The night before the Western Australian state election in 2013, a group of friends sat around discussing how they would vote.
Amid the deep debate on politics and policies, a more pressing question emerged. Being millennials, they immediately posted it on Twitter.
“Hey everyone, let us know where you find your sausage sizzle tomorrow #democracysausage,” says Kimberley Seats, recalling the tweet which has since become part of Australian political folklore.
The group does not lay claim to coining the phrase, which formally entered the Australian lexicon in 2016, when the Australian National Dictionary Center declared “democracy sausage” the word (or phrase) of the year.
But it has staked a claim to the term on social media, with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, as well as a website which maps where Australians can buy a sausage – or sweeter options – when they fulfill their civic duty to vote.
This year, the Aussie democracy sausage obsession has gone global with sizzles at consulates – including London, New York, Tokyo, Berlin, Kuala Lumpur and Vanuatu – where expats have already cast their votes.
Twitter is even getting in on the act with a sausage emoji that’s automatically added to one of six hashtags, including #ausvotes #auspol and #sausagesizzle. So far this election season, the sausage emoji has been added to more than two million tweets.
The social media site has also teamed up with Democracy Sausage to allow Australian users to find a sausage via a Twitter chatbot on the day of polling, Saturday. Google is also using the data in an interactive map.
How did it come to this?
Buying snacks at polling booths is not a new phenomenon, says political historian Judith Brett, author of “From secret ballot to democracy sausage: How Australia got compulsory voting.”
“Certainly, there’s a photo in the 1930s of a polling booth with a cake stall outside, so I think community organizations saw it was an opportunity to fund-raise,” Brett says.
Fund-raising was an unintended consequence of compulsory voting, a policy introduced in 1924 after World War I. All Australians aged over 18 are still required to vote, and can be fined $20 Australian ($14) or taken to court if they don’t comply.
The introduction of compulsory voting meant polling booths attracted enough people willing to spend their money on cake or jam, with proceeds used to help stock the school library or buy new equipment.
Sausages started appearing at community events with the advent of portable barbecues in the 1980s, Brett says.
The sausage, slapped on a piece a bread with optional onion and a squirt of ketchup, is now something of a local culinary icon.
However, Brett says it is not compulsory voting that has led to today’s sausage sizzles, but a law introduced in 1911 which decrees that polling day must be a Saturday.
With children off school, voting became a family affair and something of a social function as well as a civic duty.
“The other crucial thing is that Australians are not tied to vote at a particular polling booth,” Brett says, so unlike many other countries, friends can opt to vote together.
This year, a record 16,424,248 Australians have registered to vote, meaning turnout will be close to 96%, compared to 61% in the US in 2016 and almost 69% in the UK in 2017. Voting is optional in both those countries.
The Australian Electoral Commission says 1.4 million people failed to vote in the last election in 2016, but only a “relatively small number” are typically taken to court.
Brett can’t see an end to compulsory voting – surveys suggest it is popular with voters – and in some respects she says it acts as a stabilizing force.
“It means that people who are slightly less agitated and aggrieved also vote. We’ve had people saying things like because of compulsory voting it’s the sensible center that decides elections rather than the fringes,” she says.
When polls opened on Saturday, the team at Democracy Sausage had plotted more than 1,800 locations where voters could expect a sausage with their voting cards.
The group has noticed a rise in vegan, vegetarian and halal options in inner-city locales, and are keen to hear about local twists.
In a nod to the final of this Sunday’s Eurovision Song Contest – which, confusingly, Australia is a participant – one primary school in the state of New South Wales is offering a variety of condiments from participating countries, including tzatziki, hummus, hot English mustard and remoulade.
For the data enthusiasts at Democracy Sausage, this weekend’s election will leave behind a lot more than dirty barbecues and empty sauce bottles.
“We have an interest in data so we do a bit of analytics on the information that’s come through, in terms of which electorates have the highest number of booths with sausage sizzles,” Seats says. “This time around, we’re also looking into voter figures at those booths as well – if booths with sausage sizzles have the highest number of voter turnout.”
Mostly, she says, they just do it for fun.
“I guess what we really enjoy is hearing back from the polling booths and the community groups after the elections,” Seats says.
“We had a lovely lady contact us last time around and say thank you because she’d managed to raise $2,000 ($1,400) for their school library through her sausage sizzle stall – she just wanted to say thank you for putting her stall on the map.”