One of the biggest culture shocks for me as an Australian living (some of the time) in the USA is voting. Every election year I’ve been here there have been voter intimidation and fraud scandals. Maybe I missed it, but that does not happen at home. Not every single election.

Seems to me that the aim in the US is to make voting as difficult as possible. Why? I don’t get it. I’ve had friends disallowed to vote because the official said they had the wrong ID. It didn’t exactly match the name on the voter rolls. As in, their driver’s license had their middle name spelled out in full, “Rachel”, but the voter roll had just a middle initial, “R”. I’ve heard of all sorts of arcane local voting rules that are aimed solely at keeping people from voting.

I find it incomprehensible because I come from a country where voting is made as easy as possible. In fact, you get fined if you don’t vote. Back home there are no books teaching you how to avoid having your vote suppressed.

Also what’s with the voting day being a Tuesday and then that day not being declared a holiday? I know people who have a really hard time getting off work in order to vote. Sadly they live in areas where early voting isn’t possible.

And what’s with all the different areas of the US having different methods of voting? Paper ballots here, mechanical machines there, electronic machines way over there, and goat’s entrails in the hinterlands. Wouldn’t uniform voting laws across the country so that everyone casts their vote in the same way make a lot more sense?

Again. I just don’t get it. At home we have an independent electoral authority in charge of the whole thing. And, like I said we don’t have voting scandals every election.

A country that makes voting hard is making democracy hard. Voting isn’t just a right, it’s a duty.

So you don’t think I’m entirely down on the USian version of democracy here’s what I like about the US system:

Fixed terms.

Brilliant idea. I wish Australia did that. One person in power for more than eight years is a really bad idea.


  1. Malcolm Tredinnick on #

    I broadly agree with you (although I always feel that informed voting is a duty, and that’s not entirely encouraged by the Australian setup). However, there is an scale of economy and population issue at work. The US, to be fair, has been trying to make a bunch of the conditions uniform (e.g electronic voting and phasing out some of the funkier voting machine varieties), but each change requires testing and acceptance since problems do and will occur. Both testing and then nationwide roll, if you go that far, out is *expensive* (and, sure, something more like uniform paper ballots would be a reasonable first step, I completely agree). Somebody has to pay for it, and whilst that’s acknowledged, it’s always with the proviso that it’s pronounced “somebody else”.

    In general, yes, the US should get their stuff together. In practice, the logistics favour status quo over action and change, which is a huge disincentive.

    Finally, let’s not look down our noses too much at the voting conditions in the US, either. The last few federal elections here (in Oz) have involved tablecloth-sized Senate ballot papers. Not exactly grandma-friendly (when you can’t properly unfurl the ballot paper in the voting booth, something’s gone awry).

    (Occurs to me there’s also quite possibly a constitutional barrier to federalising election handling in the US: it’s not something explicitly mentioned in the constitution as falling under the federal government’s control and thereby falls to the states.)

  2. pixelfish on #

    I think I read somewhere that most countries also rely on the polls outside to determine if there’s been a major outbreak of fraud, and that if a country calls for it, they can have the UN monitor the voting. And there have been countries where their election results versus polls wasn’t as close as it was for us four years back….and they had redone elections with monitoring. But us, no, we muddle on through, possibly disenfranchising thousands of voters in one fell swoop.

    I know I’m nervous, because the boy and I ended up moving right about voter deadline time….so even though we mailed in our change-of-address forms and re-registered, we’re worried because we haven’t received our voter cards yet. 🙁

    Worse comes to worse, we’ll show up at the polling place, show our old IDs and new addresses….hopefully we’ll get to vote.

  3. Lori S. on #

    A country that makes voting hard is making democracy hard.

    Well, yes. Exactly.

  4. G on #

    I feel here that I need to point out that the US is a group of states united under Federal control with rights not specifically assigned remaining with the individual state. Speaking as someone who has always voted in NY, and in both parties, I can say that even from Germany, my many and myriad election officials have always been extremely helpful, that I have never been turned away, and that the lever voting machines we use (in State) are archaic and extremely accurate. The US needs to move to a system of national ID, like every other country I have ever been in, and then we should provide that when voting. Most of the problems would end there. I have never understood why folk have a problem with that solution. Does Australia have a national ID?

