No modern democracy has shown greater readiness to experiment with various electoral methods than Australia.
— Louise Overacker, American political scientist
Aussies invented the pacemaker, the black box and plastic bank notes – but we should be equally proud of our democratic inventions, including compulsory voting, independent electoral commissions and preferential voting.
The Australian ballot – 19th Century
Before votes were held in secret, voters were subject to intimidation and vote buying. In the 19th Century the secret ballot was called the “Australian ballot” as it spread globally – with Australians adding the voting booth, government-issued ballot and government-issued pen and ink (later to be replaced with the pencil).
An independent electoral commission – South Australia, 1856
South Australia was the first place in the world to have permanent independent electoral administration. Politicians used to appoint returning officers once the election was called – and you had to wait for an election to enrol.
In countries without an independent electoral commission, politicians can divide up voters to suit themselves – resulting in “Gerrymandered” electorates. You won’t see an electorate like this in Australia!
Preferential voting – Queensland, 1892
In much of the rest of the world, politicians are elected on any share of the vote, provided they get the most votes. Australia’s preferential voting system means politicians need to be the preferred candidate for *most* of their electorate.
Queensland introduced preferential voting in 1892. Even today, in the UK, USA and Canada, voters must distort their true preference to avoid “wasting” their vote – something very rare in Australia.
Saturday voting so everyone can make it to the polls – South Australia, 1896
Most countries in the Anglosphere vote on weekdays – making it harder for workers to get to the polls. South Australia started voting on a Saturday in 1896.
Compulsory voting – Queensland 1914
Compulsory voting ensures that every citizen’s voice is heard, even the disaffected and disadvantaged – and it has kept Australian turnout at about 90% of eligible voters. Queensland adopted it in 1914 – although Belgium was first, in 1893.
[Compulsory voting encourages] electoral commissions to treat every vote as sacred and to expend considerable efforts in ensuring adequate access to the ballot.
— Graeme Orr, Bryan Mercurio and George Williams
Universal male suffrage – South Australia, 1856
South Australia was one of the first democracies to remove property ownership requirements to vote. Victoria followed in 1858. The United Kingdom did not have universal male suffrage until 1918.
That said, Australia was extremely undemocratic in its treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and the long delay in extending the vote to Indigenous Australians is a stain on Australia’s electoral history.
Even today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are less likely to be enrolled and less likely to vote, and people in remote communities can have a very limited window to vote.
Woman able to stand for election – South Australia, 1894
South Australia extended the vote to all adult women in 1894, just one year after New Zealand – the first place in the world to do so. South Australia allowed women to stand for election at the same time, something New Zealand would not do till 1919.
Voting for us is a family occasion, a duty fulfilled, as often as not, on the way to the beach, so that children early get a sense of it as an obligation, but a light one, a duty casually undertaken.
— David Malouf
A legacy to be proud of
Unfortunately, Australia Institute research shows our electoral and political systems are not well understood. A greater knowledge of our electoral tradition is its best protection. A healthy respect for our political institutions would also place a greater obligation on our politicians to live up to that ideal.
Don’t take our word for it. Historian Judith Brett’s fantastic From secret ballot to democracy sausage follows the evolution of Australian democracy.
What will the next Australian electoral invention be?
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