Compulsory voting was introduced for Queensland state election in 1915, at the federal level in 1924, and Victoria introduced it for the Legislative Assembly at the 1927 state election and for Legislative Council elections in 1935. New South Wales and Tasmania introduced compulsory voting in 1928, Western Australia in 1936 and South Australia in 1942. In South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia voting at local elections is not compulsory. Australia enforces compulsory voting. About 5% of enrolled voters fail to vote at most elections. People in this situation are asked to explain their failure to vote. If no satisfactory reason is provided (for example, illness or religious prohibition), a fine of up to $170 is imposed, and failure to pay the fine may result in a court hearing and additional costs.
The immediate justification for compulsory voting at the federal level was the low voter turnout (59.38% at the 1922 federal election, down from 71.59% at the 1919 federal election. Compulsory voting was not on the platform of either the Stanley Bruce-led Nationalist/Country party coalition government or the Matthew Charlton-led Labor opposition. The actual initiative for change was made by Herbert Payne, a backbench Tasmanian Nationalists senator who on 16 July 1924 introduced a private member's bill in the Senate. Payne's bill was passed with little debate (the House of Representatives agreeing to it in less than an hour), and in neither house was a division required, hence no votes were recorded against the bill. It received Royal Assent on 31 July 1924 as the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1924. The 1925 federal election was the first to be conducted under compulsory voting, which saw the turnout figure rise to 91.4%. The turnout increased to about 95% within a couple of elections and has stayed at about that level since. Compulsory voting at referendums was considered when a referendum was proposed in 1915, but, as the referendum was never held, the idea was put on hold.
It is an offence to “mislead an elector in relation to the casting of his vote”. An “informal vote” is one which has not been filled in correctly or not at all. The number of informal votes is counted but, in the determination of voter preferences, they are included in the total number of (valid) votes cast. Around 95% of registered voters attend polling, and around 5% of House of Representatives votes are informal.
When compulsory voting was introduced in Victoria in 1926 for the Legislative Assembly, the turnout increased from 59.24% at the 1924 state election to 91.76% at the 1927 state election, but the informal vote increased from 1.01% in 1924 to 1.94% in 1927. But when it was introduced for the Legislative Council in 1937, the turnout increased from 10% to only 46%.
Debate over compulsory voting
Following the 2004 federal election, at which the Liberal-National coalition government won a majority in both houses, a senior minister, Senator Nick Minchin, said that he favoured the abolition of compulsory voting. Some prominent Liberals, such as Petro Georgiou, former chair of the Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, have spoken in favour of compulsory voting.
Peter Singer, in Democracy and Disobedience, argues that compulsory voting could negate the obligation of a voter to support the outcome of the election, since voluntary participation in elections is deemed to be one of the sources of the obligation to obey the law in a democracy. In 1996 Albert Langer was jailed for three weeks on contempt charges in relation to a constitutional challenge on a legal way not to vote for either of the major parties. Chong, Davidson and Fry, writing in the journal of the right wing think tank the CIS, argue that Australian compulsory voting is disreputable, paternalistic, disadvantages smaller political parties, and allows major parties to target marginal seats and make some savings in pork-barrelling because of this targeting. Chong et al. also argue that denial is a significant aspect of the debate about compulsory voting.
A counter argument to opponents of compulsory voting is that in these systems the individual still has the practical ability to abstain at the polls by voting informally if they so choose, due to the secrecy of the ballot. A spoilt vote does not count towards any political party and effectively is the same as choosing not to vote under a non-compulsory voting system. However, Singer argues that even the appearance of voluntary participation is sufficient to create an obligation to obey the law.
In the 2010 Australian election, Mark Latham urged Australians to vote informally by handing in blank ballot papers for the 2010 election. He also stated that he doesn't feel it is fair for the government to force citizens to vote if they don't have an opinion or threaten them into voting with a fine. An Australian Electoral Commission spokesman stated that the Commonwealth Electoral Act did not contain an explicit provision prohibiting the casting of a blank vote. How the Australian Electoral Commission arrived at this opinion is unknown; it runs contrary to the opinions of Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick, who wrote that voters must actually mark the ballot paper and deposit that ballot into a ballot box, and Justice Blackburn who was of the opinion that casting an invalid vote was a violation of the Act.