  5. Malcolm Tredinnick on #

    @G: No, Australia doesn’t have a national ID system, although there are plenty of proxies for it in the domains that need single registry (health care numbers, tax file numbers, drivers licenses for those that need to drive, passport numbers for those that need to cross international borders). Some organisations confuse some of those with a nationwide ID (grr … stupid places assuming I must have a drivers license!). There are periodically attempts to introduce a national ID, but there are a lot of arguments against the concept as well (many of them being raised in the UK over the past 24 months or so) and they aren’t really a pre-requisite for organised voting, so we fortunately manage to get by without a single point of failure for all identity security (why, yes, I am against the concept… how could you tell?).

  6. the dragonfly on #

    You’re not the only one. I don’t get it either, and I’ve lived in the US my whole life. (well, except the past two years when I’ve lived in Germany..)

    I’ve never understood why voting is so complicated, and why there isn’t a holiday for it, and why it’s different wherever you go, etc etc. I am, however, very thankful it was so easy for me to vote absentee. Send in the little postcard, open the ballot when it came, fill in the little circles, sign my name on the envelope, send the envelope back. Easy as pie.

  7. Tim on #

    *Insert joke about Sir Joh’s Queensland here*

    But in all seriousness:

    I’m quite fond of most aspects of Australia’s voting system. I know it’s a bit harder to register to vote than it was two years ago when I did it after completing Grade 12 (in fact a voter registration form came with my Gr12 results), but it still seems comparatively easier to vote in Australia than the US.

    I mean, I’m not sure if it’s the same in other states but last year when I voted I got a letter in the mail telling me which seat I was voting for, and was to be shown to the person at the desk wherever I decided to vote. I walked in, wrote down my preferences, put them in a box and went home. The biggest drama I’ve ever experienced when it comes to voting is when there’s a line for the sausage sizzle outside!

  8. Victoria Janssen on #

    I’m with you–11/4 should be a national holiday. But I wonder if people would still find ways to not vote? I bet there would be some. *sigh*

    I’ll be voting. Even if I have to get up extra early to do so.

  9. JS Bangs on #

    In our defense, I think that the voting scandals are overplayed by the media. I never heard about a one until the 2000 election, which was so close that both sides went out of their way to find evidence that they had really won. Since then I’ve heard about voting problems pretty regularly.

    Voting with a large populace is inherently error-prone, however. I don’t think that the USian system is really worse than the average, and I think that the problems we do have are exaggerated by media reporting.

  10. Rachel Brown on #

    I totally agree. I think it is the way it is because the people who control the country,* officially and unofficially, like it that way because the fewer people vote, the harder it is to throw out the bastards and make some real changes.

    *government, big business, the military-industrial complex, etc. Maybe lizard-aliens too, who knows.

  11. Electric Landlady on #

    Speaking as a Canadian, I totally agree. (Although not with fixed terms, which our government brought in 2 years ago and then promptly ignored… grrr.) Voting here is tremendously easy; we have a permanent electoral register which is updated with info from tax returns and Citizenship and Immigration and various provincial agencies, but you can even register at the polls if you have ID, or someone to vouch for you. None of this checking and re-checking to make sure you’re on the list! We also have a non-partisan federal agency that oversees elections, which I find very reassuring. And paper ballots. Mind you, we don’t have the yards and yards of different things to vote on like they do in the States, which does make things more complicated. I do find it encouraging that they are trying to make things easier…

  12. Mer Haskell on #

    Malcolm Tredinnick said everything better than I could, and made me feel vaguely embarrassed for the fact that he’s apparently not a USian and is able to articulate my system better than I do. 🙂

    And G is absolutely right: different states have different ways, and our voting is not overseen federally. The US is much more like the EU in terms of governmental/bureaucratic operations than a single nation like Australia; it just doesn’t seem the same because we have an overarching monoculture and we appear as a monolith to the outside world. (New Orleans is culturally more like Michigan than it is organizationally and legally like Michigan, even though I’d say our cultural similarities are rather shallow.)

    Electoral fraud is persistent throughout US history (and other countries’ histories, too). We’ve suppressed votes, we’ve intimidated voters, we’ve asked voters to pass illegitimate tests (and failed them), we’ve stolen elections, we’ve redrawn districts to suit our purposes (gerrymandering)… I’d say it’s been more prevalent before the non-stop media scrutiny, simply because it was easier to hide, but we know about it more now.

  13. Julia Rios on #

    Mer said it. I’ve never personally had a problem voting, but then I have always done absentee ballots for California, or in person for Massachusetts.

    California makes it easy. They send voters sample ballots with guidebooks with the issues listed, and with small pro and con opinion statements for each one. You can mail in your absentee ballot, or take it to the polling station on election day as is your wont. I’ve done both, and they were both simple.

    In Massachusetts we don’t get sample ballots and guidebooks, which is sad, but when we go to the polling station, they just ask our name and address.

