Memories of a Booth Worker

In a previous post about the election, I mentioned the people you see at the polling place handing out How-to-Vote cards. What kind of people give up their Saturday to do this seemingly boring and thankless job?

A long time ago, in a suburb far, far away from here, I was one of those people. I can’t recall exactly when I first did it but it would have been some time in the 1980s and as surprising as it may seem today I did it for the Liberal Party. I was a Liberal voter in those days and for a few years even a member of the party. In my defence, they were not such a right-wing party then as they are today.

I think that the first time I helped out was outside of my own electorate, the mother of a friend of mine was involved in the party and she asked or maybe I offered to help out on election day. Prior to 1984, the names of political parties did not appear on ballot papers so it actually was useful to have a card to look at if you were not certain who some of the candidates were.

I have to admit I was a bit apprehensive about it the first time I went but I found that it was mostly a positive experience every time I did it and not always for the reason you might expect.

Liberal How-to-Vote, Divisions of Melbourne and Melbourne Ports
It was quite interesting to see how people would react as they arrived at the polling place. Some made it quite obvious who they were voting for or who they were not voting for by their treatment of the volunteers. Some would very pointedly refuse to take a card from one party or make a big deal of taking one from another. Others would hurry past trying not to make eye contact with any of us. Some people would take a card from everyone, either to be polite or so there would be no clue to their intentions, while others would politely refuse, saying that they had brought one from home or that they already knew how they were voting. The vast majority of them were civil, at least in my experience. I don’t know if other volunteers had people who were rude to them. I daresay it did happen. Although people were not as waste conscious back then quite a few did come back to us after voting and return the cards to be reused rather than throwing them away.

During the 1990s I worked at my local polling booth in Hallett Cove a couple of times. That was always interesting because I would see people I knew. I never made a big issue of my political leanings so probably seeing me there wearing blue was the first time some of them knew which way I voted. The only negative experience from those years was actually not at the polls but when  I was letterbox dropping for a local candidate that David and I knew quite well. A workmate of David’s who lived near us commented that he was surprised that David let me volunteer for the Liberal party. I was more offended that he thought that my husband had a right to tell me who I should support. David put him straight about that anyway.
Labor How-to-Vote, Division of Melbourne

One of the things that I did not expect was that the volunteers who were working for the different candidates would get along so well together. The two larger parties usually had a team of volunteers that changed throughout the day but the smaller ones often only had one or two people. Sometimes when those people took a break they would leave their box of voting cards unattended but one of the volunteers from the other parties would nearly always point it out to incoming voters in case they wanted one.

It was a friendly atmosphere, a bit of good-natured banter but also some good discussions between opposing factions which never got nasty. I enjoyed listening in on those.  One of my favourite memories is from that first time. It was a wet miserable day and a couple of the people handing out the Labor cards decided to get some hot chips which they shared with my friend and me.  Maybe it was because we were young but it was a nice gesture.

I found this photo online showing a group shot of volunteers from each party at a Victorian polling place during the 2016 election so it seems that it’s not so uncommon even today.

Group photo: ALP, Greens, Liberal and AJP booth workers with Liberal candidate Kevin Hong - Fawkner #Wills2016 #Ausvotes
Group photo: ALP, Greens, Liberal and AJP booth workers with Liberal candidate Kevin Hong – Fawkner #Wills2016 #Ausvotes Photo by John Englart (Takver) sourced from Flickr Attribution CC BY- SA 2.0

At the end of the day, you hoped your candidate would win but aside from the feeling of being a part of something I also felt hopeful that if we, the rank and file, could see the other’s point of view then maybe the politicians could as well. Some do, there are politicians who will put party politics aside to work for the greater good but sadly these days not as much as they should.

Further Reading:

Elections Australian Style

I thought that as a lot of people who read this blog live outside Australia it might be interesting to know how our voting process works. If this sort of thing bores you tears feel free not to read it.

With our federal election only three weeks away the political material has started to land in the letterbox. Of course, we’ve been deluged with advertising on television and on the internet for some time and in the case of the United Australia Party, long before the election was even called.

Today’s haul was a flyer from the local Labor candidate, an application for a postal vote courtesy of the Liberal candidate and a letter from the Australian Electoral Commission to remind me of when and how to vote.  This one is actually useful, not for me because I know all this already but for new voters, it has a helpful explanation of what happens when you go to the polls and how to fill out the ballot papers correctly.

I did want to find out where the local polling place would be, it is usually at the Geeveston Primary School. In fact when the election was announced the first thing that we Op Shop volunteers discussed was having the shop open on election day. Who doesn’t love a captive audience? Occasionally the polling place is at the community hall instead but I was able to check on the AEC website. The school has better parking and it’s always available on a Saturday, the day we vote.

Polling station
The letter has a step by step guide to what happens from when voters arrive at the polling place. First, it says that you may be approached by representatives of the various candidates who will offer to give you How-To-Vote cards. It goes on to say that nobody is obliged to take these or follow the instructions on them. In fact,  there is a rule that no canvassing is allowed within six metres of the entrance to the polling place. That means no signs, buttons or badges are permitted in that area and that the canvassers must make sure that they are the proper distance from the entrance. When they go inside to the polling booths they have to remove any party insignia they may be wearing, or cover it up if it’s a T-Shirt I guess. It doesn’t mention it in the letter but once you have negotiated the political canvassers you may have the opportunity to buy a sausage on a slice of bread, a cake or any other kind of fundraising item that local community groups may be selling.

