I’m not going to lie to you. Elections can be pretty boring. I mean, think about it. Many countries have a first past the post system which means 50%-1 votes are useless. Or worse, you live in the US where the electoral college dilutes your vote even further. So you get to the polls and there’s a line. Your employer has given you the legally allotted 3 hrs to vote but you’ve got dinner to make or it’s snowing or raining or you left for work late in the morning so you couldn’t avoid the evening rush at 6:45 pm. All the candidates on the ballot suck and you drop your ballot in the box never to know what will come of it, and really who cares? I mean all the candidates say the same thing anyway and Lord knows they will be singing a different tune once they are in office. Why do we even waste our time?
Election day in Timor Leste is not too different from Election day in Canada except maybe people actually give a shit. In East Timor, I arrived at the polls at 6:00 am, much like I do in Canada when working an election, but in Timor I was not the first. By 6:15 am, there were about 25 people in line ready to vote (polls don’t open until 7:00 am). By 8:00 am, 100 people had voted and there were easily another 100 in line. By noon, a majority of voters had cast their votes and election officials spent the next 3 hours finding ways to amuse themselves before the count.
Timorese law dictates that the elderly can jump the queue but there was no need for queue jumping – it was the elderly who got there first. It was the elderly who survived 25 years of slaughter by Indonesian hands and hold this privilege dearly. And perhaps this is what makes our elections so boring and Timorese elections so exciting – in Canada voting is a right. In Timor, it is a privilege.
Closing time is when things get really exciting. Suddenly, the calm and sparse voting area has accumulated a crowd. Transparency is something the electoral commission in Timor has taken seriously, so unlike Canada, anyone is welcome to watch the counting of the ballots. I had decided to watch the count happen at a station where 1124 ballots had been cast, which is an 80% voter turnout rate, by the way. And when there are 13 candidates on an 14 x 11 sheet of paper, marked by jabbing a nail (the rusty kind) through your candidate of choice, and every single ballot must be read out whether valid, null, cancelled, or blank, and there is no electricity, the count can take a while. In my case, it took 6 hours. Needless to say, dinner was not something I got to enjoy on Election Day. But like I said before, Election Day in Timor is not too different than Election Day in Canada. In fact, Election Day in Timor was as free and fair as our elections, from what I could tell. People were happy to vote, understood the value, and were not afraid to do so as secrecy of the vote is something that is held in equally high regard.
In Timor, elections are serious business. You don’t lose a majority of your middle aged population to waste it on laziness and indifference. Seventy precent of the population is under 25 years age, and at 80% voter turnout, there is great urgency to build a great country. Timor Leste is making damn sure of that.