There are some things in my life that have always been crystal clear – voting is one of them. I’ve never been conflicted about it, always felt privileged, humbled and honored to pull the lever. I’m not militant or anything, I don’t view voting as some moral responsibility and I don’t really care what you do. But, I do see it as one of the great opportunities afforded to us in the free world and especially in the US where there still is some representation to our Republic. I’m proud to say that I’ve voted in every election in which I’ve been eligible and a lot of elections that didn’t really matter that much (in Acton, Massachusetts we elect a trustee for the library – wooooo whoooo!!).
But this November, it just feels too hard, and let’s be honest in Massachusetts does my mid-term vote really mean anything anyway?
As an outsider I really enjoyed watching the recent national elections in Australia. Politics is a full-contact sport here that they play a little like they play their rugby – hard. First of all Kevin Rudd (the last Prime Minister) was thrown out by his own party less than 90 days ago at the end of June. Then his successor Julia Gillard and the other leaders of the Australian Labour Party (which is probably the equivalent of the Democrat party in the US) declared a national election on August 21 (a Saturday, which I guess is normal). I was told by some of my local friends that voting here is compulsory. I choked a bit and loudly said, “what?” After which it was patiently explained that anyone who is registered to vote can be fined if they don’t vote. I must say I find this a bit puzzling, and to be honest not entirely in keeping with my voting as a privilege philosophy. To the credit of the Australian system they do one thing much better than most countries in their preferential ballot. Essentially the way it works is that you declare your first choice, and then your second, and on down the list. What it means is that if your top choice isn’t in first or second place, they essentially award your “preference” to the party who is in first or second place. The effect of this is the elimination of potential tide-turning effect of a third party candidate like Ralph Nader had in Florida in 2000.
So anyway, the Labour Party declares a new election thinking they have it in the bag. Then the Liberal Party (the Australian equivalent of the US Republican party, I know… anyone confused yet), put up a serious fight. After all the votes were counted – no one won. That’s right, neither party won.
As an aside, this weekend was the AFL (Aussie-rules Football League) Grand Final. This is the Australian equivalent of the NFL's superbowl, and it comes with all the pre-game hype and run-up, (the betting is fast and furious and the live-television coverage started two hours before game time). Anyway, it was a great game. The Collingwood Magpies get out to a commanding lead early in the first quarter until the St. Kilda Saints start a long comeback. In the final seconds of the game the pressure was immense and I'm not even a fan of either of these teams. Incredible hand-passes, kicks and tackles...tons of action... the score is tied and it's coming down to the final seconds... WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN I SCREAM, IT'S TOO MUCH EXCITEMENT, I CAN'T WATCH... and then time runs out and neither team won.
What, what, what??? You have to be kidding, time runs out and it just ends in a draw??? I've seen some strange things in my life and in my brief time in Australia, but in this sport crazed country a draw at the Grand Final is a new level of weird. I'm told that the Magpies and the Saints will replay the entire game in a week's time so there will eventually be a winner, but I just don't have the energy to go through that again.
So now back to Aussie politics.
The Australian constitution calls for the party that has the majority (76 of the 150 seats) in parliament to declare the Prime Minister. But after the August national elections the Labour party had 72 seats in parliament and the Libs had 72 seats. The remaining six seats were held by five Independents and one Green. For a while, these six people were the most powerful people in Australia as they bargained for favors in exchange for throwing their support to one party or the other.
For two and a half long weeks, it wasn’t clear what was going to happen. It felt a little like Bush v. Gore when it went all the way to the US Supreme Court after the 2000 election – the difference between that US situation and the one that just occurred in Australia was that the 2000 US election was decided by the nine life-time appointed justices of the US Supreme Court. Here in Australia the election was decided by six recently elected Ministers – I guess it was not that different after all except for the bargaining, pandering and promises that went on behind closed doors over the past couple weeks here in Australia. Then again, pandering and promises are just politics as usual in the US.
So after 17 days, the six Australian ministers all picked sides and the Labour Party was officially back in power in Australia, but not before opening a lot of eyes to the process and fragility of a system that can be brought to a standstill while the nation waits for the result.
Over the past decade I’ve watched two incredibly powerful first-world coutries have elections that ended with razor thin margins, were held up in a state of limbo for weeks and were ultimately decided by a small group of individual people. All that evidence points to the fact that each vote can matter, and, I’m still questioning whether I should vote or not in the November US election.
I checked out the process for getting an absentee ballot; it’s a bit onerous, although I probably shouldn’t complain. You have to get and fill out an old fashioned form, send it to your local town hall. When the ballots are prepared near the end of October they will send one out and then you have to send it back. For me it essentially means three trips around the world. I find myself thinking, “it’s 2010, doesn’t there have to be a system more efficient than sending three pieces of paper a combined total of 30,000 miles?” (Hey, what about frequent flyer miles for my mail?) I guess it’s not that bad, but what they don’t mention in the ballot application is that you likely won’t get the ballot until after the voting is actually complete. And, in today’s 24 hour media frenzy, the election will have been long since declared before the absentee votes are counted, and in many cases even before their cast. I can’t imagine how much it must frustrate the men and women in the armed forces overseas to feel so disenfranchised and discarded. But oh, well I made a choice to be here, I should suck-it-up, get a ballot and vote, or should I?
In our home US congressional district – the Massachusetts fifth – there is little real competition, and not a whole load of integrity either. In 1992 a Democrat named Marty Meehan ran on a platform that included among other things a commitment to term limits. He pledged not to serve more than four terms. He finally quit after being elected eight times – and in three of the elections he ran unopposed. Meehan was replaced by Democrat Niki Tsongas, the widow of former US Senator and presidential candidate Paul Tsongas. Niki ran unopposed in 2008, and while she will have a Republican opponent in the November 2010 election, I’d bet one of my toes that she’ll still take 60% or more of the votes cast.
So it’s a safe bet that the congressional election is a foregone conclusion. On to the Seanate...Scott Brown was just elected earlier this year, and Senator John Kerry is firmly ensconced in his seat until at least 2014, there’s no senate seat to vote for either. It just doesn’t seem worth the effort of getting a ballot and sending it back. I find myself a bit disappointed that I’m actually, legitimately and seriously considering not voting.
Here’s the problem – as logical and soundly reasoned as it would be to skip this election, I just can’t make myself do it. I need to vote as if it somehow validates that I still matter even if I know statistically my vote doesn’t. Plus now that I’ve made this rant public, someone will pull it out in about 20 years when I’m running to be elected as a trustee of the Acton library and it’ll be all the scandal that I didn’t vote in 2010.
So I’ve made up my mind, I will vote – and on election night (which will be the following day here in Australia), when they are declaring the winner in the Massachusetts fifth district, I’ll say “wait, a minute there fellas… this thing isn’t over until you count my vote too.” And then I’ll go on to other pursuits over which I have more real control, like finding a cure for deadly Australian spider bites, or waiting to see who will win the rescheduled AFL Grand Final.