The Democracy Sausage

Australia’s election day ritual

by Erin Maclean

Australia is currently experiencing an election drought, with several state elections not due until early next year. While this means a brief respite from the craziness of the campaign trail, it also means voters are going months without a ‘democracy sausage’ — the iconic sausage sizzle that happens at many polling booths each election, which is all-but-synonymous with the Australian democratic process.

Democracy Sausage: Bringing Hope to the People — Image: @DemSausage

The tradition’s exact origin is unknown, although it dates back to at least Gough Whitlam’s days, but it has grown in popularity in recent decades to become a distinct part of our voting day practices. This ritual has only solidified as a result of social media, with Twitter adding the sausage on bread symbol to #ausvotes during 2016’s federal election.

Indeed, “democracy sausage” (a term for the ritual which reportedly came into circulation in 2012) was crowned Australia’s Word of the Year for 2016 by the Australian National Dictionary Centre.

It seems silly for a sausage sizzle to become iconic in this way, but the democracy sausage — along with lesser known rituals like the ‘one-eyed breakfast’ (toad in the hole) or election night party — fundamentally represent and celebrate the communality and transparency of our democratic system.

Elections as social ceremonies

As University of Queensland Professor Graeme Orr explains, elections have historically been a “physically concentrated and communal event” that is, by its very nature, a grand social ceremony.

Image: Election Sausage Sizzle

This social ceremony is comprised of smaller rituals at the polling booth, but also includes the gathering of citizens during the evening’s vote count — as in oddly familiar Don’s Party (1976). According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the television news coverage is the focus of any successful election night get-together, while the Museum of Australian Democracy adds the rituals of free-flowing alcohol and betting.

Despite the frivolity of on-the-day cake stalls and boozy viewing parties, our voting rituals are taken quite seriously by some — none more so than the democracy sausage, the location of which on election day is tracked by multiple websites. The Democracy Sausage group, for example, considers the foodstuff to be “practically part of the Australian Constitution.”

Snag Votes, however, provides a more detailed explanation of this ritual’s importance:

“The underlying objective is to celebrate our democracy, encourage participation in the democratic process and offer support for community groups and volunteers that run sausage sizzles and stalls on election day,” the website reads.

Though this highlights some of the sausage icon’s value and echoes the academic research into this unusual tradition, there are many more reasons the election day sausage sizzle is considered, even by the ABC, to be an “Aussie institution.”

Photo: TechTense, CC BY 4.0

The democracy sausage

At a practical level, the democracy sausage sizzle are fundraising opportunities for local schools, churches and community groups. They allow Australians to lend a hand to their community, while engaging in the civic act of voting.

The sausage sizzles at these relatively welcoming public places also make the act of voting less intimidating than more official or bureaucratic spaces, so they have a functional role in putting voters at ease. This is especially significant for making voting accessible to citizens of all socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.

At a symbolic level, the sausage sizzle celebrates democracy and the completion of one’s civic duty. Such celebration ensures elections are lively and voters are given space to be passionate about their role in choosing democratic representatives.

Similarly, the democracy sausage is a communal icon that represents the coming together of people from different political persuasions. It is a way for voters to unite without the tension of talking politics and, more than other election rituals, evokes a sense of camaraderie and friendship.

In other words, the sausage sizzle fosters social capital and forges community bonds. It also incentivises voter turnout and relieves some of the burden of voting. A sausage on bread may not seem like the best compensation for long queues, traffic and time out of your day, but it makes the voting experience a little less frustrating.

In this way, the democracy sausage and other rituals ward against an over-reliance on convenience voting methods, which are valuable for accessibility but can be perilous if, as Professor Orr explains, they become so ubiquitous as to threaten “the very notion of election day.”

For example, polling booth rituals are part of the theatre of voting, where democracy is seen by voters in practice. This enhances trust in the voting process, which can be undermined by less visible forms of voting.

Likewise, the democracy sausage celebrates the simultaneity and fairness of voting on polling day, where citizens vote on relatively equal terms with access to the same information. Those who vote early, through postal voting or pre-polling booths, are at risk of wanting to change their vote as the campaign unfolds.

Ultimately, this iconic ritual ensures elections are the grand social ceremonies they are intended to be.

A unique ritual?

By contrast, the United States, for example, lacks the democracy sausage (or a comparable hot dog) tradition and tends to favour personal rituals, like Obama’s basketball game, over nationwide displays of communality.

This is, at least partly, because US elections are held in conditions not conducive to outdoor sausage sizzles or elaborate community activities. The weather in November can be outright prohibitive, while the Tuesday polling day (and lack of compulsory voting) is not ideal for large social gatherings.

The introduction of “I voted” stickers is an obvious attempt to foster communal ties and incentivise voting, but “life does not stop on election day” in the US. The same can be said for the UK’s election Thursday.

In Australia, life kind of does stop on election Saturday for many, but not all, of the 16 million citizens that are required to vote. This lends itself to the establishment of widespread social rituals. While the ancient Athenians may not have expected the great Australian sausage sizzle, this and other voting rituals are meaningful (and regular) reminders of the transparency and communality of our democratic system.



Erin is a freelance journalist and PhD student at Griffith University.

Erin specialises in news media depictions of popular culture, but is particularly interested in the way media framing affects public perception and politics.