Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison attends a sausage sizzle at Norwood Primary School in Launceston on election day in May 2019. (Mick Tsikas/Pool/Getty Images)
7 min

SYDNEY — When voters go to the polls Saturday for Australia’s parliamentary elections, they’ll find themselves facing a difficult choice: Do they want onions on that?

Election day Down Under isn’t just about democracy — it’s also about “democracy sausages.” From the Top End to Tasmania, thousands of Australians will follow the smell of sizzling meat from the polling booth to a nearby food stall where they will buy a crispy sausage on white bread.

Like grease on a napkin, the tasty tradition has so saturated Australia that it’s become shorthand for the electoral process itself. On Twitter, election-related tweets are accompanied with a sausage-on-bread emoji. A website guides hungry voters to the nearest sausage-slinging polling site. And sated citizens often post pictures of their democracy sausages on social media — the Aussie version of the American “I voted” sticker.

“It’s a very uniquely Australian phenomenon,” said Anika Gauja, a political scientist at the University of Sydney. “It’s a sort of an expression of the community and the collective aspects of voting in Australia.”

In the study of democracy sausages — sausagology? — Gauja’s expertise is second to none. She began surveying the sausages on sale at polling places around Sydney during the 2016 federal election. Three years ago, she tried so many snags — as sausages are sometimes called here — that she felt sick.

Gauja said she gorges herself on democracy sausages because the simple, inexpensive food says something about the country’s strong egalitarian ethos. She goes so far as to call it “Australia’s national dish.”

In the United States, elections are often decided by who can motivate more supporters to leave work and cast a ballot. Lines can be long, and the people in them hangry. Some food stands set up on Election Day in the United States have drawn threats of felony charges.

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But in Australia, compulsory voting and Saturday elections mean polling sites often feel more like community festivals.

“It’s not a contested thing” as it is in the United States, said Judith Brett, the author of a book on Australia’s electoral process. “People vote on their way to the beach. They’ve got the kids. They might meet friends. You can buy something to eat and drink.”

Community groups have sold jams, cakes and other goods at the polls for around a century, she said. But it was only in the 1980s, when portable gas barbecues became widespread, that fundraisers — often to benefit schools — began selling sausages.

The term “democracy sausage” didn’t heat up until about a decade ago, Brett said.

That’s when Annette Tyler sent out a hungry tweet. It was the night before a state election in Western Australia and Tyler, then in her late 20s, asked people to share photos of the sausage options at their polling place using the hashtag #democracysausage.

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The snag snaps started pouring in. The data manager and a few friends began plotting the stalls on a map — and quickly compiled almost 1,200 of them.

“It started out as me just out of kind of wanting to know where I could find a sausage,” Tyler said. “But we found there was a [knowledge] gap and, being a bunch of data nerds, we thought we’d run with it.”

That’s how was born. By the 2019 federal election, the number of documented stands on the site had more than doubled to 2,420. This year the number of stalls is on pace to grow again.

The website doesn’t have advertising, which means Tyler and her friends lose money on it. But it’s worth it, she said.

“Election days in some ways are inherently divisive: Team A versus Team B,” Tyler said. “But pretty much everyone gets aboard the democracy sausage. It’s nice to be the one thing that is unifying about the day and can support the local community.”

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Over the past decade, Tyler said, the food on offer has multiplied. The website now allows people to upload information on their stalls, with icons representing sausage sizzles, baked goods, vegetarian options and even halal food. One stall this year is offering homemade kombucha. Another is advertising vegan dal.

“It’s gone from being, like, ‘Let’s just chuck some snags on the barbie’ to ‘What can we offer to differentiate ourselves?’ ” Tyler said.

That points to another distinguishing feature of Australian democracy: Voters may cast a ballot anywhere within their state or territory on election day. For community groups in need of funds, it’s may the best sausage win.

At Footscray City Primary School in Melbourne, the offerings will include democracy sausages as well as baked goods, many of them puns on politicians’ names. One organizer said the volunteers hoped to sell 1,000 sausages — roughly 120 pounds of meat — to raise $3,500 toward refurbishing the school’s entrance.

In the Outback, the sausage and cake competition is somewhat less fierce, Alisha Moody said. She’ll be slinging democracy sausages at her kids’ school in Quilpie, a town of around 600 people in remote Queensland. A disappointing turnout in 2019 has inspired a shake-up this time around, with her parental association adding tea and breakfast rolls in the hope of enticing more morning voters. Among the new menu items is the “ScoMo,” named after Prime Minister Scott Morrison, featuring onion, sausage, bacon, cheese and egg.

Quilpie is the most remote entry on Tyler’s map: a lonely sausage and cupcake symbol in an otherwise cholesterol-free expanse. The food stall offers far-flung people a chance to catch up, Moody said.

“You’ll always end up standing there chatting for a bit, you know, discussing the weather and the floods,” she said. “So, there is definitely that element of community to it.”

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But the number of sausage-seekers has dropped over the years as postal voting has grown, Moody said. In 2019, about 40 percent of the roughly 17 million Australians enrolled to vote cast their ballots early, either by mail or in person. That number is expected to rise again this year.

“What that does mean is fewer people will be turning out on polling day itself,” Gauja said. “So that whole spectacle of election day as a community event is under threat.”

Gauja is doing her best to document the meaty phenomenon while it lasts. Her plan on Saturday is to compare the food offerings in the Sydney electorates represented by Morrison and his challenger, Labor leader Anthony Albanese.

Like politics, democracy sausages inspire strong opinions. Some Australians prefer bread rolls. Others, Gauja among them, consider that a travesty. And pity the poor foreigner who confuses a democracy sausage for an American hot dog.

“I’m a real traditionalist when it comes to the democracy sausage,” Gauja said. “For me, the quality of the sausage is paramount. I insist on it being between either one or two slices of white bread. No bread rolls. I think the ratio of sausage to bread is really, really important. I think onions definitely have to be there. If they’re not an option, then that’s a subpar sausage sizzle.”