Voter Intimidation

I had a rather unpleasant experience when I went to vote in my first state election.

As we know, I voted in my first federal election last year, and it was a wonderful experience. All the party volunteers out the front got along beautifully, and they were all excited about my first vote, no matter for whom I was planning to vote.

Well, not so this time. I live in a heavily Liberal area (the Liberal Party is actually Australia’s main conservative party) (just… go with it). The New South Wales Labor Party, who were in power up until the 26 March election, are so despised by the good people of NSW that their election campaigning had by the end degenerated to “we don’t know what the Liberals’ plans are, so don’t give them too much power”. Essentially, I’ve been living in Liberal central while the state’s been falling apart the last little while.

I was trotting along to my polling place with my mother, minding my own business and contemplating the gravity of what I was about to do, when we were hailed by a volunteer. Well, my mother was; I was ignored, because young people tend to become invisible when there’s a Responsible Older Adult in Charge present. She asked my mother which her electorate was, and then whipped out a shiny how-to-vote flyer. ‘You put a 1 next to [the Liberal candidate],’ she said.

‘If we want to vote Liberal,’ I put in, knowing that it’s against the rules for any polling place volunteer to tell you how to vote. Volunteers can quite honestly tell a voter ‘here’s what you do if you want to vote for the Liberals,’ just not ‘here’s how you vote’ without any specification as to party or whom they are representing. Now, that stirred the pot.

My mother, who grew up in a coercive political climate, said quite firmly that the volunteer oughtn’t tell us to vote a particular way. The volunteer said that she wasn’t, and, upon further objections, that she was a Liberal volunteer, and I responded by pointing out that she hadn’t told us that she was a volunteer for the Liberal Party, but had simply told us how to vote as though putting our names next to her candidate was the proper procedure. My mother added that many first time voters or those with language and communication difficulties would trust the volunteer and take her at her word that this was how one should go about voting. This, of course, is something that happens all the time.

At this stage, another person stepped up to us, put his hands on his hips, and said loudly that of course the volunteer was telling us how to vote Liberal as she was a Liberal volunteer. I pointed out that how she was going about that was against polling place rules, and, with more raised voices and threatening stances to hurry us on our way, my mother and I went to vote.

Afterwards, we complained to the polling place worker nearest us, and she directed us to the polling place manager, who is making an official complaint to the Liberal Party about voter intimidation. (It turns out that the loud hand-to-hips guy was a Liberal person, too.)

The thing is, for all those people know, my mother or I could have been going in there to vote Liberal. (I don’t actually know how my mother voted in the end; I consider one’s vote a private matter unless one volunteers the information, and so does she.) We could have been going in there to vote for Labor, or the Greens, or whomever. It doesn’t matter: it’s the principle. One should be allowed to cast one’s vote equitably, under fair conditions, without having been misled or intimidated into voting in a particular way. I would object to such shoddy practises as these even if I’d been told I had to vote for the Chally is Sexy, Clever, and Amazing Party, because my vote is my vote, and no one gets to tell me what to do with it. Even when it’s obvious which party is going to win, even in a safe seat. Under whatever circumstances.

I really hope that such practices of coercion, misinformation, and voter intimidation are not the norm with the Liberal Party, or in Australia in general. I took so much pride when last (and first) I voted in being allowed to exercise my voting rights, hard won as they were by my foremothers. Those volunteers of all political stripes took just as much joy in me and my experience. I’m lucky to have the right to vote, and to know I’ll be safe when I vote, as threatening as that guy was. This was just a tiny taste of how cockiness about election results and some skirting of the electoral guidelines can leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth. And some doubts about how free and fair democratic elections can be.

Author: has written 142 posts for this blog.

Chally is a student by day, a freelance writer by night, a scary, scary feminist all the time, and a voracious reader whenever she has a spare moment. She also blogs at Zero at the Bone. Full bio here.
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29 Responses

  1. Beppie
    Beppie March 26, 2011 at 11:48 pm |

    Yeah, I have heard stories of people using such dodgy practices when handing out how-to-vote materials for a party, going back since before I was born.

    I’ve handed out HTV at federal elections before, and I’m always very careful to identify which party I’m supporting (ie, stating the party name when I offer a HTV card), and I’m also very careful not to force a HTV on people who don’t want them. I HATE it when the volunteers shove the cards into the hands of people who clearly don’t want them.

    Fortunately, I have always found the volunteers at my local polling place to be very friendly and upfront — there is a mutual respect between people representing all parties. Yesterday, I spoke to one of the Labor volunteers that I’ve met on previous election days, and I expressed concern that he might have been harassed due to Labor’s unpopularity at the moment, but he said that everyone had been polite to him, and that he’d had a very positive experience that was in keeping with the spirit of democracy. So that made me happy. :)

  2. elizabeth_d
    elizabeth_d March 26, 2011 at 11:50 pm |

    Ugh, I’m sorry. I’m certainly hope those volunteers *didn’t* end up misleading anyone in the election.

  3. Jadey
    Jadey March 27, 2011 at 12:05 am |

    Let’s start the Chally is Sexy Clever and Amazing Party

    Best. Tag. Ever. I would vote for this party, given the opportunity.

