voting in a new election

Last time I voted my Dad was still alive. Last time I voted, I was living in England and trying to figure out who was going to get my single vote in the constituency of Brent East. I had to walk about a hundred paces from home to the local primary school to cast my vote. I didn’t back the eventual winner, a Liberal Democrat called Sarah Teather.

Five years later, we live in a new country. I have gone from proportional representation in Ireland, and the ability to vote for both Dail and Senate, to an “x” in a single box for Parliament in the UK (nobody gets to vote for the upper house there), to some sort of hybrid here in Australia.

Because both Orlando and I will be out of our home state on Saturday – he in Hong Kong and I in Tasmania – we found an Interstate Voting Centre in Sydney during the week and voted early. Here in Australia, it is illegal not to vote. Enrolment on the Commonwealth electoral roll has been compulsory since 1911, and voting at federal elections has been compulsory since 1924 for all citizens on the Commonwealth electoral roll. As a result, there are lots of ways to cast your vote. Mobile polling places have been popping up around the country in very remote areas for a few weeks now. Colleagues posted in tiny Pacific Islands lined up to vote in Australian or other embassies in the past week or so. Most major airports have early polling stations on site so that you can vote before you fly – a very clever idea I think. And in every state capital, and many other places besides, there are plenty of interstate voting places where you can pop in, fill in a quick form, and they will magically conjure up a polling card for your own constituency right before your eyes.

There is no excuse not to vote… except for the dearth of reasonable candidate parties to choose from.

We found the Sydney offices of the Australian Electoral Commission before work on a sunny Sydney Wednesday morning, and presented ourselves for our first formal duties since we became citizens nineteen months ago. We filled out the details on the front of our polling paper envelopes, and the polling officer came back within minutes with two pieces of paper. No ID check, nothing except a casually-requested verbal declaration that we had not voted anywhere else beforehand.

The first – lower house – polling card was easy. About one-third A4 size, it had a nice little list of six local candidates on there. Our instructions were to vote 1 to 6 in order of our choice, and not to leave any box unmarked. Easy.

The second – Senate – polling card was more like a roll of polling wallpaper. Easily more than double A3 landscape length, there was a row of party names along the top of the paper with a box associated with each. Below a thick black line, a list of candidates was listed below the appropriate party name. In all there were 60 names listed under 20 parties or marked as Independent. Some party names I recognised – Labor, Family First, Liberal, Greens. Some were indistinguishable from each other: Socialist Alliance, Socialist Equality Party, Socialist Alliance. One sounded like a locum politician service: Senator On-Line. Wonder if they are a 24-hour service?

Then the barking mad parties came: Australian Sex Party. Climate Sceptics. One Nation. Shooters and Fishers.

I wish I were making those names up.

I had two choices. I could mark a “1” in a single box associated with a political party above the line, or I could stand and mark every one of the names below the line from 1 to 60 in order of choice. If I didn’t do it right, my vote would not be counted as I would have spoiled my vote – over here it’s called an informal or donkey vote.

I seriously considered doing the latter. I am used to proportional representation. I always felt cheated in the UK with only one measly”x” to mark my choice. But there were too many of those anonymous parties listed and I didn’t feel confident. Do the Australian Democrats, the Nationals, Building Australia or the Christian Democratic Party deserve a higher number than the rest?  Who are these people anyway? What if I go through the full list as best I can starting from 60 and working up, and somehow when I get to the last box I am still only on number two or three?

I bottled it. I marked “1” in a single box above the line, spent ten minutes trying to fold the polling wallpaper into a reasonable size, returned to the polling officer and handed in my vote.

Job done… for another three years at least. Let’s hope.

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