    In Southern states, there have been (an in some cases still are) a lot of historical laws on the books aimed at stopping black people from voting. We were a nation founded with slavery, and after the Emancipation Proclamation, a lot of powerful people didn’t think it was in their best interest to allow slaves to vote. Mer is right that this sort of intimidation and corruption was easier to get away with when people didn’t examine it in the media, and when they tended to think of it as normal (pre civil rights movement of the 1960’s). We’ve been taking more notice of it in the past few years, but we still have a very long way to go.

  14. caitlin on #

    Okay, I got this info off a pizza box lid (pizza ordered for UBookstore’s Paper Towns release party), anyway the Tuesday voting originated because for farmers that was the best day for them to get out and vote. I believe that voting day should be a national holiday. Anyway, I live in the emerald city — Seattle and vote by mail. I’ve already voted!

  15. Mary Anne Mohanraj on #

    On the national ID question; requiring ID to vote tends to systematically disenfranchise the poor (who, for example, either can’t afford the ID fees or can’t afford the hours of time it takes to stand in line to get them — when you’re choosing between those things and giving your kids their one meal of the day, guess what you’re going to pick?), the elderly, the homeless, etc.

    “Across the country, as many as 20 million people lack such identification, most of them minorities and the elderly who don’t have drivers’ licenses or passports and are unable to afford the cost of obtaining documentation to apply for such identification, advocacy groups say.” —

  16. sylvia_rachel on #

    I have just voted (by absentee ballot, obviously) in my first US election, and my goodness, what a daunting experience! The ballot was the size of a final exam paper, and because I don’t actually live in the place where I was voting (that is, I last lived there for a year when I was three), it was difficult to find any sort-of-unbiased information on the local-level candidates … who knew I would be expected to vote on, e.g., members of the board of governors of a community college?

    I do think it’s much more difficult than it needs to be (very good article in a recent New Yorker about the history of voting in the US — it was called “Rocks, Paper, Scissors,” I think). OTOH, in Canada voting is extremely easy, and we nevertheless had a voter turnout of something like 59% in the most recent federal election. So making it easy doesn’t necessarily help. (In this case I think election fatigue was a big factor; the last election was only about two years ago. Enough already.)

    Making voting mandatory and election day a national holiday is a great idea, I think. Making voting easy may not be enough to raise voter turnout, but making it difficult certainly isn’t going to help!

  17. G on #

    Interesting. Coming as I do from the US, and having sent in my ballot yesterday(I had only 6 options to decide on, I know that Colorado for example had dozens), I have some thoughts. Once upon a time, I worked for a State agency and could choose to take Election day as a holiday. I didn’t, and used the day elsewhere, because I did not find it difficult to find time to vote in the 13 hours the polls in my area were open. Is there really any area where the vast majority of people could not find time in their day to vote? Last election I needed to take my children with me and I still managed. Also, I think the issue of ID being used to disenfranchise in disingenuous. No one does not have ID unless they are illegal. The old and the poor have Meducare and Medicaid cards, if not driver’s licenses. Or they could not get medical treatment, social aid (as little of it as there is), etc. The only people without some type of ID are the illegal and the homeless. I don’t know how to handle the issue of the homeless, but really, if everyone else voted and we got rid of the peremptory challenges because the process was sufficiently protocolled, perhaps we could spend some thought on getting the homeless shelter and an address?
    I think the reason so few vote is because so few feel that their votes matter and that is a problem of the electoral college and the “stickiness” of incumbents. I hope we have the opportunity to have a real change and that we have a real turnout in this and future elections.

  18. Chris S. on #

    “…At home we have an independent electoral authority in charge of the whole thing…”

    This is the biggest problem in a nutshell. Yes, each state has it’s own rules, regs, and priorities (and sometimes waaayyyy too many positions to vote for). But for a national election, there should be some national oversight. And that oversight needs to be impartial. As in, not under the guidence of the party in power.

  19. Lori S. on #

    G., I am sorry, but when you say things like “The only people without some type of ID are the illegal and the homeless,” you are just flat-out wrong.

    If you don’t fly and you don’t drive, you don’t need an ID every day. (You don’t necessarily need one to rent a place, for example.) And if you don’t need it, you might not have it — it might, in fact, be *hard* to get one. There are barriers to getting IDs that you might not be aware of if you’ve never gone without.

