Politics in a Land Down Under

@PltclPrtyCrshr (No. 2)

7/10/16

Political Party Crasher, live from Melbourne for the Australian federal elections.

Truly pathetic, if that were the only reason I flew twenty-three hours to the other side of the world. It’s somewhat bizarre how you can fly that far from the United States and find yourself in a country just like the United States (albeit with much more entertaining slang). The top of my list is use of the word dodgy. In a sentence, “Trump not releasing his tax returns is dodgy, which I can only assume means he is actually bankrupt.”

Well, the timing of my trip was a coincidence. But don’t we all know, there are no coincidences?

Australia does government and elections a little differently down under, 10,000 miles away from the East Coast of the United States. I know it’s about 10,000 miles because one of the dating apps told me I was about 10,000 miles away from someone who asked how it was possible that I was about 10,000 miles away. That person clearly didn’t know the circumference of the Earth. And was a little shaky on the meaning of the word circumference.

Let me provide some background.

Australia is a parliamentary democracy, a hybrid between the Canadian and British systems, according to a tour guide at Parliament in Canberra, which is the nation’s capital. The Canadian/British comparison helped explain the Australian nuances not at all. But the simple concept of a parliamentary system, in contrast to the presidential system we have in the United States, is that voters elect a House of Representatives and whichever party wins a majority picks a party leader. That party leader becomes Prime Minister. The Australian federal legislature also has a Senate, though it only watches and keeps its collective mouth shut in the Prime Minister-selection process. Every American President wet dreams of this system (i.e. a Congress always controlled by the President’s party).

But it’s not all puppy dogs and ice cream. Or baby koalas and Vegemite.

The Australian House of Representatives has 150 seats. 150 is divisible by two, so it can be evenly split. Minor constitutional drafting boo boo. Split means no party has a majority, which means a hung Parliament. This can also happen because, while Australia has two major parties, Labor (left-leaning) and Liberal (right-leaning – Frank Luntz is smiling somewhere), there is a heap of third parties and they typically win a few seats. Examples are the Green Party, the Australian Cyclists Party, the Australian Sex Party (I didn’t ask…) and the Nick Xenophon Team, which sounds like a racist Douglas Elliman real estate brokerage group (I did ask… the founder’s name is Nick Xenophon).

If neither Labor nor Liberal can cobble together 76 seats, Australia has a hung Parliament, which is political speak for no functioning government (save national security and emergencies). In the United States, that situation is simply called Congress. The solution is new elections. After a very close election, Labor finally conceded on July 10, eight days after the election. Australian election officials wait two weeks for all mail-in ballots to arrive (they should probably mail through Amazon). The Liberals won 76 seats, so fortunately, no hung Parliament this time out.

On Election Day (July 2), I went out campaigning at a polling place in Melbourne for the Labor Party, where the race between the Labor and Liberal candidates was a dead heat. Where not one voter raised an eyebrow about a person with an American accent – to be clear, Americans don’t have accents, Australians do – and they are awesome) – handing out preference sheets for Labor. And where no voter felt shy about asking my friends and I to hold their dog when they went inside to vote. And where every voter, irrespective of party affiliation, found it hysterical when my Australian friend announced that I was with the Trump campaign.

So for the record, yes, Donald Trump frightens Australia too.

One fascinating aspect of Australian elections is that voting is mandatory. Non-voting is punishable by death. Kidding, by a fine of AUD$20 (about USD$15). Yet even such a small dollar amount gets the vast majority of people out to the polls.

Voting in Australia is very complex. Think of the 2000 Florida election ballot as a Rubik’s Cube. Think of the Australia ballot as astrophysics. They can run pages and pages long. They are in at least nine languages including Tamil, Khmer, traditional Chinese and simple Chinese (if there is such a thing). The flyers I handed out were not promoting the Labor Party candidate. Rather, they explained how to fill out the ballot to people who had already decided to vote for the Labor Party candidate! The other parties could figure it out for themselves.

Voting is not simply checking a box for one candidate. You rank order every candidate on the ballot (or the ballot is disqualified). The Labor Party preference flyer advised ranking the Labor candidate first and the Australian Sex Party candidate second. I’m not kidding.

Mandatory voting gets many voters to form an opinion and vote accordingly. But it also gets some voters (estimates are 2%, but it’s impossible to really know) to rank the candidates in numerical order from top to bottom. This is called the donkey vote. Which Republicans would find an apt way to describe how all Democrats vote. Some voters can’t even be bothered to donkey vote, so they draw a penis on the ballot. Don’t believe me? Click here.

Mandatory voting is interesting because it nominally guarantees that government is picked by a majority of the entire country, not just the subset that votes. So let’s make voting mandatory in the United States!

Not a chance that ever happens. Why? Three reasons.

First, in the United States, the right to vote is a right, not an obligation.

Second, freedom of speech (First Amendment) includes the right to vote and the right to not vote.

Third, Republicans would never allow mandatory voting. And they would be right for the two reasons above.

Which is lucky for them, because if the United States had mandatory voting, the country would never have another Republican President or Republican Congress. Ever.

Most Americans who don’t vote (young people, students, minorities, poor people) lean overwhelming to the Democrats. Which is why Republicans would block any attempt at mandatory voting. If all these folks voted, there would be no more Republicans. And which is why Republican-controlled state legislatures pass laws to make voting more difficult. Because the voters mentioned above are the ones for whom these restrictions, like no mail-in voting, shortened polling place hours, photo ID requirement, no same day or same week voter registration, make voting more difficult.

Are there reasons for each of these restrictions? Sure. Are they legitimate ones? Not really.

Republicans argue for photo ID to prevent voter fraud. Except study after study shows that statistically, voter fraud does not exist. Republicans want to shorten polling hours because longer hours mean higher costs. That’s probably true, but the balance between those higher costs (which I imagine are not large) and making it easier for more people to vote, in my mind, weighs heavily in favor of the latter. Mail-in voting is a no-brainer because getting out of work on a Tuesday is difficult for many people (Australia votes on Saturday). And without any evidence of voter fraud, there’s no reason not to allow voter registration the same week as the election.

And then there’s the most important argument against mandatory voting. Who wants to see a bunch of ballots covered in pencil-etched dicks?

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