By JAMILA RIZVI
If I hear another friend tell me they’re going to vote informally on Saturday, I’m going to scream.
And not a little angry squeak of a scream; a Sarah Michelle Geller in I Know What You Did Last Summer kind of blood-curling howl.
The 2010 federal election saw a distinct increase in the number of informal ballots; from 3.95 per cent in 2007 to 4.6 per cent in 2010.
That figure was the highest in almost 30 years. While many explanations for this have been put forward, it seems that a decent number of those people who voted informally did so on purpose. They were frustrated with the limited options before them.
And in this election? That number is likely to climb again.
Now, I understand that Australians feel angry and let down by the two major parties. I know it can seem like there isn’t a lot of choice on offer at this election. I realise that many people don’t like or trust politicians and are exhausted by too much spin and not enough substance. And lots of people I’ve spoken with are looking for a channel to vent their frustration. They want to send a message to our elected representatives that they’re dissatisfied.
I get that.
But the absolute worst possible way to send a message is to vote informally. Here’s why.
1. Donkey voting isn’t a protest. It’s ridiculous.
Donkey voting isn’t technically informal voting but it is a strategy so ridiculous that we need to get it out of the way from the outset.
Donkey voting means not making a considered choices about how to number your preferred candidates and instead, numbering the boxes in sequential order from 1 to whatever.
This is a dumb-arse thing to do. Why the hell would you cast your all-important vote for the Candidate Whose Name Got Pulled Out of A Hat First.
You are still voting. You are still participating in the process. You are still rewarding one candidate over the others. You just have no idea why.
2. If you vote informally to ‘send a message’, ain’t nobody going to know what that message is.
Scribbling an angry message or drawing pretty pictures* on the ballot paper might feel rebellious but it actually achieves diddly squat. As Charlie Pickering explains in The Age:
You may be protesting against the two-party system or you may be protesting against the price of peas. Both are possible, as is drawing the conclusion that you weren’t making a protest at all and simply didn’t understand how to fill out a ballot. Either way, voting informal is a terrible way to send a message.
So while I applaud the sentiment of the person who told Mia they planned to write ‘I want to vote for Julia’ on their ballot paper – neither the former Prime Minister or anyone else who cares is going to read that message. The nice Australian Electoral Commission people who are counting the votes, will simply throw your ballot paper on the informal pile, along with all the blank ballots.
3. Not voting can potentially have as great an effect as voting (but it might not be the effect you want).
Throwing your vote away in disgust or frustration still has an effect because it gives greater weight to every other vote being cast in your electorate. Think of it this way – if there were only 10 voters in your electorate and five decided to vote informally, then you effectively double the voting power of the remaining five.
James Robertson at The Sydney Morning Herald explains that a higher than usual informal vote could play a significant role in key seats at this weekend’s election:
They are the votes that don’t count but could turn the election. The main parties, locked in a battle of inches for western Sydney, are targeting nearly 100,000 voters in key seats who cast an invalid ballot last election.
The 10 seats in Australia with the highest levels of informal voting are all held by Labor in Sydney’s west and had on average 10 per cent of people vote informally… The proportion of informal voting in these western seats surged about 50 per cent last election and caught everyone by surprise.
Depending on the seat, depending on the state, your non-vote could be one of the ones that makes the difference. So why not use it to make the difference you intend it to, rather than letting others’ intentions determine its significance.
4. Your vote is valuable. And not just in the ‘something money can’t buy’ way.
Your vote is worth something. To be precise, it’s worth $2.48 in the House of Representatives and the same again in the Senate.
In an effort to decrease the level to which private wealth can help you win an election, Australia provides some government funding to political parties.
This money helps parties to fund their campaigns and is particularly important in assisting new parties to form and to be competitive in future elections.
That $2.48 will go to the party which receives your first preference in each house of parliament. If you vote informally, nobody gets the cash.
You might think this sounds good but consider this: If the reason you’re intending to vote informally is to send a message to the major parties that you’re dissatisfied, then this it a rubbish way to do it. It would be far better for you to cast your vote for a minor party who you would like to see improve their standing comparatively to the more established parties.
5. Your vote is valuable. So stop taking it for granted.
Your vote is valuable. Why else would so many people be hassling you at the train station, at the supermarket, on the television, on social media and well, everywhere – to try and get you to cast your vote for them?
Australia is one of the world’s oldest democracies and that is something we should be proud of.
Around the world, thousands of people are fighting and dying for the right to do what you get to. That is, to have a say in who will govern their nation into the future and how they will do that.
We are different to many nations, in that in Australia, voting is not simply your right, it is your responsibility.
And not taking that responsibility seriously is deeply insulting to those who are risking everything in the hope of being allowed to safely, securely and freely walk into a polling booth like you will on Saturday.
Finally, if all of this doesn’t convince you to take your vote seriously, remember this. If you don’t bother voting on the weekend or you vote informally, then you don’t get to complain about child care availability, or the state of our schools, or hospital waiting lists, or traffic congestion or gay marriage, or the treatment of asylum seekers or the cost of living, for the next three years.
And if you do, your friends are entitled to tell you to shove it.
*I have scrutineered (watched the votes being counted) on many occasions, and the pictures are rarely pretty. They are generally pictures of a dick and balls. Don’t be the guy who draws a dick and balls on the ballot. Just don’t.
Disclaimer: Jamila Rizvi was formerly a staffer in the Rudd and Gillard Governments and a member of the Australian Labor Party. She definitely cares who you vote for, but she cares a whole lot more that you make sure your vote counts.