  20. G on #

    @Lori- I think you are flat out wrong. However, there are 50 states and I certainly have lived in only a few of them. In NY, no one can exist without ID. One cannot be employed, go to school (and it’s mandatory under 16), get services, rent a place.(Legally, that is.) You can’t get free/ discounted transportation services. Have you ever known someone who did not have ID that was legal? ID is not a driver’s license or passport alone, you know. At least not in NY, NJ VT, MA, CT, FL, CA or the other states I know personally.
    I have employed people that slept in a car (that wasn’t theirs) and they had ID. So be careful with your blanket statements. A choice to not get ID or to be mentally incapable of doing so is not a policy of disenfranchisement. That policy is shown by inadequately defining what ID is acceptable and non-uniformly enforcing that policy.
    By the way, here in Germany, ID is required for every person. The only reason I see to be against it is to allow people here illegally to get services they aren’t actually eligible for. As a US citizen and the child of immigrants, I don’t have a problem with ID to vote and receive services. But that is probably a topic for another thread.

  21. Justine on #

    G: I’m pretty sure Lori is right. I read an article about poverty in the US, which mentioned the underground economy—where some, but not all, people are illegals—where work is done off the books for cash doing things like cleaning, gardening, working on farms, even working at certain bars and restaurants—all without paying taxes and many of them without ID. There was mention of how extraordinarily difficult it is to get ID when you don’t have a fixed address. And how hard it is to get a fixed address when you don’t have ID.

  22. Mary Anne Mohanraj on #

    G, here’s a quick example of someone who wouldn’t need an ID card — a U.S. citizen, born in this country, who married young, didn’t learn to drive (I didn’t learn until I was 30; lots of people don’t, especially if they live in cities), and became a stay-at-home mom. No employment outside the home and no driver’s license means no need for state picture ID.

    That’s just one example out of many possible ones.

    I think you’re also conflating things like birth certificates and social security cards with ID cards. I certainly went to school without an ID card — I didn’t get an ID card until I needed one for some reason — I can’t even remember now what it was, but I was certainly an adult at the time, and had even been working (legally, paying taxes) for years. I had to go down to some state office and stand in line for hours, paying some fee that I could ill afford at that point (as a starving writer who was barely able to make my rent and lived on ramen), and the whole thing was a massive hassle.

    Birth certificates and social security cards don’t have photos on them, so they don’t count as picture ID for voting purposes.

  23. sylvia_rachel on #

    Canada began requiring ID — ID with your photo and your address on it — along with voter registration cards at polling stations just with this last election. The little old lady who was in front of me in line when I went to vote was sent away (kindly and gently, but firmly) because she had not brought, or possibly did not have, adequate ID; an elections guy helped her look through her purse in search of something suitable, but they didn’t find anything. She had her voter registration card with her, but had missed or had not understood the new ID requirement. This was an advance poll — many people in my neighbourhood voted the week before the election, because it’s a largely Jewish neighbourhood and the election was for some reason called for the first day of Sukkot — so I hope the lady was able to come up with some acceptable form of ID in time to vote, but who knows?

    Where I live, it’s entirely possible to exist legally without photo+address ID. If you don’t leave the country, you don’t need a passport (and I’m not sure passports qualify, anyway; if they have your address in them it’s because you filled it in yourself, which is hardly a ringing endorsement); if you don’t drive (or can’t afford to maintain a car), you don’t need a driving licence; if you’ve lived in Ontario long enough, you’ll still have the old provincial health card with no photo or address. (Equivalent cards in most other provinces, to my knowledge, are made of paper and have neither photo nor address on them.) Social Insurance Number cards — you need a SIN in order to work legally — have neither photos nor addresses on them. Age-of-majority cards, student ID cards, and student/senior transit discount cards have a photo but no address. I don’t drive, and Canada for some reason has no national photo ID card, so although I do have a passport, the only form of ID I possess that has both my photo and my address on it is my OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan) card.

    I’m not sure who came up with the idea that scrutineers should have to check IDs as well as voter registration cards, or why, but I agree with whoever said upthread that it’s a means of disenfranchisement. We already have so few people voting that I think we can ill afford to turn registered taxpaying voters away because they, for instance, happen not to know how to drive.

  24. G on #

    What’s fascinating here is the vast difference between States and Countries in what IDs are, what is available, and how one gets them. Interestingly enough, to vote in NY, one shows no ID. I think that’s insane. I walk in and say my name. In NY, I can also get a Sheriff’s ID for $5 (also called a non-driver’s ID) by going to any sheriff’s office and asking for one. And so on. Once again, I think any disenfranchisement is done by not specifying what an adequate ID is and then by not enforcing uniform inspection standards. But I am also in favor of some form of national ID and I see it coming with my wished for national health care system.

Comments are closed.