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Saturday, November 27, 2010

On A Friday: Pre-Polling Predicaments

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On last Tuesday and today I have been handing How To Vote cards at an early voting centre in my electorate ahead of Victoria’s state election this Saturday. I did the same at the last two federal elections, but this election has been the one which I have the most to say about.

Early Voting Centre VEC Victoria 2010At the particular early voting centre that I was stationed at I have had a wonderful time. The representatives from all parties have been welcoming, and have even handed out the How To Votes of other parties when people have had to leave for various reasons. However, despite all this good sportsmanship I have seen something really quite devastating.

On the Tuesday a carer turned up to make an early vote with two elderly people, one of whom was in a wheel chair. These two people were not physically keeping up with what was going on around them, however they seemed hopelessly aware of what was going on. As the carer approached slowly with the two in her care, pushing the one in a wheelchair and holding the arm of the other, I and the other campaigners greeted them. I tried to offer the carer a How To Vote card which she turned her nose up to. Not taking it to heart I then I then tried to offer the How To Vote to the person in the wheelchair.

This was responded to with the wheelchair being pushed faster as the carer told the person that she “didn’t need that.” This happened to every party handing out How to Votes except the Liberals, who handed over their How To Vote successfully.

The campaigners from the other parties had not actually been able to communicate with the elderly people much at all, and as we tried to make sure that these two knew which parties were present the person in the wheelchair slowly raised a hand to accept the alternatives. We were stymied however when the carer gathered pace again and they were over the line which campaigners are unable to cross before we had the chance to hand them anything.

Once they had entered the polling place all of us campaigners uttered words of dismay amongst each other, including the Liberal party campaigner who later mentioned that he had seen displays like that before. Now there may have been a pre-arranged agreement between the carer and the elderly ladies, however from where I and the other campaigners stood it sure didn’t look like it!

Discussion of reform to the system then arose, with some truly excellent suggestions being raised amongst us. One idea was that inside polling booths everywhere, all the How To Vote cards for parties contesting upper and lower house seats should be displayed in some way. This also gives equal treatment to the small parties whose budget does not allow the mass-printing of How To Votes, or who don’t command the support base to have a campaigner at every booth.

There was another concerning development which came about at the start of the week. The ballot paper for the Legislative Council (Victoria’s Upper House) had a fold in it, made during printing, which hid the last party on the paper. Despite the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) officials opening up the paper for voters to see, this paper could still be picked up by the voter in such a way that could hide the party again without the voter knowing. I was assured by the early voting official at my booth that they were making sure that all voters knew about the issue with the fold, but I am painfully aware that this was just in one booth. I have also been informed that the original batch of ballot papers which had been printer earlier did not have this fold.

The person in control of the booth was at pains to assure me that this was just a printing fault, which I am sure is the case. However the VEC’s slogan that “every vote will shape Victoria” is somewhat undermined by poor quality control with the ballot papers – with the slip of paper on which the actual votes are marked!

We live in a country with a proud democratic history, a country which has been described in the past as the pinnacle of democracy (notwithstanding our position as a constitutional monarchy). This however does not mean we should rest on our laurels – there are clear areas in need of improvement. The VEC this election has been using computers and mobile phones to assist vision impaired and non-English speaking voters cast a private ballot, a move which is a great leap forward in democratic representation for many people. However so long as carers can have absolute control over the votes of those they look after, and so long as ballot papers do not present each party equally, there is still room for improvement in our system. Improvements which, especially in Victoria where seats can swing easily, need to be made sooner rather than later.


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