Electoral system of Australia

This article is about elections to the Australian Parliament. For elections to Australian states and territories, see Electoral systems of the Australian states and territories. For the method of voting known as the Australian ballot, see Secret ballot.
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The Australian electoral system has evolved over 150 years of democratic government, including through the Australian Parliament, instituted in 1901. The present-day federal parliament has a number of distinctive features including compulsory voting, with majority-preferential instant-runoff voting in single-member seats to elect the lower house, the House of Representatives, and the use of single-transferable proportional voting to elect the upper house, the Senate.[1]

Federal elections and referendums are conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission. State and local government elections are overseen by separate Electoral Commissions in each state and territory: New South Wales elections are conducted by the New South Wales Electoral Commission; in Queensland it is the Electoral Commission of Queensland; in Victoria it is the Victorian Electoral Commission; in South Australia it is the Electoral Commission of South Australia; in Tasmania it is the Tasmanian Electoral Commission; in Western Australia it is the Western Australian Electoral Commission; and in the Australian Capital Territory it is the Australian Capital Territory Electoral Commission.

Voter registration

Electoral rolls

The earliest electoral roll in Australia dates to the 1840s, for the then colony of New South Wales.

Following federation in 1901, State electoral rolls were used for federal elections until a Commonwealth electoral roll was compiled. A permanent Commonwealth electoral roll was compiled in 1908. For some years afterwards, the States also compiled their own State electoral rolls, but these have now been discontinued except for Western Australia which maintains a separate electoral roll. Since 1984, the Commonwealth electoral roll has been compiled and maintained by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).

State and local elections are today based upon the Commonwealth electoral roll, maintained under joint roll arrangements.[2] though each state and territory regulates its own part of the electoral roll. The one enrolment application or update form can be used for Commonwealth, state and local rolls (except in Western Australia).

The electoral roll is compiled on a state/territory-wide basis, in alphabetical order of surname. Until 1988 electoral rolls were compiled by polling division and sub-division. Lord Howe Island is recorded as part of New South Wales, while the Cocos Islands and Christmas Island are recorded on the Northern Territory roll.

Enrolment of electors

A person can only vote if enrolled on an electoral roll. Compulsory enrolment for federal elections was introduced in 1912. Today, enrolling to vote is mandatory for Australian citizens over the age of 18. Failure to enroll can incur a fine.[3] However, citizens who later enroll themselves are protected from prosecution for not enrolling in the previous years by section 101(7) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918.[4] Enrolment is voluntary for residents of Norfolk Island. Residents in Australia who had been enrolled as British subjects in 1984 can continue to be enrolled. (These comprise about 9% of the electoral roll.) Nevertheless, about 1.3 million people otherwise eligible to vote had not been enrolled prior to the 2013 federal election, about one-third of which were aged between 18 and 24.[5] At June 2014 there were 14.9 million electors on the roll, and the number not enrolled was 1.2 million, making a "participation rate" of 92.3% (14.9 / (14.9 + 1.2 = 16.1).[6]

To be eligible to enroll, a person must be an Australian citizen, at least 18 years old and have lived at the current address for at least one month. Special rules apply to citizens going or living outside the country,[7] to military personnel and to prisoners, all of which do not reside at their normal residential address for electoral purposes. Homeless people or those otherwise with no fixed address have a particular problem with registration, not having a current address to give.

Each state and territory can regulate its own part of the Commonwealth electoral roll. For example, New South Wales has adopted the "Smart Roll" system, introduced in 2009, which draws information from various government departmental sources and enrolls eligible electors automatically on to the state roll, but not the federal roll.[8] A protection in Section 101 (8) exists for offences prior to enrolment (including failure to enroll) for those enrolled in such a way by the Electoral Commissioner. Anyone serving a prison sentence of 3 years or more is removed from the federal roll, and must to re-enrol upon release; but in Victoria, a person is struck off the roll if serving a prison sentence of 5 years, so that a person serving a term of 3-5 years, is removed from the federal roll but not the state roll.[9] The qualification of an elector for local government elections generally do not require that they be Australian citizens.

Closing of electoral roll before an election

Federal and state electoral rolls are closed for new enrolments or update of details before each election. For federal elections they are closed about a week after the issue of writs for election,[10][11] which must be issued within 10 days of the dissolution or expiration of the House of Representatives. For the 2016 election, that was 38 days before election day.[11] Historically, most new applications and updates are received after an election is called, before the closing of rolls.

In 1984 a change to the Commonwealth Electoral Act allowed for a closing date for the lodgement of changes to the electoral roll before an election. The period during which new enrolments and update of details could be made was set at seven days after an election is called. Many people either enrol or change their enrolment details in this period. For example, prior to the 2004 federal election 423,993 changes to enrolment received before the roll closing date. Of these, 78,816 were new enrolments and 225,314 were changes of address.[12]

In 2006 new laws passed in time for the 2007 federal election,[13] reducing the period for new enrolments from 7 days to 8 pm on the same business day as the issue of the writs, and until 8 pm on the third business day after the issue of the writs for the update of address details.[14] To give new voters more time to enroll for the 2007 election, the writs were issued three days after the election was announced. During these three days, 77,000 new enrolment applications were received.[15] On 6 August 2010, the High Court in Rowe v Electoral Commissioner ruled that the 2006 amendment was invalid, extending the close of rolls by one week, allowing additional eligible voters to enroll and vote in the 2010 federal election.[16] Supplementary lists of additional voters were distributed to polling places, and these voters were also contacted by the AEC via postal mail.[16]

The closing dates vary for state and territory elections.

