Blank ballots, orders for halal snack packs and illustrations of male genitalia. Looking at the pile of informal votes, my heart sank. Our democratic political system had been taken for granted.
My job as a scrutineer for the 2016 Australian Federal Election was simple: watch the Australian Electoral Commission officials and make sure their distribution of votes was fair and precise. My initial excitement soon faded to pessimism. I began to question whether, in Australia and around the world, the traditional Greek ‘demoskratia’ (power of the people) had slowly diminished. Why do people now recoil at the thought of voting?
Many Australians are so disillusioned by our political system that they feel it is necessary to forfeit their greatest democratic right, which suggests that our system of representation is flawed and broken. The grim reality is the Australian people have witnessed far more chaos than progress in the last couple of years. It is difficult for people to feel as though their vote matters when the party they voted for cannot even establish a united and cohesive front, as evidenced by the leadership spills from both the Labor and Liberal Parties. Many people believe that both major parties have become too centrist, making it difficult to differentiate the parties and heightening the belief that a similar political outcome will be achieved regardless of how a vote is cast. Australians have listened to countless political gaffes and watched as ambitious politicians place their own agendas in front of their electorate’s interests, and consequently switched off. I witnessed this apathy first hand on election day. I watched as people rolled their eyes at candidates handing out ‘how-to-vote’ cards, frustrated at the length of lines and eager to get this political burden over and done with. This degree of voter indifference stems from people feeling betrayed, something a true democracy should never allow.
Yet, despite their justified frustration with our political system, I still believe the Australian people should not forsake the privilege of voting. Universal suffrage is a fundamental pillar of any democracy, which many people abroad are not afforded. Historically, the first democracies restricted the vote to wealthy men who owned property. Whilst our politicians still largely fit this mould (*cough* Malcolm Turnbull), the Australian political system has far greater diversity thanks to compulsory voting. Australia has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the world, with 94 per cent of eligible voters voting at the last federal election. Whilst it may seem controversial to enforce compulsory voting in a democratic nation, I firmly believe that this is the only way the people are truly represented by their legislatures.
Conversely, optional voting systems are far less representative. For instance, only 54 per cent of Americans voted in the 2012 US Presidential Election. High proportions of the American community are simply not represented by their representatives. Consequently, we see the rise of ‘outsider’ candidates like Donald Trump. Initially, I thought Trump running for President was a joke and that the US had gone completely mad. But why does Trump have such a following? It’s quite simple. Trump supporters are frustrated with American politics and see their vote as a means to challenge the political establishment. Political instability seems inevitable regardless of the election outcome, which will further fuel voter apathy and lead to citizens withdrawing from their civic duties.
And what’s worse? In US elections, certain demographics are intentionally made to feel disenfranchised. A Hart Research poll conducted immediately after the 2012 Presidential Election reported that 22 per cent of African Americans waited 30 minutes or more to vote, compared to just nine per cent of White voters. When certain groups in society feel that their vote is not equally weighted, they can easily become disenfranchised, which threatens the ability of democracies to represent the whole population.
Despite all my concerns, Australia still has one of the best democracies in the world. Casting my first vote in the 2016 Federal Election made me feel empowered, knowing that I actually had some say in the operation of our country. Many people around the world don’t have access to such a right, often oppressed under authoritarian and destructive regimes. Now, more than ever, we need to recognise the power behind our vote and use it to ensure power falls into the right hands.
University of Melbourne students will soon have the opportunity to exercise that right. UMSU student elections will be held from 5-9 September, providing you with immense power to select a representative on your behalf. So resist the temptation to deface your ballots this September and embrace your democratic right to vote!