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To our American brothers... How to vote better

Australia has a kinship with the United States of America, we often use the saying ‘when America sneezes, Australia catches a cold’. When something happens ‘in the States’, it is not long before we have the same experience on our side of the Pacific Ocean, be it a popular culture high or a stock market low.

We see your patriotic declarations of freedom, democratic process and global leadership; and have long admired your courage and creativity.

Now, through the 24-hour news cycle and social media, we have an unimpeded ringside view of your inner workings. And what we see is a land that is barely free, and a home given over to inequity.

Why do we Australians look at your nation and recoil at what we see?

The simplest answer is your electoral system bears little relationship to your boasts of freedom and is divorced from the basic tenants of democracy.

It excludes when it should be inclusive; it is partisan when it should be neutral, and lacks conformity across your States. It seems so far removed from the concept of ‘free and fair elections’ that we Australians shake our heads in disbelief at the disconnect between what you claim is democratic freedom, and what actually occurs.

Let me compare and contrast the Australian electoral system with the fractured American system.

Australia has mandatory voting. This is not seen as an attack on freedom of speech or individual rights. It engages the ‘sensible centre’ of political disposition to vote, and mutes the loudest voices of the political fringe ideology. Those fringe dwellers still have a voice, just not the rallying voice needed in a non-mandatory system to get the people ‘out to vote’.

People can opt out of voting and some do. They have their names marked off the electoral role on election day and don’t fill out a ballot paper. Some people don’t even do that and choose to pay a nominal fine. But the overwhelming majority put aside their indifference or dissatisfaction with politicians and engage with the process as their civic duty.

To ensure our mandatory system is well regulated, we have a network of federal and state electoral commissions who administer the electoral roll of voters and the various elections. A major role of electoral commissions is to make voting easy.

Electoral commissions are tasked to ‘get out the vote’. A person turning 17 years old is invited to enrol to vote, by confirming their address and providing a driver’s licence number for example. This ensures that on turning 18 they are already on the roll, should a snap election be called. Most people remain on the roll for life.

Because electoral commissions are at arm’s length from government, partisanship does not factor into voter enrolment or any commissions functions. Voter suppression does not exist. Electoral boundaries are determined by population, not socioeconomic factors. Gerrymandering is not a word in our vocabulary.

Our elections take place on Saturdays. This is part of making voting easy. With each election, more people take advantage of pre-polling by voting any day before the nominated election day, which again is part of making voting easy.

And how do we vote? With pen and paper.

This may sound completely incongruous in the digital age, but it works. All ballot papers are accounted for both before and after the election. Paper ballots are next to impossible to tamper with, because so many would have to be altered physically to swing an electoral result. Ballot papers don’t need passwords or antivirus software, and they cannot be altered in bulk with the sweep of a finger. They are tangible and treated consistently across all polling places.

How does election day work?

The number of electoral commission staff is swelled by people like me and other interested members of the public who are paid by the electoral commission to run polling booths. Polling booths are spread across the country at accessible places such as schools and town halls, with the locations determined by the electoral commission after studying previous election data and current population distribution.

Voters turn up to have their name marked off the electoral roll, are issued with a ballot paper (from a stockpile of new ballot papers which were counted earlier to confirm the number on hand). They place the completed ballot in the ballot box and head outside for a ‘democracy sausage’ being sold at the school fundraising barbecue.

At 6pm the voting booths are closed, doors are locked and counting begins. The polling booth staff empty the ballot boxes, then sort and count the ballot papers. Because the system is uniform and regulated, there aren’t lawyers peering over shoulders. To allow fair scrutiny, political party officials may watch the counting, but not touch the ballot papers.

Within a couple of hours the polling booths have completed counting and initial results are publicised.

Every used and unused ballot paper is accounted for to ensure probity in the result and transparency in the process. The election result becomes clear late on election night. The vanquished concede honourably, to the victor the spoils.

All the ballot papers are recounted by the electoral commission as a matter of course over the following weeks, not just the seats with tight results. Again, the integrity of the process matters. Each ballot must be accounted for, whether damaged, discarded or replaced.

Can the American electoral system claim to be this inclusive, non-partisan and uniform?

From our Australian perspective we believe it can’t.

Through the lens of the 24-hour news cycle and social media, we see your system mired in gerrymandering, voter suppression, court orders and hyper-partisanship. And we remember the internationally embarrassing ‘hanging chad’ fiasco.

Your chaotic methods do not give rise to orderly outcomes. Worse, your claims to freedom and democracy are severely eroded, and certainly diminished in our view.

Take some advice from your Australian kin – it’s time you had the intellectual honesty to reset your electoral system.

Greg Smart

By his own admission, Greg Smart was born 40 years old and is in training to be a cranky old man. He spends his time avoiding commercial television and bad coffee.