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Voting for the king

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 7 November 2012


Some time on Wednesday, our time, we will have some idea of the outcome of the American elections. They are not just for the President, incidentally. A large set of choices will face each voter: candidates for half the Senate and for the House of Representatives, and in some states proposals to do this or that, and candidates for state elected posts as well.

The crucial uncertainty is turnout. Neither registration nor voting is compulsory, and the quality of the electoral roll varies greatly from state to state. There has been an unexpected amount of pre-polling this year, and that suggests that turnout will be higher. In Australian terms, turnout is abysmal, though the last four elections have shown a consistent improvement: from 49 per cent in 1996 to 51 per cent in 2000, 57 per cent in 2004 and 58 per cent in 2008.

An American environmental lobby group whose daily posts I receive is anxious that I vote, and has sent me this message:

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'Voting will go more smoothly if you make a plan first: Where is your polling place? How will you get there? What time will you go? Can you bring a friend? Do you know what kind of identification you need to show to vote?'

We in Australia don't need such concern, and troop off to our local polling place on whatever Saturday it is without assistance. If we're in hospital or otherwise unable to attend our polling place, there is a lot of assistance. I am a strong supporter of compulsory voting and compulsory enrolment, but this is not the time for such a post. The point here is that Americans don't receive such help, and that waiting to vote can take a long time.

How much does it matter - in either country? Americans are voting for an official who took the place of the King they rejected in the late 18th century. Their Constititution gave the President the powers the Founding Fathers thought that George III possessed, though they didn't make provision for the able Prime Ministers, Fox and William Pitt the Younger, through whom George III actually ruled.

Running an empire like the USA is not any kind of ordinary job, and the President requires able people to work with him and for him, and of course countless public servants and military as well. Anyone who has ever run any organisation knows well the frustration of being at the top: you have relatively little idea of what is actually happening further down in the organisation.

And the world outside keeps intervening. Things happen over which you have no control at all, and you have to react to them. And the President lives in the bright light of unyielding media attention. His every word, his every gesture, is recorded. He cannot move without the protection of secret servicemen, armoured cars, and the searching of buildings in advance of his drive. I sometimes think it is an insane life for anyone to have to live. But there is no shortage of takers.

I would probably vote for Obama, because I like the sound of him, even though I know that is a silly reason. As I have said before, he is Hollywood's idea of what a President should be - handsome, self-confident, articulate and graceful in his movements. But he is arguably the least-prepared President the USA has had for some time, and it is not at all clear that his Presidency has amounted to anything.

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Mitt Romney has grown in stature during the election campaign, and has done well. He has pointed to the problems that will face whoever succeeds to the White House. The USA is awfully broke, and still involves itself in military adventures that cost billions a week. Its unemployment is high, and its capacity to restore itself is subdued. Somehow taxes have to be raised and costs reduced: everyone agrees on this, but no one has been able to do anything about it. The first job of the new President will have to be to manage a budget.

And the likelihood is that Republicans will do well in the elections for the Senate and the House, as well as in state governorships. If Obama does get back, he is likely to have an even more difficult battle with Congress and the Senate than he had in the latter part of his first term.

All in all, the elected King, whoever it is, has a tough job in front of him. You could say that much the same difficulty faces whoever wins next year in Australia, too. Again, there is no shortage of takers.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia was published by Allen & Unwin.

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