I have an unhealthy obsession with American politics. As I’ve written before, I know far more about what’s happening 13,000km away in Washington D.C. than just down the road in New Zealand’s Parliament House.
The attraction is partly the traditional razzle-dazzle of American politics, partly the geopolitical importance of the presidential elections, mainly the downright craziness of Donald Trump. And, in my defence, I don’t think I’m alone in neglecting domestic politics for the insanity of how the democratic process is currently playing out in a country that once saw itself as “the shining light” for democracies around the world.
But last week, I tore myself away from Twitter and the Washington Post long enough to vote in New Zealand’s General Election.
Compared with our American counterparts, Kiwis are lucky. Yes, there are disturbing signs that we are not immune to an outlandish conspiracy theory or two, and that a charismatic populist can sway enough of the electorate to parlay marginal support at the ballot box into outsized political power. But, our elections proceed, by and large, in a fairly decorous — perhaps even slightly mundane — way.
We’re fortunate in that we haven’t had to vote with the prospect of getting severely sick. Thanks to some decisive interventions on several occasions since March, we’ve been able to bring COVID-19 outbreaks under control rapidly, and our election has been able to proceed almost as normal.
Having said that, early voting turnout for this election has been the highest we’ve ever seen, with more than 1.7 million Kiwis voting before Election Day — a number that is likely to make up half the total turnout. By way of context, there are around 3.5 million enrolled voters.
Various pundits are extrapolating from these figures to predict future changes to the way elections are held in New Zealand, including the end of Election Day and the emergence of what will become known as the Election Period. That is to say, elections will no longer be focused on a single day but will henceforth be spread out over a period of weeks. These changes may well come to pass but, as I voted, the prognostications of talking heads were far from my mind.
I voted at the local primary school. My kids go there and it’s just up the road from my house. It’s the heart of a middle-class community and there have been a slew of emails from the school over the past week or so, asking for help with the Election Day sausage sizzle and for baking to sell at the cake stall.
It was an overcast day and when I went to vote in mid-morning, things were quiet. The barbeque was just getting set up, and the baking laid out. My wife and I took our kids into the school hall to show them what voting was all about and I was slightly surprised to see no queues at all. We took our ballots, went into the voting booths, dropped our votes into the boxes and everything was over in three minutes. We did our best to explain what was happening to the kids while they watched and, while they seemed vaguely interested, there was little else about the occasion to suggest we had just asserted a basic democratic right. As far as they were concerned, all we’d done was tick a couple of boxes, and put the papers into a cardboard box.
We went outside again and lent a hand with the set-up for the various stalls, and gradually the playground started filling up. I went down the road to get a couple of takeaway coffees, and by the time I returned, things were fairly busy. My kids were munching cupcakes the size of their heads; young families with dogs in tow were catching up; plans were being laid for playdates later in the week.
After everything we’ve been through this year, what struck me was the sheer normality of it all. If I’m honest, voting seemed to be something of an afterthought for many of the people there. We chatted with our friends and, on more than one occasion, families were getting ready to head home before realising they hadn’t yet voted.
It brought back memories of my own childhood, when I went with Mum and Dad to vote at their local church. I was struck that not much has really changed over the past thirty years. The gossip between neighbours; the fundraisers for community groups; a similar awareness that while it might be a slightly unusual day, tomorrow would look pretty much the same.
I realise New Zealand is fortunate to be in this position. When I read stories of American voters currently waiting in line for hours to exercise their right to vote, I feel deeply grateful that Kiwis have been able to approach today in such a laid-back, almost off-hand way.
That’s not to say that Election Day doesn’t matter; New Zealand is facing a deeply uncertain future. We might have escaped the worst health impacts of COVID-19 for now, but the economic and emotional damage will be profound. We were facing a number of serious issues before the pandemic struck — including child poverty, a lack of affordable housing, environmental practices that undermine our clean, green reputation, and dramatically increasing economic inequality — and dealing with those problems is only going to get harder over the next few years.
I confess I wasn’t thinking about any of these things when I was chatting with our neighbours. But my casual manner at the polling station is not incompatible with the seriousness with which I cast my vote. It might have only taken a few minutes, and I might have celebrated with a hot dog afterwards, but the very normality of the morning itself conveys a powerful message.
Things could have been so much harder, much more complicated. In the US, voters are grappling with how to cast their ballot in a way that won’t potentially risk their lives. Many of them are trying to negotiate a system that has been designed to stop them voting at all, or to dilute the significance of their vote. And all this against the backdrop of a deeply unstable, mendacious presidential candidate who tweets ten crazy things before breakfast.
I regularly bemoan the tedium of New Zealand politics. While they rarely admit it, our two main political parties are fairly close on many issues. Some of our politicians have a gift for a one-liner but their speeches rarely feature much in the way of soaring rhetoric. Our political rallies are less about pomp and circumstance and more about sausage rolls and the chance to fire water pistols at candidates.
But last week, I was grateful for the mundanity of it all. We don’t need to get worked up about voting. We don’t need to treat it as the most important event of our lives. Indeed, the low-key, mundane nature of the act is part of the point. Participating in our democracy can and should be a normal part of our lives.
Casting my vote was certainly the most significant thing I did that day, but it was just one more job I had to get done.