    I have not experienced voter intimidation personally – where I have lived (couple of different places in Canada), there’s not a lot of drive to vote among a lot of us (and, yeah, that includes me – I got disillusioned by disappointing candidate after disappointing candidate. But we just called a new federal election and this time I might actually vote for a person instead of spoiling the ballot!). But if I’m correct, in Australia there is mandatory voting? I think this came up in another thread. So I can imagine there’s a far greater push to manipulate people at the polls. Yech.

  4. Xenu01
    Xenu01 March 27, 2011 at 12:07 am |

    Nice. Love the ‘splaining when you and your mom called her out, btw. Why can’t people just say, “Hey, I made a mistake and I’m sorry” sometimes?

  5. Li
    Li March 27, 2011 at 12:13 am |

    Chally: “we don’t know what Labor’s plans are, so don’t give them too much power”

    I assume here you mean the Liberals, rather than Labor?

    My voting experience was better this election than at the last federal election, though there was again a group of four Liberal Party volunteers, all of whom were tall and broad-shouldered young men, at my polling place who were standing in a close row and moved very close to me (within about half an arms length) as I walked past. Fortunately there was no queue this year so I could walk straight past them and didn’t have to stand next to them for an extended period, as I had to during the federal election.

    Other than that, I’ve found polling place volunteers, of all political stripes, to be fairly friendly and professional at my polling place, which is in the inner west of sydney.

  6. Laurie
    Laurie March 27, 2011 at 12:35 am |

    Sorry it was like that. Good on you for reporting it as well!

    I never take the HTV cards from anyone, a polite ‘No, thanks, I’ll be right’ usually stops them. Though I do see people saying oh just put so and so at the top and that makes me sad because as you said – some people for various reason will do just that.

    I was surprised the same exclusion zone for federal elections wasn’t present in the state elections. Isnt it like 40 metres or more? I might just right a letter to the new member about that (my electorate went Labor to Nationals).

  7. alynn
    alynn March 27, 2011 at 12:45 am |

    I can only speak for the two states I’ve votes in here in the US, but all of it has been very strict about making the polling location totally nonpartisan…like to the point of asking voters to put their political buttons in their pockets until they’re outside. I thought it was a bit much, but I suppose I prefer it over the alternative.

  8. Jamie
    Jamie March 27, 2011 at 1:10 am |

    I have been an Australian citizen for about 4 or 5 years now, and lived here twice as long, and it UTTERLY breaks my brain that the Liberal party is conservative.

    Can’t we get them for false advertising, or something?

  9. Li
    Li March 27, 2011 at 1:19 am |

    Well, to be fair, the Liberal party’s name refers to the ideology of liberalism, which was never really as associated with the left here in the way that it is in the United States. Whether or not the Liberal party really follows liberal political philosophy anymore is another matter entirely.

    It doesn’t help that they tend to run in coalition with the National party, who are economic nationalists and tend to advocate for massive protectionism and subsidy for agricultural industries, which is pretty much as un-liberal an economic policy as you can get.

  10. tree
    tree March 27, 2011 at 1:45 am |

    ugh, how awful. all the volunteers at our polling place tend to wear t-shirts with their party on them, i’ve noticed. though i never take the HTV cards anyway. it’s such a waste of paper, but at least they have recycling bins now.

    i too live in a safe liberal seat and there were two sets of volunteers for us this time. one at the entrance of the parking lot and another further up the walkway. the first set got a “not really” when they asked if we wanted an HTV card, but i’m afraid i could only manage “god, no” for the second. i was not prepared for the dual attack!

  11. Magpie
    Magpie March 27, 2011 at 1:58 am |

    When my parents handed out HTV at a small country school, the three parties’ volunteers shared chairs, umbrellas and lunch, and handed out each others cards when anyone needed a break. My friend finds HTV cards useful because he is illiterate. He doesn’t like to say so and usually folds up his vote without writing anything, but a couple of times he really wanted to vote for a paticular party or candidate, I voted early and brought him home a card to study up and copy.

  12. Claire N
    Claire N March 27, 2011 at 2:28 am |

    Your mama is a BAMF.

    Also yeah Liberals are like that. Every single last one of them. Especially the Young Liberals.

    Kisses to any of you Liberals there!

    Actually I was purposefully rude to the Liberal person who tried to hand me the HTV. They have no business being in my electorate.

    I’m only half joking btw.

  13. Raine
    Raine March 27, 2011 at 2:34 am |

    I also had an annoying experience when i went to vote yesterday.
    I waited until about 4.30pm becasue I hate crowds and as I walked towards my local polling place I saw the person who was handing out the paper for the party i was intending to vote for.
    As I made a b line for her and was just about to grab the correct paper, another woman shoved a paper in my hand. I stopped and looked at it and said “what party is this for?” She said told me and I shoved it back at her with a resounding “NO Thanks” Then contiuned to the other woman who smiled as she handed me the Htv. God they are so pushy! And I am a mature and active woman with a very determined look that wont stop for anyone, least of all a bunle of paper that just polutes the environment.
    Happy thats over for a while.

