On 2 November, the United States of America went to the polling booths for their midterms. Five days later, Burma had its first election since 1990. In Afghanistan, citizens are still waiting for the results of an election they held two months ago.

And as I write, Victorians are marching off to our own cardboard constructs to post paper and elect the next state government. Billions of ballots, ink-stained fingers, ticks in boxes. Uncountable words in print, hours and days of self-congratulatory screen and airtime.

Voting Melbourne, 2007

After we’ve voted, presumably, we can go home again and forget about it all until the next election, comfortably safe in the knowledge that we live in a democracy. Whatever the hell that means. Democracy … it’s that thing you do in the ballot box, right?

I’m not being snide about the post-votal glow. The act of voting is wonderful: standing in line at the local primary school while the sausage sizzle splutters and how-to-vote cards waft across the basketball courts. A reminder of both our power, and our lack of it.

As far as highs go, though, it’s a feeling we pay through the nose for. Our last federal election cost around $160 million. Every time we go to the polls the price rises by millions, even as the candidates’ policy differences shrink. And while $160 million might seem like an awful lot of money, it’s nothing compared with what our North American friends spend on their popularity party; the last United States midterms are pinned to have been the most expensive bash outside of a presidential election, with estimates placing the cost as high as US$4 billion.

Our blinkered focus on elections as the be-all and end-all of democratic proof isn’t without danger. Over the last quarter-century, ‘election’ and ‘democracy’ have become almost interchangeable, as if having one is proof enough of the other. Once ‘democracy’ is established and elections are held, we often seem to lose interest in the way in which ‘democratic’ states behave.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, elections were held in the newly ‘democratic’ countries across the former republics, a velvet revolution rolling over borders. Commentators like Francis Fukuyama crowed with delight: it seemed, for a brief moment, as if the ‘end of history’ truly had arrived, and all there was left to do was sit back and wait as states across the globe democratised.

These days, Russian elections are carried out under blanket bans on opinion polls so it’s harder to tell how many votes are fraudulent. Election rigging is getting worse. But neighbouring governments are loath to label the country un-democratic, and Australia happily sends Russia uranium while they blithely disregard their legal disarmament obligations. After all, at least they have elections, right? Everything else is just a matter of time. They’re ironing out the crumples in their democratic doona cover – twenty years later.

Recognising other states as ‘democratic’ makes everything easier for diplomats. It’s the basis of our good relations, the foundation on which we can build, regardless of what lies beneath. We like a good election, and what it symbolises.

After the ‘coalition of the willing’ stomped into Afghanistan and stormed across Iraq, one of the earliest things we started talking about was how long it would be until we could set up ballot boxes on the side of the road. When we finally did, we stood next to them, grinning, and waited expectantly for democracies to erect themselves.

Voting in Iraq

It didn’t work out quite as planned. Turns out, there’s more to a functioning democracy than a polling booth. Counterintuitively, it’s looking like you might even need the democracy before you have the election.

A few days ago in Afghanistan, a country where protesting can be life threatening, people took to the streets of Kabul to condemn the most recent parliamentary elections, the results of which, two months later, still haven’t been released. Nearly a quarter of the 5.6 million votes cast on 18 September have been disqualified, and more than 400 candidates have been referred to the Attorney Generals office on allegations of fraud.

According to the most recent UN report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, the number of civilians assassinated or executed by anti-government forces in Afghanistan has risen by 95 percent since 2009. It’s the people protesting on the streets, not the representatives ‘elected’ to the parliament, who are proof that democracy still has a future in the war-torn country.

Given the coalition of the willing’s behaviour in the Middle East, it’s hardly surprising that the Burmese junta thinks that all it has to do to hoodwink the rest of the world into submission is hold a shonky election, stuff some ballot boxes, and declare a democratic government. We’re not so obtuse as to be fooled by that particular fib, but the modern assumption that elections are proof of democracy is so deeply engrained that we rarely look beyond them at what’s really happening.

In Australia, too, we gloss over our democratic short-fallings. And they’re not all as minor as you might think.

Just quickly: approximately 3 252 000 eligible voters failed to vote in the last federal election, which had the highest ‘boycott’ rate since the introduction of compulsory voting in 1925.

The swing to the Greens party in the last federal election, a swing also predicted in the upcoming Victorian State election, should be proof of the electorate’s frustration with the lack of government movement on issues of public concern such as environmental degradation and the treatment of refugees from the major parties.

Despite having a female Prime Minister, Australia ranks fortieth in the world in terms of female representation in parliament, trailing behind Laos, Iraq and Bolivia.

We continue to lose rank in the International Freedom Press Index, perhaps because Australia has one of the highest levels of concentrated media ownership in comparable democratic nations, with as much as 80 percent of print media in the hands of just two corporations.

And so we go, off to another election.

And as we do so, we should remember that democracy doesn’t end at the ballot box; it begins there.

It’s not an absolute quality. It’s not something that we have, or we don’t have. It’s a relative quality; something we attain in degrees. Democracy is a work in progress. And if we lose sight of that work in progress, if we walk away from the ballot box thinking that our political responsibilities are finished the moment we ink the square, we’ve failed each other, and our society as a whole.

So by all means, vote on 27 November. Take your vote seriously, and don’t let Australian democracy slide into apathy through boycott. Inevitably, if voting becomes the only engagement we have with our democratic culture, we’ll begin to feel alienated, and disengaged. Elections aren’t the whole story. Let’s take our democratic participation seriously too, make our politics something we do every day. That way, when the elections roll around again, we’ll all have better choices, and more accountable governments.

Ruby J Murray

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  1. Thanks Ruby, spot on. I’ve been wondering why so little is being said about the obvious dissatisfaction recent voting has revealed, and great to point out that democracy should be about more than election day… Sorry state of affairs

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