Monday 6 May 2024

The Australian Ballot

Pic courtesy Australian National Audit Office

Sometimes we take the best aspects of our country's institutions for granted.

One of the clearest examples of this is our "Australian Ballot". This country has pioneered many aspects of nineteenth and twentieth-century adult suffrage. 

Victoria and South Australia were the first administrations (at the time British colonies) to introduce secret ballots in 1856, and that method of voting was called for many years "the Australian ballot".

The Australian ballot spread to Europe and the United States to meet the growing public and parliamentary demand for protection of voters. 

Apart from the secret ballot, so many other aspects of our system are either unique to Australia, or were pioneered in Australia.

We vote on Saturdays, and often have fundraising stalls and sausage sizzles (the famous democracy sausage) present at the booths. Voting on the weekend frees up access to the process, and is far from universal elsewhere. The Americans vote on Tuesday, for example, an historical remnant of the horse and buggy era when it took an average of three days to get to a booth at the end of the week.

Saturday, Sunday and Monday were the travelling days. It's a commentary on the bizarre nature of US culture that the practice that made sense over two hundred years ago, remains.

It resembles the quant logic behind their gun laws, or the lack of them.

The casual friendly atmosphere of the sausage sizzle is a reflection of our voting culture, which sees the task as being part of the responsibility of citizenship, but at the same time something that is socially enjoyable. We don't take ourselves seriously enough to vote with either fervour or long faces.

The votes are counted by hand, for simplicity, and there are scrutineers present. When I was younger I often worked as a polling clerk. The pay was good, and the atmosphere congenial. It was not unknown for opposing scrutineers to share transport to and from the booth, and perhaps a cold ale afterwards, if voting was done before closing time. In small bush booths, this was always possible.

Preferential voting is another positive aspect of our system. To win a seat you need 50% of the vote plus one. You rank the candidates on your ballot paper from one to whatever. The votes are sorted according to first preferences, and then counted. 

If no candidate has sufficient votes to have an absolute majority, the votes of the candidate with the lowest number of votes are distributed according to their second preferences. This process continues until one candidate has 50% plus one. 

Some candidates will win their seat without any need to distribute preferences, but for those who have to go to preferences, this process means no one is disenfranchised. 

Many don't understand how the system works, but if they took the time to examine it, and the principles it's based on, they might appreciate the respect it pays to every voter. Preferential voting together with the compulsory ballot, means nobody is disenfranchised.

Voter suppression is a non-issue, unlike many other countries, including the USA, where it remains a problem. The Queensland Electoral Commission practice of mailing out voter IDs to people on the electoral roll is designed to facilitate the process, and counter claims of fraud, which have been largely influenced by American trends.

I'm old enough the remember the Gerrymander that persisted in Queensland during the Bjelke-Petersen era. On average, the Country Party needed only 7,000 votes to win a seat, compared with 12,800 for a typical Labor seat. That was remedied in 1989 through the Fitzgerald reforms, but it had successfully kept a Coalition government in power for decades.

The Electoral Commission reviews boundaries every five years, and because the AEC is a commission, and not an elected body, political influence does not apply.

So the Australian ballot is a bastion of our democracy.

Long may it remain.


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