When first asked to write about my experience ballot counting for the recent local council elections, I must admit I was confused. What was there to write about, or even to discuss? Being a student in a rapidly declining casual job market – I’d taken a good gig from a friend with the desire to make some easy money. It didn’t mean much to me beyond a day of work.
And to provide a brief recap, the day itself was entirely uneventful. There was a short introduction of our COVID principles, tables set up for us to count and sections for each area with team leaders handing out ballots for each step of the way. There were three steps, sectioning the ballot from the envelope, sectioning the ballot with the vote from the side with the voters name, and checking for donkey or dud votes. One volunteer from each section would also count the ballots in stacks of fifty with a machine. Simple, easy, and rigorous. A forgettable experience.
But in the aftermath of that job, and the painful voyeuristic experience of watching the American election unfold, and more specifically, watching their ballot counting processes unfold, I’ve come to appreciate and reflect upon that forgettable experience.
The dichotomy of my experience of ballot counting – quiet and boring – with that of counting of the American election is astounding. Processes that I thought, on the day, could be far more efficient than they were, now stand out to me not as slow, but as thorough, and diligent. It doesn’t even cross my mind that we’d have an election, local, state, federal or otherwise, that could possibly be as affected by voter fraud, suppression and general tampering than the one across the pond. I don’t worry about a lack of voter turnout, or about apathy from my family or friends regarding signing themselves up to vote. I trust that I’ll be able to easily access a voting booth or station, and that I’ll be provided with easy instructions and generous notice of any upcoming elections or democratic events that I need to participate in. I take for granted that the day of a state or federal election will be a weekend, or a public holiday, or have hours that account for my full time working parent. I know that for postage elections, I can walk down the street and see the post box that’s been there all my life, and won’t ever be removed.
Do not misinterpret my words – Australia is no beacon of democratic perfection, and fails on many, many fronts. Most all levels of government in Australia, and many of our governmental processes, are deeply, undeniably damaged. Voting is far more difficult for those living in rural areas, or those with communication difficulties. We as a nation require immense and immediate reform to many aspects of our, at times, flawed democracy. But I have never, ever felt as though that basic tenet of voting rights, have ever been at risk of removal, or corruption of such a high level as we have seen overseas.
And to bring another perspective I’d not realised – I was surprised at the amount of people for whom participating in ballot counting is not just a one-off, or a fun pastime, but a genuine passion. Many volunteers I spoke to had been counting for years, at every election they were eligible to do so for, being genuinely enthused about aiding the democratic process. They came with their partners, or their families, or even alone, and were more than happy to do so. These individuals all ranged in age, background and belief systems as well – people from all walks of life caring for the integrity and honesty of an election.
And if you’d asked me previously what I believed to be a layperson’s most efficient participation in democracy – ballot counting wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. I’d have said petitioning council, attending protests, writing to your local MP and a million other active acts of service that aren’t ballot counting. Now looking back, why hadn’t it crossed my mind? Voting is only as effective as the outcome it produces – so why wouldn’t I immediately think of ballot counting as a foundational task, pertinent to the effective running of democracy?
I think this viewpoint is not one unique to democracy. Oftentimes, we overlook the most fundamental work of a project, in favour of its outcome, or the more flashy aspects of the process. We buy a pair of shoes, excited to wear them, having a good experience with the salesperson, and without a thought to the crafter of the shoes, the maker of the box, or the sewer of the sole.
And so, perhaps what we can take from experiences such as these, is not only an appreciation for the mundane and often slow reliability of our democratic processes, but a larger appreciation for the people and jobs that often go unnoticed, or underappreciated. For without the ballot counters, the sole sewers, and the behind-the-scenes workers, we would not have the final product. I know that for every ballot I count and for every election I vote in for the remainder of my lifetime, I’ll be thinking of the people in large halls across the country (which may even include myself again!), separating hundreds of pieces of paper so as to ensure everyone is included, and everyone is counted.
(This piece was originally published following the 2020 local government elections)