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Worn and wasted by election day shambles



6am: The alarm rattles through my dream state, violently. I press snooze, times three.

Counting ballot papers6.27: I crawl out of bed, pour steaming water over coffee beans and step into the hot shower.

6.45: Half dressed (in just two of the final four layers of my outfit, thank you Melbourne winter), I shove pre-prepared boxes of ambitiously healthy food into a canvas bag: chia pudding, a stingy health-food version of 'massaman', perverted by its lack of potatoes and its black rice instead of white.

6.51: I arrive at the polling place and begin 'looking busy', i.e. poke at boxes. Someone hands me a purple bib, sighing.

7.15: Unsure whether I am 'allowed' to do this or that, as in, help myself to a cup of instant coffee, I make one anyway and feel the wrath of my superego reign on me.

In ten hours' time, my well-trained worker body and its naïve devotion to authority will be replaced by a will to survive. I will snatch handfuls of other people's junk food in the kitchenette during my break, my watchful eyes not straying from the door.

7.30: The OIC makes a dramatic speech about the integrity of live ballot papers, that there will be no repeat of the Western Australian kerfuffle, that we have our booklets that contain all the answers (and many typos, too). He seems nice. Maybe a little skittish. Not someone I'd imagine would be hired to run an office or manage a kitchen or even wait tables, but he must know what he's doing.

This speech is the last demonstration of authority I witness on this day.


"A glamorous woman in a pink sports coat sardonically asks if she's allowed to stop voting now that she's 70. You can stop voting, I say, when you are dead."


7.50: Counting ballot papers before the voters enter, I discover I am not a gifted counter. I suspect I might be mildly dyslexic which seems like a bad deal for a writer slash editor, but here we are, stacks of 50 coming up as 49 then 51. I decide that accuracy is more important than speed, slow it down. Fifty. A hundred. Two hundred.

8am: The morning smokers are at the front of the early-bird queue and their whiff and their jitters, their sense that they have to be somewhere else urgently, makes me forget my words. Within 15 minutes, though, I am a master, the master, of voting instructions. I add my own flourishes, including the word 'thereafter', which I mix up with 'after that', depending on my audience.

8.15-6pm: A ten-hour blur of jazz-ballet smiles and the same three sentences, on repeat.

I wonder how on earth the residents with little to no English, those whose dutiful children are not there to assist them, are expected to fully participate in this civic right. There are no LOTE instructions on the ballot papers.

More than one voter whose English is spare asks me how to vote Liberal, since the Liberal Party are not present at the polling place (in a safe Labor seat) nor did they leave how-to-vote cards. I explain as best I can that I can't inform them how to vote, I can only assist them in filling out the form according to their instructions.

A very glamorous woman in a pink sports coat that matches her lipstick sardonically asks if she's allowed to stop voting now that she's 70. You can stop voting, I say, when you are dead. And while her time on this earth is probably, frankly, not going to be severely impacted on by whether a centre-right conservative or far-right conservative party leads the Australian bureaucracy, her mood of weariness, of frustration, and of dark humour becomes an emblem of the election.

I notice that all the voters under 30 offer me their drivers' licences before they cast their vote. Maybe it's because they haven't voted so many times, but I presume that it's rather because they are used to presenting legal identification every time they go out for a beer. I consider faking my death so that I can start a new, unserveilled life.

6pm: The scrutineers arrive for the Lower House count. Three from the Greens — earnest young lawyers with guilty-looking consciences, three from Labor — two of them straight and narrow young men and a middle-aged woman who enjoys a chat, and another one from I don't know and don't ask. The performativity of their scruples betrays their interest in advancing their parties. We count, we deliberate on strangely formed numbers. We settle. They leave.

And then we drag the enormous Senate papers into piles spread out across the hall, and we await instructions, but the 'in charges' are, as it turns out, as clueless as us, so we wait a few hours more, and it's nearly midnight, and I consider that it might be an unpopular proposal, but perhaps the military could run the election next time. Or maybe retired secretaries or air traffic controllers, people who know, really know about organisation, and one of the girls I'm counting with adds up the hours we've worked and the flat rate we are to be paid and she says she gets more per hour working at K-Mart. A friend texts asking if I am ever getting out of there and I don't know, I just don't.

12.15: We are told we can leave so I go to Notturno's on Lygon with my friend because their kitchen is open practically all the time and I drink reconstituted OJ and we share a greasy pizza and I admit my feeling of ambivalence about Australian democracy and my guilt for that, too.


Ellena SavageEllena Savage is Editor at The Lifted Brow, and is undertaking a PhD in creative writing at Monash University.

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, Australian Election Commission, voting, Election 2016



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Existing comments

"... her mood of weariness, of frustration, and of dark humour becomes an emblem of the election"... Indeed. Thanks for this refreshing and sobering insight, Ellena.

Armen Gakavian | 08 July 2016  

Great description of the experience, Ellena! I laughed right through it, with what must be the universal recognition of all present and past employees of the AEC and its sidekicks, Still, it's an eye-opening encounter with the reality of compulsory voting, which has to be lived to be believed! Makes you think twice about the validity of the eventual results, with people turning up having no idea of what they are doing. But it beats the US, and the places where no voting rights exist. So I heartily recommend it for those who as yet haven't signed up for election work.

Patsy Crotty | 08 July 2016  

You have expressed very well my feelings of exhaustion and frustration from working on a local polling booth. It will probably be my last time, even though it wasn't my first. I just don't think it's worth it. It seemed to me to be the most poorly run election from the point of view of facilitating the process for the voters. The delays were unprecedented I think.

Christopher | 11 July 2016  

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