Politics: My first election day as a How To Vote Hander-Outer and Scrutineer

We’ve got Howard back. Worse, we’ve got him with an increased majority in the lower house, and an absolute majority in the senate. We don’t even have the Greens in Senate; due to the preferences of Labor and the Democrats, Family First is getting a seat instead. This is doubly annoying, because the Green vote was almost enough for a seat in their own right, whereas Family First were nowhere near the quota.

I’m not going into how disappointed I am. You can probably all guess this already. I do hope the US manages to get rid of Bush, though, or there is no hope for us.

Now for yesterday. Yesterday turned out to be a very long day indeed. While in the end someone else put up the signs at dawn, I was at the booth from 11:30am to 8:30 pm or thereabouts. I ended up handing out how to vote cards for nearly six hours straight – it would have been four, but one of our relievers didn’t show up, and the other one got a call from his workplace 20 minutes after he arrived and had to leave. So I was back on again. A sensible Catherine might have been less hyperactively manic in the first two hours, but I don’t know any of those…

It was fun though. I enjoyed bouncing around and being very smiley and friendly and helpful, and making the most of my demographic (the only young female handing out cards for most of the time I was there). Also, I couldn’t bring myself to sit there watching people approach from 50-odd metres away waiting for them to arrive. It just felt odd – either you are staring at them, or you are avoiding eye contact for a very long time, either of which felt really unnatural. So I ended up running around more than most, as I found myself bouncing over to greet people. Since I was stationed at the apex of two gates (we didn’t have enough people to man all the gates), that added up to a lot of bouncing. I am still hobbling as a result. A couple of people said they wanted to vote for me, and I told them that actually this was a cunning disguise, and really I was the guy on the card. I don’t know if that worked…

I also did my bit for the morale of other how to vote hander outerers by making partisan chocolate crackles (big green triangular jelly lolly in the middle of them, just like our big green triangular signs), and passing them around to people handing out cards for all the other parties. They seemed to be greatly appreciated, and rather amused my friend Paula, who was booth captaining for Labor, and were a useful icebreaker for making friends with all my fellow campaigners.

At 6pm, the polling booths shut, and four of us (3 Labor people and me) went into the booth to do scrutineering. I’ve never done this before, but I’ll be doing it again, a lot, I think. It was fascinating, and really brought home to me how incredibly difficult it would be to rig an Australian election. In other words, we may have Howard back, but apparently we wanted him. Ick. But I digress…

In Australia, we vote in little booths using the provided pencil, and because we have preferential voting, you have to number every box in order of preference for your vote to be valid. So the first thing they did was count up the number of people who had voted in the booth. They then got us to witness that the boxes were sealed (nothing up my sleeve!), and poured all the lower house votes onto the table. We then got to watch the votes being sorted into formal and informal (ie, not valid). Because it’s compulsory in Australia to turn up and cast a ballot, but not to vote correctly with said ballot, we tend to get a fair number of informal votes.  Of course, a lot of people managed to be accidentally informal by just putting a tick next to one candidate, or else they got a bit creative in their numbering (two number 1s in different boxes).  Others wrote silly things on the ballot – in our particular booth, Osama Bin Laden got more votes than Family First, which I found pretty amusing. Footballers, musicians and ‘mum’ also scored well… A few people left the entire thing blank as a protest. We also had fun and games with semi-legible ballots – those were the ones which we got to contest (people who make their 1s look like 7s, or don’t finish writing their 6s or 4s, or who scribble out half the numbers and write some outside their boxes in illegible handwriting are all a bit challenging).

Then we got to stand over the counters as they sorted the votes, to make sure votes didn’t accidentally go into the wrong piles. The votes were then counted twice, checked again for informality and counted again twice. In most booths, there would not be a clear majority, and we would go to preferences. Fawkner, though, is blue-ribbon Labor – they got about 80% of the primary vote, so there wasn’t need for a further count. Green got about 7.5%, which was 5% better than last time for that booth – across the electorate, we polled around 12%, which was again about 5-7% better than last time. Pleasing to note, although I regret to say that we benefited from the donkey vote (people numbering 1-7 vertically down the choices) in a few cases.

This process didn’t take long – our booth had about 2000 voters, and we had our numbers about 90 minutes after polling closed. Then, of course, we had to check that we actually had as many votes as we had voters. We started off six short, due to people putting their Lower House form in the Senate box – but alas, by the time we were done emptying the Senate box we were one vote over. This basically meant they would need to check and count all the piles again…

We then went through the same process with the Senate. The Senate is a lot more complex. For starters, the form this time around was nearly a meter wide, to make room for all the dozens of small parties. Then, if you have voted (correctly) above the line, this means there is one mark in one box on a huge sheet of paper to look for (voting above the line means you will let your vote be counted according to the selected party’s preferences, rather than choosing your own preferences). So people who vote informal by not filling it in cause a certain amount of grief, because you have to check really carefully that there really is no mark anywhere. Then, of course, it appears that a lot of people are completely confused by the system. They number everything above the line. Or better still, everything above the line AND everything below it. Or only one box under the line. Or they number, starting again from 1, within parties below the line, in addition to whatever they put above the line. A few people even painstakingly donkeyed their way across all 65 boxes below the line, which struck me as remarkably pointless – donkey voters usually are trying to get it done quickly because they don’t care – a single number above the line would have done the trick better.

Of course, the sorters really hate people who vote below the line. Interestingly, the Polling Officer told her minions ‘put the ones voting below the line over here, if there are any. Usually there aren’t’. Except, of course, that just about all of us scrutineering had voted below the line, as had at least two other people attending that booth that I knew of. It wasn’t just us, though. There were others. Oh, and in passing, there’s nothing quite like seeing your own vote counted. I really wasn’t sure I’d recognise my lower house one – there were a few that looked like my writing – until it went past and I went (silently – confidentiality must be preserved!), oh yes, that’s mine. My vote’s been counted. It was very cool.

We had a certain amount of fun finding out exactly what constitutes informal in the Senate too. Apparently, even if you vote above and below the line, provided you manage to vote formally in one of the places, your vote counts. Which is pretty good, I think, though the counters are less enthused by it.

In the end, we didn’t stay for the full Senate count. It takes hours, and doesn’t give a real result, because the numbers only really matter statewide – you can’t get any idea from one booth. So my friend Stephen, who was scrutineering for Labor, drove me down to the Greens pub, where I stayed long enough to give them the numbers from my booth and find out the awful news about the election, and then I took a taxi home, because I was having trouble walking by that point.

I went to bed early. The really funny thing was that it took me a while to get to sleep, because whenever I closed my eyes I could see people approaching me who I needed to give how to vote cards to. I’ve never had that sort of thing happen before – very strange.

Anyway, I can absolutely recommend scrutineering – it is really interesting to see the democratic process in action (and I had fun challenging or defending the odd informal vote). And at least I know that the Australian nation, in its grand insanity, truly did choose Howard. But if you ever feel called to do this, I recommend handing out cards rather more sedately than I did – I’m aching all over today…

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