Tim Evans, a Director of Elections Systems and Policy of the AEC, wrote in 2006 that “It is not the case, as some people have claimed, that it is only compulsory to attend the polling place and have your name marked off and this has been upheld by a number of legal decisions.” Yet, practically, it remains the fact that having received a ballot paper, the elector can simply fold it up and put it into the ballot box without formally marking it, if he or she objects, in principle, to casting a vote. However, the consistently low number of informal votes each election indicates that having attended, had his or her name marked off, very few electors then choose not to vote formally.
Compulsory voting has also been promoted for its collective benefits. It becomes difficult for coercion to be used to prevent disadvantaged people (the old, illiterate or disabled) to vote, and for obstacles to be put in the way of classes of individuals (ethnic/coloured; either registration requirements or placement of voting booths) as often happens under other voting systems. The compulsion requirement also needs to be kept in proportion: jury duty and compulsory military service are vastly more onerous citizen's compulsions than attending a local voting booth once every few years. Perhaps the most compelling reason to use a system of compulsory voting is a simple matter of logistics, that is, to facilitate the smooth and orderly process of an election. Every year in countries that do not have compulsory voting election officials have to guess at the numbers of voters who might turn out - this often depends on the vagaries of the weather. Often voters are disenfranchied in those countries when voting officials err and not enough voting booths are provided. Long queues can result with voters being turned away at the close of polling not having had their chance to exercise their democratic right to vote.
Australia uses various forms of preferential voting for almost all elections. Under this system, voters number the candidates on the ballot paper in the order of their preference. The preferential system was introduced in 1918, in response to the rise of the Country Party, a party representing small farmers. The Country Party split the anti-Labor vote in conservative country areas, allowing Labor candidates to win on a minority vote. The conservative government of Billy Hughes introduced preferential voting as a means of allowing competition between the two conservative parties without putting seats at risk. It was first used at the Corangamite by-election on 14 December 1918. The system was first used for election for the Queensland Parliament in 1892. It was introduced in the
Tasmanian House of Assembly in 1906 as a result of the work of Thomas Hare and Andrew Inglis Clark.
Preferential voting has gradually extended to both upper and lower houses, in the federal, state and territory legislatures, and is also used in municipal elections, and most other kinds of elections as well, such as internal political party elections, trade union elections, church elections, elections to company boards and elections in voluntary bodies such as football clubs. Negotiations for disposition of preference recommendations to voters are taken very seriously by candidates because transferred preferences carry the same weight as primary votes. Political parties usually produce how-to-vote cards to assist and guide voters in the ranking of candidates.
At some polling places in the Australian Capital Territory, voters may choose between voting electronically or on paper. Otherwise, Australian elections are carried out using paper ballots. If more than one election takes place, for example for the House of Representatives and the Senate, then each election is on a separate ballot paper, which are of different colours and which are deposited into separate ballot boxes.
Secret balloting was implemented by Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia in 1856, followed by other Australian colonies: New South Wales (1858), Queensland (1859), and Western Australia (1877). Colonial (soon to become States) electoral laws, including the secret ballot, applied for the first election of the Australian Parliament in 1901, and the system has continued to be a feature of all elections in Australia and also applies to referendums.
Australia and none of the states and territories permit proxy voting.
Allocation process for House of Representatives
The main elements of the operation of preferential voting for single-member House of Representatives divisions are as follows:
- Voters are required to place the number “1” against their first choice of candidate, known as the “first preference” or “primary vote”.
- Voters are then required to place the numbers “2”, “3”, etc., against all of the other candidates listed on the ballot paper, in order of preference. (Every candidate must be numbered, otherwise the vote becomes “informal” (spoiled) and does not count.
- Prior to counting, each ballot paper is examined to ensure that it is validly filled in (and not invalidated on other grounds).
- The number “1” or first preference votes are counted first. If no candidate secures an absolute majority (more than half) of first preference votes, then the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded from the count.
- The votes for the eliminated candidate (ie. from the ballots that placed the eliminated candidate first) are re-allocated to the remaining candidates according to the number “2” or “second preference” votes.
- If no candidate has yet secured an absolute majority of the vote, then the next candidate with the fewest primary votes is eliminated. This preference allocation is repeated until there is a candidate with an absolute majority. Where a second (or subsequent) preference is expressed for a candidate who has already been eliminated, the voter’s third or subsequent preferences are used.
Following the full allocation of preferences, it is possible to derive a two-party-preferred figure, where the votes have been allocated between the two main candidates in the election. In Australia, this is usually between the candidates from the Coalition parties and the Australian Labor Party.