There are a lot of similarities to voting in Australia compared to the US. Most importantly, though, are a few differences that we should seriously consider adopting. Let me explain.
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) manages and regulates all federal, state, and local elections. Australia has a mild two-party system with two dominant groups. One of the primary groups is the Australian Labor Party (ALP), which is center-left and the oldest political party in Australia. The ALP is comparable to the Democratic Party in the US.
The Liberal/National Coalition is the other primary party. It is a center-right partnership between the Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia since they share many common political ideals. In some states, such as Queensland, the two parties merged to form a single party called the Liberal National Party (LNP). Both the Liberal/National Coalition and the LNP are comparable to the Republican Party in the US.
States and Territories:
Just like the US, Australia has both states and territories; just not nearly as many. Even though Australia is about the same geographical size as the contiguous States, there are only six states and two territories. For example, Queensland is the size of 2.5 Texas'. The states are New South Wales (NSW), Queensland (Qld), Victoria (Vic), South Australia (SA), Western Australia (WA), and Tasmania (Tas). The territories are the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and the Northern Territory (NT). The Australian territories are not part of any state. Unlike a state, territories do not have legislations to create laws for themselves, so they rely on the federal government to create and approve the laws. Territories are not claimed by any state so the Australian Parliament directly controls them.
That's right. Voting in Australia is compulsory for everyone 18 years of age and older. And if you don't vote, the AEC will send you a penalty notice, which requires you to provide an authorized reason for not voting and a $20 fee. If you don't pay the fee or provide a reason for not voting, you'll have to appear in court. The AEC provides mobile polling services for hospitals, prisons (for those with sentences of 3 years or less), and remote parts of Australia. Additionally, postal votes and early votes are permitted in some situations. Since making the voting process compulsory and accessible, voter turnout has never been below 90% and typically around 95%. Did you know that only 19 countries worldwide have compulsory voting?
Australia uses a preferential voting process where voters are asked to number the candidates for each position according to their preference. Governments that use preferential voting tend to see donkey votes, which are ballots where voters number the candidates in order of how they are listed on the ballot. In other words, a voter simply starts with #1 for the first candidate, #2 for the second candidate, and so on with no regard to who they are. Donkey votes are most common where preference voting is combined with compulsory voting, such as in Australia.
A small number of ballots may be blank or filled in improperly. They are pulled as "informal" ballots. Due to the uncertainty of a donkey voter's intention, donkey votes are not thrown out. Australia has reduced the number of donkey votes through increased voter education, adding party affiliation logos next to candidates' names, and randomly listing candidates on the ballot rather than in alphabetical order.
Always on Saturday:
Not all state and local elections are held on the same date in Australia. They are, however, always held on a Saturday. Obviously, there are some folks who work on Saturdays, but a significant percentage of working-age voters can and do have Saturday free. This prompted me to find out exactly why the US insists on holding major elections on a Tuesday in November...
November was chosen because it is after the harvest season but before the start of severe winter weather. Tuesday was chosen as Election Day so that voters could attend church on Sunday, travel to the polling location (usually in the county seat) on Monday, and vote before Wednesday, which was usually when farmers would sell their produce at the market. In 1845, US Election Day was determined to be on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Louisiana is the only state to hold de-facto general elections on Saturdays.
Perhaps, the US should consider re-establishing an Election Day according to a more modern world lifestyle. Surely, we have the technology, commerce, and transportation necessary to move away from the antiquated system we currently follow. Sort of like upgrading from a horse-drawn carriage to an automobile with a gasoline combustion engine.
Polling Places & Activities:
Most polling places are schools, community halls or churches. Supporters of these places very commonly take advantage of the large number of visitors undertaking fundraising activities, often including raffles, cake stalls and sales of democracy sausages.
I think the US could really learn a few things from Australia when it comes to voting; compulsory voting for higher voter turnout, Saturday Election Days, and turn it into a party.
Election Day should be a day of patriotic celebration, not coerced polling. And what better way to celebrate than with baked goods and grilled democracy sausages.
Perhaps the US could celebrate Election Day with American Apple Pie.