A Dinkum Vote:
What the US Can Learn From Australia

US flag and Australian kangaroo.

Dr. Katherine Phelps

People within the US frequently support the opinion that even if the US isn't perfect, it is at least the best option in the world today. This may be true of some aspects of US culture, but as a result of travel and living overseas, I have discovered various social practices can and have been significantly improved upon elsewhere. A particularly important practice that the US needs to examine is voting.

The alternative voting system that I am most familiar with is that used by Australia. I feel that it creates a fairer, more accurate, and democratic outcome than is achieved in the US. To demonstrate this I will outline a few points illustrating how it functions. For a more complete outline take a look at the Australian Electoral Commision Web site:


The right and responsibility of voting

In the United States you have a right to have your voice heard when it comes to the selection of government representatives, and for the acceptance of bills into law. This is considered one of the most basic and primary values of US government: one person, one vote. Perhaps the founders of the US republic were so enthusiastic about the value and acceptance of their new governmental system, that they believed people would inherently want to vote in order to ensure that their concerns would be represented.

Sadly, much of the US today experiences either apathy or hopelessness when it comes to voting, so that only a low percentage of people bother to have their opinions tallied. This has created an opportunity for monied interests to use their finances to control government, since representatives do not feel as answerable to their public. Perhaps even now the US government can be said to be plutocratic, rather than democratic.

To protect and ensure the continuance of a democracy, or at least a democratic republic, voting is not simply a right: voting is a responsibility.

This was recognised by those people who forged the Australian government system, and in this country you are required to vote from the age of 18. Australia truly has a government by the people and for the people. Representatives may still be influenced by greed. However, they realise that they can only deviate so far from their constituency's will before they find they are out of a job. Try not voting as a citizen of Australia; you will be fined. You must have your name marked as having appeared at a polling booth at the time of election, or at least arrange for an absentee vote in advance.

Genuine representation of the people's will: preferences

The United States' system for counting votes and determining winners is so very basic as to allow a noticeable drift between what parties represent, and what people actually want represented. People have ultimately been stuck with two parties and must vote for the one least objectionable. The possibility of other parties entering the arena who might better suit the public has been cut off. This is because if you vote for a third party, and they do not win, you have wasted your vote and perhaps opened the door to your least favourite candidate winning.

Your vote cannot be wasted in Australia. They have a clever system known as "preferences" which ensures totally fair representation. On the federal level this works in two ways, one for each legislative house. To begin with for either method voters vote "1" for their favourite candidate, "2" for their next favourite candidate, and so on down to their least favourite candidate who might be numbered "6". In the US this would be like voting "1" for the Green Party, "2" for the the Libertarians, "3" for Reform Party, "4" for the Democrats, "5" for the Republicans, and "6" for the American Independent Party. Feel free to arrange those numbers in your mind to suit your own preferences to get a feel for how satisfying this is.

For the Australian House of Representatives the electoral staff start by counting everyone's first preference. Should any candidate achieve at least fifty percent of their electorate at this stage of the counting, they are automatically elected. After all even with the redistribution of preferences, no one else can possibly achieve a majority. The count will then continue in order to know the total first preference distribution of votes. However, if no one achieves fifty percent, the candidate with the least votes is knocked out of the race and their supporters' votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates. After this redistribution, the next loser is knocked out and their voters' preferences are redistributed, and so on and so forth. Exclusions and redistributions of votes continue until only two candidates remain. The person who receives an absolute majority of votes during the exclusion process is elected.

So, let us say that you voted for Chris Schmuck. When Chris is removed from the race, the person for whom you voted number two now gets your vote. If your number two person gets removed, then your number three person gets your vote, and so on until you have already voted for one of the two remaining candidates. At each and every stage your vote counts.

For the Australian Senate voting differs in how you can select your preferences. You may either order your own preferences as before, or you can tick a particular party's pre-determined selection of preferences. The Australian Senate uses proportional representation from each state. So, a party's preferences may assist in assuring more of their candidates achieve Senate seats. Those preferences may also reflect which politicians are willing to make deals with that party when voting in parliament.

Candidates do not need to achieve an absolute majority of the formal vote to gain a position in the Senate. They are elected when they receive a certain "quota" of the votes. The figure for the quota is arrived at by dividing the number of formal votes by the number of positions to be filled plus one. The resulting number, disregarding any fractions, is also increased by one. Currently each state has twelve Senate representatives, and each territory has two. Therefore, in a half Senate election where six vacancies would be available to candidates in any particular state, each candidate would need to gain one seventh of all formal votes, plus one additional vote. If seven million votes were cast in Victoria, for instance, a potential Victorian Senator would need one million and one votes to get in.

When the electoral commission has determined which candidates have achieved the quota from first preferences, all remaining votes are counted according to their next preferences until each remaining seat has been filled. In this way smaller parties have a chance of representing a diversity of political viewpoints.

A fair count: scrutineering

I am sure we would all like to believe that the US electoral system is run by objective people who are scrupulously fair. However, this cannot be guaranteed. The incumbent party can always choose to have the people who count votes and how they count votes to be at least somewhat favourable to them. The US does not appear to have much if any official checks and balances for the process of vote counting.

In Australia we have cities of several million voters each, and the count is still done by hand. To ensure that vote counters execute their jobs honestly and accurately, every party is allowed to have present at the count a "scrutineer", someone who oversees the activity of the counters. Scrutineers are in no way allowed to touch any of the votes, but they do help to ensure fairness by being available to spot and report any deviant vote counting. How I wish the last US presidential election had these guys.

Polling day

This is a small point, but an important one. In the US polling is always on a Tuesday, a work day for most people. For a number of those people, taking the time to vote can mean a loss in desperately needed wages. In Australia polling is always on a Saturday. I have never heard of anyone here missing the vote in trying to juggle a job and getting to a polling booth before closing.

Yes, I do believe that Australia is a more democratic country than the US. This does not mean that Australia doesn't have its fair share of idiot politicians that get into power, but I do end up having more faith that Australia can sort things out. People better recognise their responsibility in the kind of country they have created. In so doing they are better prepared to take appropriate action when things need changing.