spell as Hygiene Officer, I noticed an older woman spending a long time in the voting booth and she did look over at me a couple of times. I approached her and asked if she needed help. She was feeling very overwhelmed by the Senate paper and I worked with her patiently to number six preferences above the line (she had managed one but then got stuck). I did not, as is stressed in our training, offer any opinion on her choices but just helped her get to number six to ensure her vote was valid.
I arrived at the polling booth at 7am. Doors opened at 8am. We were flat out until at least 5pm and then voting closed at 6pm. That’s a long time for an introvert to have to talk to a lot of people. And yet, I was energised, not depleted. I guess that comes down to the servant gene taking precedent over the shy introvert.
After the polls close, it is then the role of polling officials to open the ballot boxes and sort and count the ballots under the scrutiny of party scrutineers. At one point I and another worker were sorting the smaller vote tallied candidates into the two party preferred (how the preferences flowed for the two candidates with the biggest first preference votes – usually the two major Australian parties, Labor and the Liberal-National Party Coalition) and we had about six scrutineers gathered around us. “I don’t feel intimidated at all!” I said. They had the decency to laugh. But I welcomed them because it is a part of the integrity of our elections. Scrutineers cannot touch the ballot papers but they are there to ensure that those of us sorting and counting are doing it right.
My day ended at 10.30pm. That’s a long day. But I was filled with happiness because I had been a crucial part of our democracy.
There’s a state election in November. I can’t wait to be a part of that too.
*The Youngest Son was voting in his first election too. But he was working at another booth so I wasn’t there to see it. He was also working in a booth outside his own electorate so he had to go through the process of an absentee vote. I could have taken him for pre-poll voting before the day but it just didn’t happen. In a way, I’m kind of glad he had to see how that side of the process works.
PS The Eldest Son also worked for the election, counting some of the pre-poll votes. And while the Middle Son did not work at the election, he took his role as voter very seriously and happily voted out an under-performing candidate in his electorate. There is a great gift in teaching your children that democracy is important and you have to be a part of it.
What has been your role in the pursuit of democracy in your country?