Democracy_Sausage

A democracy sausage eaten outside Old Parliament House during the 2016 Australian Federal Election.

Today is Election Day. The big question is which party will win control of the General Assembly, a question that Virginia voters haven’t faced with this level of urgency in 20 years —when Republicans won control of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction (or maybe ever, depending on how you categorize the Republican-affiliated Readjuster Party of the 1880s).

In the two decades since, Republicans have been firmly in control of the House of Delegates while control of the state Senate has flipped back and forth by narrow margins, with Republicans currently on top. The fact that we don’t really know which party will win tonight is something we haven’t faced in this century.

The answer to that question of which party will win lies in a relative handful of districts, mostly in the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia, the suburbs of Richmond and both sides of the water in Hampton Roads. Peel the onion back one more layer and the answer to who wins there is really a matter of who turns out to vote — since turnout in legislative elections typically draws only a minority of the state’s voters. In the last election cycle that saw both the House and Senate on the ballot, only 29% of the state’s voters cast ballots. Would the results have been different if the other 71% had voted? We can only speculate.

A study by the Pew Research Center found that non-voters in the 2016 presidential election were mostly ones who would have voted Democratic if they’d bothered to show up at the polls. That’s one reason that Democrats tend to be the ones most aggressively promoting ways to increase voter turnout — such as by ditching Columbus Day as a federal holiday and instead making Election Day a holiday. However, Bloomberg News recently reported that in 2016 many first-time voters in Wisconsin — who had previously been non-voters — went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump and helped tip that state to him. That story went on to speculate, based on demographics and electoral trends, that at least in Wisconsin many of the remaining non-votes might also be potential Trump supporters — so a higher turnout there (and perhaps similar Rust Belt states) might benefit Republicans. We just don’t know.

These aren’t questions that Australians face. Down Under, voting is compulsory. The penalty for not voting: A fine of about $14 in U.S. dollars. Mandatory voting there hasn’t produced wild results one way or another. That country, just like other western democracies, swings back and forth — and is currently run by conservatives. (Australia is upside down from us in many ways. The conservative party there is called the Liberal Party, which makes things really confusing for non-Aussies.) The Australian political scientist Judith Brett, author of a recent book on democracy, says that mandatory voting there produces a more moderate electorate. This isn’t about that, though, although in theory, if democracy is a good thing, it’s better if more people participate.

Australia also facilitates a big turnout by holding elections on Saturday, when most people are off work. The United States is unusual, by global standards, in holding elections during the week. The typical Election Day in many countries — from big industrial nations such as France and Germany down to smaller countries such as Estonia — is Sunday. There’s occasional talk in the U.S. of moving Election Day to a weekend to boost turnout — but this isn’t about that, either, although it’s worth wondering why in the 21st century we’re still working on an agricultural-age calendar.

Instead, we’re working up to this: The Australian democracy sausage.

Because Australia’s mandatory voting law creates a high turnout, and because those elections are always on a weekend, the surge of voters going to the polls creates an unusual side effect. Election Day is a big day for fund-raisers for community groups that set up booths at the polls to sell stuff. Election Day in Australia isn’t simply a civic duty; it’s something akin to a community festival — and the tradition there is to sell sausages to voters. “Democracy sausages,” they’re called.

Why sausages? We can’t find a good answer to that, other than that Australians are big on their barbecues — “barbies,” in their lingo.

The tradition of community groups selling something at the polls goes back nearly a century but the democracy sausage is a more recent trend. Brett credits the advent of portable barbecues in the 1980s. And then, of course, there’s this thing called the internet that has helped popularize the democracy sausage. There are now websites that track which polling places have sausages available for sale —and also cakes, another popular item on Australian Election Day. The website DemocracySausage.org has a nifty map dotted with icons of either sausages or cakes or other types of foods. The map for the Australian election earlier this year — the one where the Liberal Party that is really the conservative party won — lists entries such as these:

• In the suburbs of Melbourne, Our Lady’s Primary School was raising money “to help fund the resurfacing of our school playground.”

• In Tasmania, the East Launceston Primary School was raising money “for the Grade 6 Canberra trip.”

• In the suburbs of Geelong, Highton Primary School was raising money “to re-turf our school oval.” Because, you know, Australian Rules Football and cricket are played on oval fields.

We could go on and on. Those examples are all from schools, but there were also churches raising money for mission trips, community groups raising money to refurbish town halls, and a group in New South Wales raising money for “the Monaro Spectacular,” which appears to be a local talent show. For many of these groups, Election Day is their biggest fund-raising day of the year —sometimes netting thousands of dollars for their particular cause. If sausages are not to your taste, no worries. There are now vegetarian and vegan sausages available, too.

The wonder here is why the United States doesn’t adopt this Australian tradition. Goodness knows, we have school groups — and lots of other groups — who need the money. Instead, we insist on holding our elections on a Tuesday, when people are either rushing to get to work or rushing to get home. This seems a missed opportunity to help our communities.

And then there’s this. In a suburb of Wollongong, the Mt. Terry Public School was selling sausages, cakes and other foods with this advisory: “Don’t make decisions about the country on an empty stomach!”

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