With the US election coming up I thought that I would repost this piece I wrote about our method of voting in Australia. I know that in the USA voting is not compulsory and that only about half the people eligible to vote do so. Americans value their right not to vote it seems. Australians don’t like being told what to do either but we have to vote, it’s compulsory. I tend to think that if you don’t take the trouble to cast a vote you can’t really complain if you don’t get the result you want. I was aghast to read that the American President appears not to want people to vote, unless it is for him of course. He believes that if everyone voted the Republican’s would never have another President elected. I find this idea bizarre. But anyway this is the way we do it.
Note: In my original post I did not go into the Hare-Clark voting system used in Tasmanian state elections and in the ACT because I wanted to focus on elections from the voters point of view. If you really love reading about this sort of thing I can’t say explain it any better than the ABC’s Antony Green. Here is a link to a piece he wrote explaining the history of it.
I thought that as a lot of people who read this blog live outside Australia it might be interesting to know how our voting process works. If this sort of thing bores you tears feel free not to read it.
With our federal election only three weeks away the political material has started to land in the letterbox. Of course, we’ve been deluged with advertising on television and on the internet for some time and in the case of the United Australia Party, long before the election was even called.
Today’s haul was a flyer from the local Labor candidate, an application for a postal vote courtesy of the Liberal candidate and a letter from the Australian Electoral Commission to remind me of when and how to vote. This one is actually useful, not for me because I know all this already but for new voters, it has a helpful explanation of what happens when you go to the polls and how to fill out the ballot papers correctly.
I did want to find out where the local polling place would be, it is usually at the Geeveston Primary School. In fact when the election was announced the first thing that we Op Shop volunteers discussed was having the shop open on election day. Who doesn’t love a captive audience? Occasionally the polling place is at the community hall instead but I was able to check on the AEC website. The school has better parking and it’s always available on a Saturday, the day we vote.
The letter has a step by step guide to what happens from when voters arrive at the polling place. First, it says that you may be approached by representatives of the various candidates who will offer to give you How-To-Vote cards. It goes on to say that nobody is obliged to take these or follow the instructions on them. In fact, there is a rule that no canvassing is allowed within six metres of the entrance to the polling place. That means no signs, buttons or badges are permitted in that area and that the canvassers must make sure that they are the proper distance from the entrance. When they go inside to the polling booths they have to remove any party insignia they may be wearing, or cover it up if it’s a T-Shirt I guess. It doesn’t mention it in the letter but once you have negotiated the political canvassers you may have the opportunity to buy a sausage on a slice of bread, a cake or any other kind of fundraising item that local community groups may be selling.
Once inside the building the first thing that happens is that you have your name and address checked off by workers from the AEC. They will then ask if you have voted previously in this election. That always used to amuse me when I arrived to vote at 8am when the polls opened but these days as so many more people vote early it’s a valid question. I remember how the workers would search for our names in great big books. I’d always have to spell my first name out as it is unusual and there are two or three different ways of spelling my surname too. I think that the last time I voted they had tablets. Once this has been done they will give you your ballot papers. In this case a big white one for the Senate or Upper House and a smaller green one for the House of Representatives, the lower house. If you are lucky there will be empty booths and you won’t have to wait. I guess many countries have these cardboard booths for privacy. Then the real fun begins as you fill out your ballot papers. Although voting is compulsory in Australia technically once your name has been checked off the electoral rolls you are considered to have cast your vote. If you really don’t want to vote you could leave your papers blank or write some slogan on them making them invalid and you won’t get into trouble. It’s a secret ballot, who would know? Still, as I always say, if you can’t be bothered to vote you have no right to complain about the outcome. So go ahead and fill out those papers.
Australia has a preferential voting system but it differs from that of other countries. The system works like this.
The essence of preferential voting is that voters number candidates on the ballot paper in a rank order of choice. You put the number 1 next to your first choice candidate, 2 next to your second choice, and so on. If your first choice candidate is not elected and no candidate receives half of the vote, your vote may be re-examined for its next preference. The point of the system is to elect the most preferred candidate, to choose the candidate that can build an absolute majority of support in the electorate rather than the simple majority required under first past the post voting.
If you are interested in such things I’ll include a couple of links at the end of this post explaining the history of our system and how it compares with some other countries. Parties do deals with other parties to allocate preferences but as stated you don’t have to follow the instructions on any party’s How-to-Vote card, it’s perfectly OK to number the boxes in any order you wish and still valid as long as you number every box on the green paper and the correct number on the white one.
The Senate system is a little different as you can choose to vote “above the line” or “below the line”. Each state has twelve Senators and the two territories the ACT and NT have two each. Senators are elected for a fixed six-year term so normally you are only voting for half of them at any one time. Occasionally, in certain circumstances, the whole Senate is dissolved early, this is called a double dissolution. That means that the Senate ballot paper has a lot more names on it as each party will nominate multiple candidates plus there are more minor parties and independents who run for the Senate. Voting above the line means that all you have to do is number the parties in the order you prefer. If you vote below the line you are voting for individual candidates. You have more control over where your preferences go but you will have to number a lot more boxes, the sample I received specified a minimum of twelve boxes must be numbered. Of course, you are free to number the lot if you like. I usually do. The 2016 federal election was a double dissolution election and it was the biggest ballot paper I had ever seen. I think there were about 58 names on it. I think that in NSW and Victoria they had even more.
Another fun fact and again I don’t know if this happens elsewhere, the names on the ballot papers are not in alphabetical order but decided by random draw.
Lastly, if you can’t make it to the polling place on election day there are several options. You are allowed to vote outside your own electorate if you are away from home. You go to a polling place and ask for an absent vote, I don’t know if that is the right name for it. In 1990 a federal election was called just before David and I went overseas. We went to Australia House in London to cast our votes. I am not sure if you can still do that though. Postal votes have been around for a very long time too, but increasingly people are able to go to a pre-polling place and cast their vote before the election. This used to be just for people who might be away or in hospital on election day but although you are required to give a reason why you need to vote early the AEC does not really seem to check. On the other hand, if you forget to vote you will get a “Please explain” letter from them and if they don’t like your excuse you could receive a fine.
The AEC also visits hospitals and nursing homes allowing people to cast their vote there if attending a polling place is not an option. This is also helpful for staff in these places who may find it difficult to get to the polls in time.
So for those of you who have a different method of voting or maybe have never exercised your right to vote that’s how we do it Aussie style.