THE middle-aged man strides past us, rejecting the proffered how to vote cards. “They’re all f...... c....,” he hisses furiously.
“Don’t hold back!” the woman from the ALP calls after him mildly, and we all laugh. Volunteering at a polling booth is a surprisingly social affair.
I’ve handed out how to vote cards for the past four or five state and federal elections and, in spite of the occasional angry punter, I always come home feeling uplifted. It’s partly due to rediscovering the surprising good sense of those whose politics are quite different from mine.
To a Kiwi Aussie, handing out cards still seems a quaint custom, like maypole dancing. I first handed out for the Greens at the state election in 2006. I was assigned to the Pakenham booth and went expecting a cool reception. To my surprise, I spent a companionable morning chatting with supporters of Labor, the Liberals and even the Shooters and Fishers Party (or whatever it was called back then). The only one I couldn’t strike a chord with was the man from Family First, but he was suspicious of everyone, including the voters.
At the federal election the next year, I handed out at Wonthaggi North. There I met Leonie Burke, one of Jeff Kennett’s henchpersons, a woman I had once regarded as an arch enemy of the people. She was handing out for an old mate, Russell Broadbent. We had a long, interrupted conversation, during which I realised we agreed on most things.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we were both right. It’s equally likely we were both wrong. But I learnt my most valuable lesson that day: the real divide is not between supporters of Labor or Liberal, Greens, Rise Up Australia or independents, but between those who give a stuff and those who don’t.
There were plenty of the latter at the Wonthaggi Town Hall polling booth on Saturday. Surprisingly many people resent having to give up 15 or 20 minutes on a Saturday to vote. The VEC website shows that of the 1034 who cast a ballot at the town hall on Saturday, 65 – about 6.5 per cent – voted informally, either by accident or deliberately. Whether they were the ones who glared at us as they passed, I’m not sure, but the anger prompted plenty of discussion among those handing out.
Lewis Stone, a land agent who was there for the Liberals, felt strongly about it. “We’re so blasé about the vote here,” he said. “In other countries, people are prepared to die for the right to vote.”
By definition, we were fans of democracy or we wouldn’t have been there, and there were plenty of voters who shared the faith. The cut-off for compulsory voting is 70 but many voters were well past that. Some arrived on scooters, some were in wheelchairs, many leaned on sticks. Only death or dementia would stop them voting.
A few headed straight for their Party person. “That’s the one,” they said, out and proud. Your political party is like your football team. Why would you hide it?
But most people politely accepted all the how to vote cards, or none of them. They gave nothing away, having learnt the lesson from cautious parents: “Never discuss politics or religion”. As they went in, we compared notes on how we thought they would vote. We would have loved to conduct an exit poll as they left to see if our prejudices were confirmed.
The ones who intrigued us most were the younger voters. Almost no one under 35 took a card. Most of them tried to avoid discussion with us. They kept their eyes on the path. We spent a lot of time discussing what it meant. Did they have the information on their phones? Did they know how they were going to vote? Were they going to donkey vote (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 down the page)? Were they just going to put a line through the voting paper?
I suppose we seemed like pushy salespeople to them. In fact, we weren’t there to persuade them how to vote but simply to provide a guide through the complex preferential voting process so their vote would go where they wanted it to. Except when a mate approached, then it was OK to try and talk them into supporting your candidate.
There was a fair bit of discussion among us about our various parties’ policies and preference deals. A Liberal asked me about my candidate, the independent, Clare Le Serve. Meanwhile, I was intrigued by the poster for Rise Up Australia, the pro-Christian, anti-Muslim party. “Australia for Australians,” it stated, then added a curious rider: “Love ya!”. I asked the Rise Up Australia man what “Australia for Australians” meant.
“No burqas,” he said. “We’re Australian. They can’t bring their customs here.”
“What about cricket?” I asked.
“Cricket’s Australian,” he said.
Which I thought was a rather circular argument. Still, the Wonthaggi Town Hall was not the place for a political stoush, at least not on election day.
It was a convivial morning. The highlight for me came when a young Karen couple turned up, obviously for their first vote. Australian friends had arranged to meet them out the front of the town hall to explain the intricacies of the preferential voting system. The young couple listened politely but looked increasingly mystified. Then, courteously accepting voting cards from each of us, they went in to cast their first vote. I was shocked to realise I was almost in tears.
Who would have thought a concept as abstract as democracy could move you?
December 7, 2014
Loved your article and the photo of the old voting booth! It easy to forget what a privilege it is to vote and the freedom we have to talk about about it!! See you next time when I'm handing how to vote cards and thanks for getting the coffee.
December 7, 2014
Congratulations on the wisdom to learn from experiences, Catherine. About being "right" or "wrong", though, Shakespeare says "there's nothing right or wrong but thinking makes it so." (cannot remember which play). Oscar Wilde says that "Nothing that ever happened is of the slightest importance.” Professor Peter Singer says that a thing is good if it benefits most people and bad if it hurts people. I agree with all three.
I made some friends this year handing out how to vote cards and sold some Bass Coast calendars.
Felicia Di Stefano, Glen Forbes
December 7, 2014
Thank you for article, Catherine. Both Barbara and I were heavily involved in the handing out of how to vote cards on election day as well as at the pre-polling centres. We were involved mainly at the Cowes and Pakenham pre-polling centres and had some long and wonderful, if frequently interrupted, conversations with people handing out for most of the parties involved.
On the rare occasions that a voter attending the centres decided to get a bit "uppity" with one of the volunteers handing out, another of the volunteers – regardless of political flavour – would be very quickly at their elbow providing collegial support. I stress again that it happened rarely.
A very common theme to the conversations was that of our great fortune that we lived in a country where people of opposing political views could work and talk and laugh together as we helped the process along. We didn’t have to worry about guns, assaults, violence and persecution. Sobering.
With regard to folk not taking any How-To-Vote cards, I would like to point out that many tech-savvy folk had in fact downloaded their chosen How-To-Vote cards onto their mobile ‘phones. It is regrettable therefore to note that the current 5.42 per cent of votes being cast informally is not exceptional for Bass, it is sadly consistent.
I do concur with the feelings expressed regarding first time voters. During the two weeks of voting, few things gave me greater pleasure than shaking the hands of a large number of first-time voters as they left having cast their first vote. This old grey bear had a lump in his throat more than once.
Ross Fairhurst, Greens candidate for Bass