We should rejoice in our ability to vote free of interference or suppression

A voter fills out their ballot at Pilgrim House during early voting before the ACT election. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
A voter fills out their ballot at Pilgrim House during early voting before the ACT election. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

From 10am on Wednesday, we will be able to watch a drama unfold.

At that moment, voting will cease on the east coast of the United States, and some indication of the outcome of the presidential election will start to emerge.

As we go about our business through the day, we may glance down at our phones and up at our screens and reflect on why we should rejoice in our good fortune to live in an Australian democracy.

We might reflect on how differently the recent ACT election was conducted, compared with the divisive process the Americans have just undergone.

In Canberra, voting was orderly and undisputed. Elections ACT was a model of clarity and openness in the way it supervised the vote.

This isn't just a matter of scale. Of course, it's easier to organise an election in a city of one-third of a million people than it is in a country with 328 million.

The real difference is in the attitude towards democracy.

In Australia, it is very hard not to vote. Voting is compulsory, of course, but it's also that the authorities make every effort to ensure that voting is easy.

Because of the pandemic and people's reasonable fear of crowds, early voting was enabled for three weeks before the election. Opening hours were extended.

In Australia, the aim is to make voting easier.

Contrast that with the other election, where that chilling euphemism "voter suppression" is in common use.

"Voter suppression" is an anodyne way of describing denying votes to poor people, particularly poor black people. It is a corruption of democracy.

In Australia, the lawyers are usually inactive during elections. Lawyers need disputes, and elections don't routinely provide them.

In the United States, the meters in the law offices have been whirring away, ticking up the dollars. And they look set to gather speed beyond next week.

In Ohio and Texas, for example, there have been disputes involving Republican officials who ordered that there should be only one box in each county to drop off a vote before the big day.

As The Washington Post put it: "It didn't matter whether the number of registered voters was 858,000, as in Cuyahoga County, or 8000, as in rural Noble County." In Ohio, it was one box for Cleveland where poor people live and one for thinly populated, well-heeled rural counties.

In the end, the matter went to court and the Ohio official was overruled, but it took a mighty effort. In Texas, the state supreme court ruled for the limit.

The techniques of "voter suppression" are many. Some states insist on photo ID, but poor voters are less likely to own cars and so are less likely to have the obvious means of identifying themselves - a driver's licence.

The historian Carol Anderson has documented the techniques: "If you're poor and you're in Alabama and you're over 50, you probably weren't born in a hospital, which means you don't have a birth certificate.

"You didn't need to have that to vote before, but now you do."


She says: "In 2016, there were 868 fewer polling places across the country, and most of those were shut down in minority and poor neighbourhoods in the south."

It is part of a long and dishonourable tradition going back to segregation, when black people had to take literacy tests before being allowed to register to vote.

Or tests with impossible answers: I once talked to a black lady in the deep south who could remember being asked how many bubbles there were in a bar of soap. She didn't know the answer because there is no answer - and she was blocked from registering to vote.

So on Wednesday, gaze in wonder at American democracy, at its glorious side and its dark aspects.

Think of America as the "shining city on the hill" of the nation's founders (and of Ronald Reagan, no less).

But remember, too, the lines of black people waiting to vote because not enough easy ways to vote have been organised in their areas.

We should do two things. The first is to weep at the chipping away of democracy and rejoice that it doesn't happen here.

The second is to hope that the corrosion isn't terminal.

  • Steve Evans is a reporter at The Canberra Times. As a BBC correspondent, he followed George W. Bush on the campaign trail in 2004.
This story We should rejoice in our ability to vote free of interference or suppression first appeared on The Canberra Times.