Friday, 22 January 2021

The Democracy Sausage

Pic courtesy Wikipedia

Across the pacific, the tumult and the shouting has died, and the captains and the kings have departed, or at least the noisiest has.

Most of the noise surrounding his departure was generated by controversy about the outcome of the presidential vote, and allegations, by the losers, that the outcome was fraudulent. The repetition of this allegation, without any proof, chipped away at the trust the American people have in their electoral system, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It's difficult to imagine this kind of discord developing in this country. That's a blessing, and you should always count your blessings.

It might be useful to compare the electoral systems in the USA and Australia, and to identify and count those blessings.

The first blessing is participation.

The most fundamental difference is that voting is compulsory in Australia, and voluntary in the USA. Straightaway, the exercise of democracy in Australia maximises participation. When Abraham Lincoln described democracy in his country at the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19th 1863, I doubt he was talking about random sampling. 

He said -

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

He did not qualify his remarks by saying "some" of the people, so it's a reasonable assumption that he meant "all" of the people.

Democracy is enhanced by participation. Even in the 2020 US November 4th election, which generated the highest turnout for decades, only 66.7% of eligible voters actually cast a ballot. Compare that with 91.9% in Australia's 2019 federal election. These figures mean that in the USA, one in three eligible citizens had no say in electing their president for the next four years. It also means that nine in ten Australians have a say in who governs them.

Another blessing is ease of voting.

A major contribution to participation is to make voting easy and straightforward. Because voting is compulsory in this country, there is a requirement for government to remove all conceivable barriers. This is done by allowing (and because of the pandemic encouraging) postal, absentee and pre-poll voting.

Polling stations are plentiful, and well-staffed, and are open from 8am to 6pm. It is rare in this country to have to queue for hours (or even minutes) to vote. Every effort is made to make the process streamlined and efficient, and processes are consistent across the country.

Whilst in twenty-first century australia, the weekend is no longer sacred, the fact that voting occurs on Saturday also facilitates the process.

Another blessing is efficiency. 

Compare our pretty efficient situation with what happens stateside.

Voting in the USA follows a mish-mash of methods determined at state and county level. There is no Electoral Commission (state or federal), and everybody does their own thing. 

Unlike the time-honoured lead pencil and paper ballot combination used in Australia, you might you might fill in a bubble sheet (like the ones you got with tests in school) or you could push a button on a machine, which punches holes in a ballot. (which was responsible for the "hanging chad controversy in the 2000 presidential election which finished up in the supreme court). You might even vote digitally at a machine.

The pencil and paper system is used here because it is simple and foolproof, and does not rely on technology which can go wrong.

Another blessing is accessibility.

In the US, you will vote on a Tuesday, which is not a public holiday. If you are a single parent, or holding down two jobs (as around 5% of Americans do) getting to a booth can be a challenge. There is a long tradition of voter suppression amongst minority groups (Latinos and African-Americans) which is only just being overcome by political organisations. 

I won't get into the more complex issues gerrymandering - indulged in by both sides, and the elephant in the room, the Electoral College which can and has allowed candidates winning fewer votes Than their rivals to gain power. These are important issues that haven't been addressed successfully for over a century in the USA.

It is possible for Australians to elect a government which commands a majority of seats, but not a majority of voters, but our preferential system (unknown in the US) compensates somewhat.

Perhaps the best way of avoiding further controversy in the US in the future is a root and branch overhaul of their electoral system. It is, after all, held up by Americans as the best example of democracy in the free world.

They could learn a great deal from us which might ensure the maintenance of that precious democracy into the future. Right now it looks pretty wobbly.

And we should definitely count our blessings.  

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