From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage

So long ago that it feels like a completely different life (I think it was some time in January) on a hot summer's night, I heard Judith Brett talking about this book, a history of the Australian electoral system, and I was so intrigued that I hopped out of bed at 1am and crept to my laptop to reserve it at the library then and there.

I was about eighth in the queue, but it finally arrived a couple of weeks ago -- also in another lifetime, in a different world. Now the libraries are all closed, re-opening who knows when, and I poked the book through the returns slot yesterday. I wonder when I will next be able to borrow a book -- all my lovely reserves are still waiting for me...

Judith Brett's firm contention is that Australia does elections better than just about anywhere in the world. We take our innovations for granted, but we should celebrate them, because a solid, impartial electoral system is one of the best safeguards for democracy. We didn't invent all of the following, but we did invent some, and others we adopted permanently.

  • the secret ballot: for a long time this was actually known as 'the Australian ballot.' Before this, people had to declare their votes publically, which is obviously a problem if you rely on the goodwill of the local landowner or whatever and don't want to be seen to choose someone other than their favoured candidate. Candidates used to bribe voters with alcohol, so election days became violent, riotous gatherings; the secret ballot ended this practice.
  • voting on Saturdays: it still amazes me that the US hold elections on Tuesdays, and in the UK on Thursdays! Australians have prioritised making voting easier, whereas some other jurisdictions seem to try to make it as difficult as possible.
  • compulsory voting: in fact, voting itself isn't compulsory, it's just compulsory to turn up and get your name crossed off the roll; once you're in the booth (another Aussie innovation), you can leave your paper blank, scribble on it or whatever. In Australia, voting was seen as a necessary civic duty, and determining the will of the majority of voters was always paramount.
There are lots of other elements, and not every aspect of Australian voting is a cause for celebration -- for example, the deliberate disenfranchisement of Aboriginal people (though we were early to give the vote to women). The emphasis on ease of voting is leading inexorably to a preference for early, postal and absentee voting before the actual election day (I don't approve of this). But in general, election days in Australia are genial, good-humoured community festivals, and that is in itself a cause for celebration.

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage is a slim book but it's much more interesting than you might think!


  1. That does sound interesting, Kate! I wonder if it’s available in ebook? I think we have a lot to be proud of. Every time Americans complain - with reason - about their system on Twitter, I feel glad that our system is what it is. Much more laid back, and if turning up to vote is compulsory, the government has to make it possible. I dread the day our politicians decide to drop the compulsory vote.

    Sometimes it’s necessary to vote early. If you are a religious Jew, for example, Saturday is not possible. I spend Saturdays with my elderly mother, so it’s easier for me to vote on a day when I’m not with her.

    There is, apparently, a reason for the US Tuesday vote. In the 1840s, rural voters had to get out the buggy and travel long distances to vote. And they weren’t going to have the elections on THEIR Sabbath, so they would get in the buggy on Monday and vote on Tuesday. Stupid to keep it going now, isn’t it?

  2. The Sabbath is a good reason to vote early -- I just don't approve of people who do it just for convenience or to get it out of the way. I worry that if some last minute scandal blows up, they don't have full information when they're casting their vote!

    Yes, Tuesday for the US made sense once, but not any more! It seems to be a deliberate policy to suppress the vote as much as possible. Shameful.