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.