Election rituals: Laying a bet and having a drink
Verging on another federal election, it is as good a time as any to ask ‘why do we have elections?’ Liberals give reassuring, if abstract, responses such as ‘it’s a time for political equality, liberty and deliberation’. Gnarled realists offer less highfalutin and more instrumental reasons, such as elections being ‘the least worst’ way to turnover governing elites. Cynics offer well-worn lines like ‘whoever you vote for, a politician wins’ or the Marxist refrain that democracy is ‘false consciousness’.
All these views have something to offer. But there is a simpler, more human and inescapable answer. Elections are nothing if not grand theatre. They are rituals – repeated social activities full of symbolism and meaning.
Each election is a Big Ritual, made up of many smaller rituals. The Big Ritual is easy to spot. The electoral cycle sets up the seasons of politics. First, the tranquility of a new government’s honeymoon period and opposition wound-licking followed by a wintery tough first budget and a mid-term trough. Then comes the spring of political grooming and sweeteners, preceding the heat of electoral palaver. All culminating in the great inversion, where the rulers supplicate the ruled for our support. And so we go around again.
But enough of Big Ritual. In this and a future post I will explore the smaller, ‘everday’ rituals that make up electoral democracy and how the rules and institutions (‘the law of politics’) affects the tenor of such rituals.
For partisans and activists elections are heady occasions where nerves calmed are by boozy parties and wagering, and exacerbated by the theatre of election night. In the cliché, democracy is ‘for the people, by the people’. But elections are more about some of us than others. After all, without activists of all stripes and degrees, we would have no elections, or rather elections would look like this.
For centuries, candidates and interested onlookers have bet on elections. Election betting was banned for a long time (it still is at New South Wales state level and in the United States). Candidates once wagered against themselves to disguise bribes. Businessmen used to bet big on elections, sometimes via stockbrokers running books, to hedge on policy outcomes but also because they were hooked on speculation. Purists thought betting trivialized elections.
Election betting tapered in the mid-20th century but since the late 1990s and thanks to online commercial bookmakers, it has reappeared with a vengeance. To get the free publicity of news outlets repeating the odds, internet bookies take bets on elections all over the world. They file the odds under ‘sports’. This is a revealing category for those who see elections as a game more than an ideological contest.
Whilst I for one doubt the benefit of industrialised betting on elections, Australian elections have become the single most wagered-on event in the calendar after the Melbourne Cup. And for partisans of all stripes, election bets undoubtedly serve a psychological role. Optimists back their ‘team’ and intensify any victory. Pessimists bet against their side to soften the blow of defeat.
Alcohol, too, has a long and shifting role in elections worldwide. Whereas once grog lubricated the festival and ritual of communal polling, now many countries declare election day to be dry, in Spanish the ley seca elecciones. Out of deference to newly enfranchised women voters, in the 1900s the Commonwealth Parliament decreed that Australians will not vote in licensed premises, even though the pub was the only public space in some small towns.
Election counts are now more mediated than ever. Gone are the days, or should that be heady nights, of the National Tally Room. The ritualised space, open to all, was a tangible symbol of democracy and the tally board an institutional representation of the flood of votes sweeping away or shoring up our masters. The tally board, now preserved in the Museum of Australian Democracy collection, evolved from newspaper boards in city squares and—perhaps—from the sporting scoreboard itself.
Instead, election results are beamed via the Australian Electoral Commission feed to the internet and Antony Green’s ABC super-computer. Leaders and the media preferred the controlled environment of the TV studio or party-hired ballroom, to the sweaty tension of the National Tally Room. More’s the pity. One day we will have electronic balloting. If so, the unfolding of election results, slowed down by the law behind preferential ballots and delayed return of postal votes, will accelerate dramatically. Think of the shift from the stately rhythm of test cricket to the whoosh of a T20 match.
But there are swings and roundabouts. Journalists instead cross live to candidates’ backyards, a quite Australian setting, where barbecues and booze punctuate the occasion. So, as re-runs of Don’s Party and images from gatherings of activists remind us, drinking is part of Australian electoral culture as much as general culture. It deadens the nerves and heightens the excitement of the ritual.
As the federal election draws closer I will consider another significant election ritual – the act of voting itself.