2016 Australian Election - BBQ
Democracy at work.
Once inside the building the first thing that happens is that you have your name and address checked off by workers from the AEC. They will then ask if you have voted previously in this election. That always used to amuse me when I arrived to vote at 8am when the polls opened but these days as so many more people vote early it’s a valid question. I remember how the workers would search for our names in great big books. I’d always have to spell my first name out as it is unusual and there are two or three different ways of spelling my surname too.  I think that the last time I voted they had tablets. Once this has been done they will give you your ballot papers. In this case a big white one for the Senate or Upper House and a smaller green one for the House of Representatives, the lower house. If you are lucky there will be empty booths and you won’t have to wait. I guess many countries have these cardboard booths for privacy. Then the real fun begins as you fill out your ballot papers. Although voting is compulsory in Australia technically once your name has been checked off the electoral rolls you are considered to have cast your vote. If you really don’t want to vote you could leave your papers blank or write some slogan on them making them invalid and you won’t get into trouble. It’s a secret ballot, who would know?  Still, as I always say, if you can’t be bothered to vote you have no right to complain about the outcome. So go ahead and fill out those papers.

Hor ballot paper.gif
CC BY 3.0, Link

Australia has a preferential voting system but it differs from that of other countries. The system works like this.

The essence of preferential voting is that voters number candidates on the ballot paper in a rank order of choice. You put the number 1 next to your first choice candidate, 2 next to your second choice, and so on. If your first choice candidate is not elected and no candidate receives half of the vote, your vote may be re-examined for its next preference. The point of the system is to elect the most preferred candidate, to choose the candidate that can build an absolute majority of support in the electorate rather than the simple majority required under first past the post voting.

If you are interested in such things I’ll include a couple of links at the end of this post explaining the history of our system and how it compares with some other countries.  Parties do deals with other parties to allocate preferences but as stated you don’t have to follow the instructions on any party’s How-to-Vote card, it’s perfectly OK to number the boxes in any order you wish and still valid as long as you number every box on the green paper and the correct number on the white one.


The Senate system is a little different as you can choose to vote “above the line” or “below the line”.  Each state has twelve Senators and the two territories the ACT and NT have two each. Senators are elected for a fixed six-year term so normally you are only voting for half of them at any one time. Occasionally, in certain circumstances, the whole Senate is dissolved early,  this is called a double dissolution. That means that the Senate ballot paper has a lot more names on it as each party will nominate multiple candidates plus there are more minor parties and independents who run for the Senate. Voting above the line means that all you have to do is number the parties in the order you prefer. If you vote below the line you are voting for individual candidates. You have more control over where your preferences go but you will have to number a lot more boxes, the sample I received specified a minimum of twelve boxes must be numbered. Of course, you are free to number the lot if you like. I usually do. The 2016 federal election was a double dissolution election and it was the biggest ballot paper I had ever seen. I think there were about 58 names on it. I think that in NSW and Victoria they had even more.

Another fun fact and again I don’t know if this happens elsewhere, the names on the ballot papers are not in alphabetical order but decided by random draw.

Lastly, if you can’t make it to the polling place on election day there are several options. You are allowed to vote outside your own electorate if you are away from home.  You go to a polling place and ask for an absent vote, I don’t know if that is the right name for it. In 1990 a federal election was called just before David and I went overseas. We went to Australia House in London to cast our votes. I am not sure if you can still do that though.   Postal votes have been around for a very long time too, but increasingly people are able to go to a pre-polling place and cast their vote before the election.  This used to be just for people who might be away or in hospital on election day but although you are required to give a reason why you need to vote early the AEC does not really seem to check. On the other hand, if you forget to vote you will get a “Please explain” letter from them and if they don’t like your excuse you could receive a fine.

The AEC also visits hospitals and nursing homes allowing people to cast their vote there if attending a polling place is not an option. This is also helpful for staff in these places who may find it difficult to get to the polls in time.

So for those of you who have a different method of voting or maybe have never exercised your right to vote that’s how we do it Aussie style.


The Democratic Sausage

Update: Shortly after I wrote this piece I found this article online. Some commenters remarked that they had not heard the term Democracy Sausage before and I confess that I picked it up from the Facebook poster who inspired me to write this post. However, our love of sausage sizzles on election day cannot be questioned.


Here in Tasmania, we have local government elections this month. This is particularly interesting for us in the Huon Valley as for the past couple of years we’ve had no elected councilors and the area has been run by an Administrator. This was due to problems with the previous council that ended up in all the council members being dismissed by the state government. Naturally, there is a high level of interest in this election and although voting is not compulsory we’re expecting there will be a high percentage of votes returned.

This will be a postal vote so no need to physically go to the polls and on one of the many local social media forums I’ve been following someone remarked that he was disappointed that he would not get to enjoy his democratic sausage on election day.

So what is the Democratic Sausage? I have no idea what happens in other countries but here in Australia voting normally takes place at a local school, church, hall or other public building. Elections are held on a Saturday so it is a great opportunity for community fundraising.

Democracy Sausage
Where David and I used to live in Adelaide our nearest polling booth was at the local school. Whenever there was an election the school would hold a sausage sizzle and sometimes there would be cakes and handcrafts for sale as well. As voting is compulsory here in Australia, except for local government, everyone eligible has to turn up to vote at some point. Getting a sausage on a piece of bread with onion and tomato sauce somehow makes the experience less of a chore and more of a Saturday morning outing for the family. It’s also a nice little earner for the school, church, sporting club or charity so on election day the smell of barbecued sausages and onions wafts all over the country.

Our Op Shop in Geeveston is in the grounds of the local primary school and we always try to open the shop one Saturday a month for people who can’t make it on weekdays. Last time there was a state election and we found out that the school would be the polling booth we knew that was the day to open the shop.

Outside the Op Shop

So if your local community has a fundraiser at a polling booth I recommend that you go along. You can exercise your right to vote, catch up with friends and neighbours and enjoy the Democratic Sausage. What could be better?