For many Australians, Election Day is marked by sizzling sausages and the fervour of enthusiastic party members thrusting how to vote cards in your face. The well-groomed faces of political hopefuls beam down from telegraph poles as voters weave their way through crowds to the ballot boxes.
But last Saturday I spent the day collecting votes from the bedsides of people in a Sydney hospital. Employed by the Australian Electoral Commission as a polling assistant, I walked through the corridors to collect the votes of those too sick to walk to the local primary school or church hall.
In one ward there was an outbreak of something or other. In another ward I dressed in highly protective nursing garb, entered through a negative pressured room and collected the vote of a man suffering from a contagious airborne disease. Having a nurse dress me up in protective gear and a doctor give me instructions on handling patients, seemed like a heroic and almost absurd way to keep the wheels of our participatory democracy rolling.
Not only did I witness first hand the lengths the Australian Electoral Commission went to in collecting votes, my interaction with the patients was invigorating. I saw a different side to political engagement that no amount of feature articles or Nielsen polls could have prepared me for.
I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the patients who were keen to cast their vote and eager to engage with me. I was their link to the outside world.
One man told me about the election that set his voting patterns for the next 64 years: 1949, when he voted for the first time for the conservatives, led by Robert Menzies. Ben Chifley, the then Labor prime minister, had lost this man's vote after he continued petrol rationing, a policy held over from World War II. Needing fuel for both a car and an energy generator on a property in remote New South Wales, the insufficiency of petrol vouchers and no promises by Chifley to scrap the policy, meant Labor lost his vote forever.
As I sailed down the corridors, mobile polling booth in tow, I was greeted by excited and expectant faces. Faces belonging to people who for days, weeks, and even months in some cases, had sat in the confinement of a hospital, their days passing slowly by, dictated by the slow, monotonous beeps emitting from the medical monitors surrounding them.
For so many of these people, casting their ballot was not only a way to have a say in Australia's future, but it was a way of being included in a civil society from which they were at a remove. As I watched the people beaming at the mere fact that their vote had been remembered, I thought of others who might cast their ballots carelessly.
All the times I've heard naive attempts at cynicism with the classic throwaway line of "if Australia is a democracy then why are we forced to vote?" also came to mind. Faced with the enthusiasm and vitality of these sick Australians, voting was not merely a legal obligation or a tedious requirement of democracy. It was a reassuring reminder that no matter how distant the hubbub of polling booths might seem, they too belonged to a society which valued their vote.
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