Joseph Dunstan writes: Because I’m just a crazy 19-year-old kid who knows how to have a good time, I spent all of Saturday at my local polling station helping people vote.

There were several interesting experiences during the day, but one that stayed with me was this one while I was working as a declaration officer (the person who helps people from other regions vote). An impatient man came up to vote.

Me: Good morning! (I was perhaps excessively cheery)

Man: Hi.

Me: Are you an absent voter?

Man: Yeh.

Me: Ok, then great, can I have your surname?

Man: Surname.

I then plugged in the details and got all the information and we filled out the form. Once I had filled it out, I issued him with his ballot papers and gave the voting spiel.

Man: …who should I vote for?

Me: I can’t tell you who to vote for – just try to allocate your preferences to the parties or candidates who you would most like to represent you in the Victorian parliament. There’s a polling booth just here, so if you pop over and fill it out then bring it back here I’ll put in the envelope and you’ll be done.

Man: Ahh…f*** that. I’ll just do ’em here.

He proceeds to open his ballot papers on the table and fill the numbers randomly.

Man: Whatever…f*** it…done.

He then folded his papers and gave them to me.

Man: Cheers.

Exit man.

While this was perhaps the most striking example of voters I encountered who were disinterested in their vote and the potential it had to affect governance in Victoria, it was certainly not a unique attitude.

Many of the people who were eligible for provisional votes (that is to say, they were not listed on the electoral role, usually due to a change of address, but were able to enrol and vote if they filled out a five minute form) quickly decided that the wait was too much, and left with a “nah I’m right”.

Democracy is such a difficult form of governance. Ostensibly, it gives everyone an equal opportunity to vote and have their opinion taken into account when government is formed.

But this idealistic (yet incredibly attractive) view does not always acknowledge the complications of this equation. And they are largely complications which seem to revolve around the central quest of human beings to reason, rationalise, and make sense of the world around them:

Information: Voters are attempting to make a decision based on news headlines, announcements made by politicians to garner their votes, and bullet points on policy announcements. Whilst the bullet points may be most useful, often voters have to really chew through carefully worded arguments and positions to gain a comprehensive understanding of what is being proposed. Obtaining a clear understanding of the policy options available and the issues they address is an uphill battle.

Irrationality: Human beings are powerfully swayed by emotive and irrational arguments. So then do elections become something decided on by the ‘vibe’, or the power of the narrative being sold by a particular party? After all, no voter needs to justify their choice – and the idea of forcing people to justify their vote is one that goes against free speech and the right to vote anonymously and without judgement or repercussions.

Lack of interest: We have compulsory voting in Australia. Yet there are many citizens who are disengaged from Australian politics. These people then must go and vote. They have little incentive or desire to go on fact-seeking missions, and so their voting decisions may reflect no more than a whim on the day.

I’m not writing this because I think we need to radically alter or destroy the democratic system we have today.

But I do think that we need to be much more cautious when throwing around populist phrases that evoke the idea of a coherent message, such as “the Victorian people have voted and what they have said is clear”.

Such an approach to the aftermath of elections fails to even hint at the complicated and messy process of voting. It seems to assume that voters were all responding in a logical or at least explicable way to the political situation. Often, if a party has lost or gained favour, it will be directly linked to that party’s actions – a surprise swing can be explained by the charismatic nature of a politician despite competency issues, or vice versa, the unpopular leader may have survived due to a policy success

It is tempting and innately human to attempt to draw links between actions and consequences. And a narrative that describes voting outcomes as largely decided by political action gives democracy the reassuring appearance of an efficient system. But I can’t help but feel that ‘the people’ rarely know what they want, and we all just muddle our way through as we vote, describe and explain Australian democracy.

But what would I know?

I’m just a regular voter.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.