  14. cat
    cat March 27, 2011 at 2:48 am |

    In the US, Dems and repubs are vicious towards each other (and some members of their own parties), but they are even more vicious against third party candidates. Lying about polling places, felony laws, poll closing times, and the ability to not vote straight ticket. Clearing voting machines before the third party votes are recorded. Having an “accidental” mistake where the two school board choices cannot be placed for the two women of color running simultaneous, on machines in three different polling places (those were even their own party members). Throwing a seat on a city council seat to a repub by taking one dem’s ballot petitions and giving them to the guy running against the green. Volunteer for one third party campaign and you will be jaded for life by the horrors you will see spew forth from the dems as well as the repubs.

    Luckily, as a university student, I vote via absentee ballot and avoid some of the evil.

  15. asinknits
    asinknits March 27, 2011 at 4:31 am |

    My friend was handing out for the Greens in Lidcombe. There were these people who were handing out for an independent candidate who were butting in on her every time she tried to talk to someone, but when she (in exasperation) did the same they called her rude!

    There are some rude people who hand out on election day. I would like to think that people would decide not to vote for candidates with rude hander outerers, but I am not sure if that is true!

  16. Ariane
    Ariane March 27, 2011 at 4:33 am |

    I was about to say that I think they should make HTV cards illegal, until I read Magpie’s comment (another case of forgetting that the whole world isn’t just like me), so I’ll amend it to say that I think they should add a photo of the lower house candidates and/or the logos of the parties they represent, with an icon for independents to assist those who don’t read English well/at all. And then ban HTV cards. They’re misleading and unnecessary – way too many people think they have to vote according to them, and so have their amazing right to allocate their own preferences taken from them.

  17. kayloulee
    kayloulee March 27, 2011 at 4:53 am |

    By and large the party volunteers at my booth were reasonably courteous, if a bit tense, because Marrickville is such a marginal seat. That said, for nearly every election I’ve voted in (excepting the 2007 federal election), I’ve been voting postal or absentee, so I have a ready-made excuse for putting them off. HTV volunteers just jump away when you say that you’re voting absentee!

    The only electoral harassment I’ve ever experienced was actually during the Uni of Sydney Union board and SRC electoral campaigns. It’s practically impossible to get anywhere during those elections because the volunteers crowd everywhere that’s a bottleneck so they can badger you on your way to class. I actually got chased down Eastern Avenue last year by a guy I had the dubious pleasure of knowing in first year, because he was campaigning for someone or other.

  18. Nahida
    Nahida March 27, 2011 at 8:58 am |

    It’s amazing you were able to explain all that so calmly. I’m certain I would have been cussing at the top of my lungs.

  19. Nahida
    Nahida March 27, 2011 at 9:14 am |

    Also, I like the tags on this post. LOL!

  20. PrettyAmiable
    PrettyAmiable March 27, 2011 at 9:28 am |

    Thanks for the post Chally!

  21. Comrade Kevin
    Comrade Kevin March 27, 2011 at 9:36 am |

    This post resonates with me on lots of levels.

    I know that, even at 30, I look younger than I am. But I have consistently gotten commentary from poll workers along the lines of Is this your first time to vote?. No one fortunately has ever tried to be coercive regarding how I should vote, as is true in your situation, but where I grew up, most people were Republicans. I was one of the few Democrats.

    Automatic assumptions were made about me come primary time. One had to declare in which primary one would vote, signing one’s full name on either the Democratic or Republican list. I was once handed a Republican ballot automatically, because it was assumed that surely I’d want to vote GOP like almost everyone else. It may have been an oversight, but it still offended me deeply.

  22. Iany
    Iany March 27, 2011 at 10:00 am |

    This is the first time I’ve had an easy voting experience, the people handing out fliers were all nice and for once I was in the right electoral roll!

    For those used to the American system, our liberals are derived from a branch that emphasized economic liberalism. The social liberals within the movement kind of… carked it. American liberals seem to emphasize social liberalism but they both came from the same sort of “place”.

  23. Brigid Keely
    Brigid Keely March 27, 2011 at 3:08 pm |

    I’m used to that kind of behavior when voting in the USA. I’m really glad that our local polling place is not at all like that, though. We live in a very diverse neighborhood (a lot of Arabic/Middle Eastern, API, Latino, and Eastern European immigrants) and there was NO advertising or recommending or “helping” at the polling place, but there WERE translators in several languages.

  24. maja
    maja March 28, 2011 at 12:32 am |

    I agree with everything Claire N said!

    I’ve always ignored all the HTV people, unless I specifically want to know who the candidate I’m going to vote for is preferencing.

  25. April
    April March 28, 2011 at 10:31 pm |

    Nahida:
    It’s amazing you were able to explain all that so calmly. I’m certain I would have been cussing at the top of my lungs.

    Ditto. Like someone upthread mentioned, the polling places in the US (the ones I’ve voted in, anyway, which span across vastly different neighborhoods and areas with different majority ideology) tend to be so strictly non-partisan, that I’ve never once heard anyone even utter a preference for a candidate, let alone literally tell you who to vote for. I’m appalled, even knowing intellectually that this happens all over the place.

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