Election rituals: leaving the closet of prayer?
The act of voting itself is a significant and meaningful election ritual, full of symbolism, tradition and procedure. Customs inherited from the 17th and 18th centuries included the ‘hustings’. These were public gatherings where budding candidates officially declared their candidacy to the crowd from a stage. Then the barrel was rolled out, and open (that is, oral) polling was held over several festive days, town-by-town. These customs were washed away by the secret ballot and the universal franchise. As women won the vote, the communal element was transformed into Les Murray’s metaphor of the voting compartment as ‘a closet of prayer’.
Voting then is a private act of conscience, exercised on the most public of occasions, for the most public of purposes. It is revealing that polling stations are usually school halls. Schools define communities, and they aim to educate us and provide a level of equality of opportunity. Schools embody citizenship and are emblematic of the future. Elections, in turn, are communal events in which citizens gather to imagine and dispute a vision of the future. Indeed, in Australia, citizens are compelled by law to turn up at school and turn up to vote.
Yet, when we vote and, hence, where is shifting dramatically. Voters are increasingly being offered multiple times, places and forms of balloting and the proportion of Australians voting early is exceeding one quarter. With the support of the Australian Electoral Commission, nearly half of the voters in the 2015 Victorian by-elections voted early. Across the liberal world election day is being systematically undermined.
‘Convenience voting’, the almost unregulated right to vote early by pre-polling or postal voting, threatens to dilute the experience and meaning of ‘election day’. The effect on the future rhythm of campaigning remains to be seen. We are sleep-walking into this brave new world without any evidence that voting together on a Saturday is an impost; unlike the US where queues in poorer communities and voter identification checks make the ballot a hurdle.
The early decades of the mass franchise saw a shift from the communal culture of open voting to a more bureaucratic, paper-based and technological experience. Still, despite this shift, the early days of mass democracy were times of ferment. We are now living through a second wave of technological transformation of elections. As we do, we should stop and think not just in terms of the cost-benefit analysis but in terms of the experience of electoral democracy.
If anything, this second wave comes at a time when we need more, not less, ritual in democracy. Ours is not a time of electoral bribery and intimidation. Ours is a time of electoral quietism. I recently fought for the ‘No’ case on fixed, four-year terms in Queensland. The bi-partisan ‘Yes’ case put forward disappointing arguments about how fewer elections saved money. They sought to leverage, paradoxically, off a lack of faith in politicians and representative democracy. They scraped over the line with 52.8 per cent of the vote.
Yet insider polling revealed on the night of the referendum showed that people weren’t anti-democratic. They wanted to keep the democratic protection of regular elections, but avoid the political shenanigans of a system where a premier or prime minister chooses the election date. (Queenslanders were just not given these sensible options; the two, separable questions were bundled into one).
In a secular and consumerist society, with religious festivals declining and sporting codes proliferating, elections are the last great ritualised communal events. Whether we like or dislike the politicians on offer, elections bind us because we are inescapably zoon politikon, political animals born into and dependent on society.