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Reflections on a by-election

December 6, 2015


Working at government elections as a member of the polling staff – the people taking and counting votes, not political volunteers – is always an interesting day. Just yesterday the North Sydney by-election occurred, and I got to have a good bit of fun as a polling official. I also got to learn a bit, and have some humorous exchanges. Lets go through them.

Arriving a little early, I had a chat to some of the political volunteers early in the morning. By and large, a lot of the volunteers are friendly, good people… except at each other. There was a very curious incident when the main Greens volunteer arrived, and saw that two Liberals volunteers had already taken most of the prime advertising space. The Greens volunteer wanted to put one sign along a fence rail that would only barely obstruct a Liberal sign, which of course made the Liberal lady quite irate. She was of the view that if he wanted the advertising space he “should have got there earlier”… apparently the lady had turned up about 5am.

This is, though a very little thing, actually really representative of the political philosophy of both parties! The lady’s approach to property rights one could say stems from a Lockean concept of homesteading, whereas the Green’s volunteer’s conception comes from fairness and a conception almost of ‘public space’. The funny thing here, to me, is that since the actual electoral venue was owned by a charity organisation and the footpath was a public space, the idea of homesteading seemed ridiculous…

On a sidenote, apparently state and federal elections have different guidelines for where posters can be replaced – eg. can’t cover fences with banners in state elections, yet can do in federal. I get that the idea is to prevent arms races in state elections… but the inconsistency is annoying.

Also, throughout the day, there must have been up to 9 political volunteers at our single polling booth. Why so many? Because it was a by-election, not a general election. At general elections, parties recruit volunteers to help out based on their branch /electorate. But, in by-elections, because most seats aren’t up for grabs, parties instead issue a statewide call on branch members, like all NSW Liberal members, and get them all to assist. Thus, parties that would normally not have volunteers at all polling stations, especially smaller ones like ours, were able to field volunteers. We had, for instance, a Greens volunteer from Blacktown helping out.

By-elections also act as a magnet to trial lots of things. This was one of the first times that computers had been used by the AEC to search for voters. I didn’t even have it 8 months ago in the state election to use. Of course, by-elections are a great time to trial things… that’s why we had about 7 AEC monitors – including the state managers for the NT, WA and some other state, along with deputy state managers visit us – plus AEC visitors from consulting firms… and we had 3 scrutineers from the Liberals counting our votes. 3. All this attention stems from the fact that by-elections are disproportionately important public relations wise to the power they actually confer – getting a member of parliament elected. By-elections drive media speculation. If Zimmerman had got a low majority, it could have dampened Turnbull’s standing. By-elections represent a real poll in action.

Of course, by-elections are expensive and often largely unnecessary, and I think you could rejig the system to just have the party in charge replace their candidate… this is especially so with lower house by-elections like for Zimmerman. Occasionally in the Senate elections, minnows can get elected based on ridiculous preference streams, and thus smaller party volunteers are crucial, but not for the lower house… Of course, for all the costs of by-elections, at least as a young man it’s a good day’s pay!

In terms of voting, we were rather a small booth. We had only 3 polling officials, 1 declarations officer, and an officer in charge. When you realise that AEC guidelines require a ballot box guard and normally a queue controller, you realise we had a small staff! In fact, we didn’t have a queue controller due to our small numbers (though we rarely had queues, so we could just say ‘no queue’). But having only 2 polling officials to take votes at a given time when 1000 come through during the day (we had 800 projected only) keeps you a little occupied. The good news about only having 1000 votes is that is makes it quicker to pack up. Working only 13 hours at an election is a short day. Of course, the fact that we had a sharp officer in charge, and it was a by-election – so no massive, ridiculous upper house ‘tablecloth’ voting papers! – also helped. This was counterbalanced by having to run a series of 2nd preferences as Zimmerman got a slight minority at first.

Now lets talk about the actual running of the election. By and large most polling officials at decent people, and generally well meaning. Citizens who get irritated at officials are… often misguided (though you do get some very strange circumstances). That most citizens do not care about their vote is fairly obvious. Most people see elections as a hassle. If you make a jest about “you didn’t want to vote a 2nd time?” people will react “Gosh no!” rather than care about their vote. Most people are not decidedly political. A large number of people do not follow instructions. Nearly 10% of votes were listed as informal, and did not count. Perhaps half of this came from not following the instructions to ‘number from 1 to 13’ (though you could get away with only numbering the first 12). If we stress it to you twice before you vote, it can be wise to listen (though informals are easy to count later!). Perhaps half of the informals simply placed a ‘1’ next to their first preference, which is often allowed in state elections but not federal… which, of course, raises the point that the actual voting should be streamlined between state and federal levels!

Now, in terms of listening to polling staff, it is true that we have to ask curious questions. We are mandated by the AEC to ask for your name, address, and whether you have voted in the election. Of course, when the booths open at 8 am and you asked at 8:01am, “have you voted before in this elections?” you’re bound to get confused responses. You get that confusion all day long. But, generally people get the message.

However, I got a curious exception yesterday! There was a fellow who I had identified from his address and name. The computer had no records of him having voted. But, when asked if he had voted, he claimed a right to silence. Repeatedly. Even when I showed him my AEC instructions that basically said “you must ask 3 questions [including if they have voted] and… the voter must answer ALL questions”. This fellow’s claim was there was no legislative requirement to answer the question.

Now this isn’t politics, but more a general life point. There’s sometimes no point in getting into fusses over small details as a citizen. This fellow, I have no idea what he was trying to accomplish. I would be breaching my electoral duties if he did not answer the question, and he knew that once I showed the sign… and he quite clearly knew that when I had to bring the officer in charge to further reinforce my position. In the end – he didn’t want a fine for not voting… despite refusing to comply with instructions – we let him write a long explanation on a piece of paper. And he departed.

Now here is a really silly example of futile principle. I am 95% certain he hadn’t voted in the election when he came to me. I’m not sure about the legislative requirements for elections, but he might be right. But you simply have to be reasonable when asked questions. Why waste 5-10 minutes of your life on such a minute trivial detail? If you don’t want to vote, its very easy to just get someone to sign you as being absent and unable to vote. Very easy. But if you want to vote and don’t comply with requirements the AEC mandates for staff to enforce, even after those staff have shown you that they are legally required to comply with those requirements, you’re simply fighting a futile battle. Even victory would be empty.

These few curiosities that I have mentioned and more go into any election. But all around it’s a good experience, with fine staff to work with, and a generally understanding public. As one citizen remarked to us about his brother’s experience in Venezuela, our ‘ballot box guard’ is unlikely to be threatened by armed parties of mercenaries actually stealing ballot papers. So, all in all, we ought to put the mild irritations of elections out of our mind. They’re a very minor blight on our freedom and free time.


From → Foundations

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