Voting system

Conduct of elections

Federal elections are conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) and state elections are conducted by the respective state electoral commission.

The decision as to the type of election and its date is for the Prime Minister — after a consideration of constitutional requirements, legal requirements as well as political considerations — who advises the Governor-General to set the process in motion by dissolving the lower or both houses and issuing writs for election. By law, state elections cannot take place on the same day as a federal election, which takes precedence if there is conflict. Since 1912, elections have been held on a Saturday.[17]

Compulsory voting

Main article: Compulsory voting

Compulsory voting was introduced for Queensland state election in 1915, at the federal level in 1924, and Victoria introduced it for Legislative Assembly elections in 1926 and for Legislative Council elections in 1935.[18] New South Wales and Tasmania introduced compulsory voting in 1928, Western Australia in 1936 and South Australia in 1942.[19] In South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia voting at local elections is not compulsory.[20] Australia enforces compulsory voting.[21] 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,[22] 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%)[23] 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.[24] It received Royal Assent on 31 July 1924 as the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1924.[25] 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.[23]

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.[26][27]

When compulsory voting was introduced in Victoria in 1926, 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.

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.[28]

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.[29] An Australian Electoral Commission spokesman stated that the Commonwealth Electoral Act did not contain an explicit provision prohibiting the casting of a blank vote.[30] 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.[28]

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."[31] 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.

Preferential voting

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.[32][33] 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.[34] 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

Secret balloting was implemented by Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia in 1856,[35] followed by other Australian colonies: New South Wales (1858), Queensland (1859), and Western Australia (1877). State 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.

Allocation process

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:[36][37]

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.

Alternative allocation methods for Senate

For the Australian Senate, each State constitutes one multi-member electorate. Currently, 12 senators are elected from each State, one half every three years, except in the case of double dissolution when elections for all 12 senators in each State take place. The number of senators to be elected determines the 'quota' required to be achieved for election by quota-preferential voting.[39] For a half-Senate election of 6 places to be filled, the quota in each State is 14.28% (calculated using the formula 1/(6+1)), while after a double dissolution the quota is 7.69% (calculated using the formula 1/(12+1)).

The federal Senate electoral system from 1984 to 2013, and those currently used for some state legislatures, provide for simultaneous registration of party-listed candidates and party-determined orders of voting preference, known as 'group voting tickets' or 'above the line voting' which involves placing the number '1' in a single box and the vote is then allocated in accordance with the party's registered voting preferences. The AEC automatically allocates preferences, or votes, in the predetermined order outlined in the group voting ticket. Each party or group can register up to three group voting tickets. This highly complex system has potential for unexpected outcomes,[40] including the possible election of a candidate who may have initially received an insignificant primary vote tally (see, for example, the Minor Party Alliance at the 2013 federal election). An estimated 95% of all votes are cast 'above the line'.[41]

The alternative, federally, was to use 'below the line voting' by numbering a large number of individual candidate's boxes in the order of their own preference. To be valid, the voter placed sequential numbers against every candidate on the ballot paper, and the risk of error and invalidation of the vote was significant.

Gerrymandering and malapportionment

Malapportionment occurs when the number of voters in electorates are not equal. Malapportionment can occur through demographic change or through the deliberate weighting of different zones, such as rural vs. urban areas. Malapportionment differs to a gerrymander, which occurs when electoral boundaries are drawn to favour one political party or group over others.

There is no scope for malapportionment of Senate divisions, with each State constituting one multi-member electorate, though no account is taken of differences in the relative populations of states.

For the House of Representatives, members are elected from single member electorates.

Australia has seen very little gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, relevant only for the House of Representatives and State Legislative Assemblies, which have nearly always been drawn up by public servants or independent boundary commissioners. But Australia has seen systematic malapportionment of electorates. All colonial legislatures before Federation, and the federal parliament after it, allocated more representation to rural districts than their populations merited. This was justified on several grounds, such as that country people had to contend with greater distances and hardships, that country people (and specifically farmers) produced most of the nation's real wealth, and that greater country representation was necessary to balance the radical tendencies of the urban population.

However, in the later 20th century, these arguments were successfully challenged, and by the early 21st century malapportionment was abolished in all states. In all states, electoral districts must have roughly the same number of voters, with variations allowed for rural areas due to their sparse population. Proponents of this concept call this "one vote one value."


The most conspicuous examples of malapportionment were those of South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia.

South Australia

In South Australia, the 1856 Constitution stipulated that there must be two rural constituencies for every urban constituency. By the early 1960s, the urban-rural voter ratio was almost exactly reversed. More than two-thirds of the state's population lived in Adelaide and its suburbs, but the rural areas elected two-thirds of the legislature. This was despite the fact that by this time, rural seats had on average one-quarter as many voters as urban seats. In one of the more extreme cases, a vote in the rural seat of Frome was worth 10 times a vote in an Adelaide seat. The setup allowed the Liberal and Country League to stay in office from 1932 to 1965—the last 27 of those years under Thomas Playford. However, from 1947 onward, the LCL lost by increasing margins in terms of actual votes. It was possible for Labor to win by a margin large enough for a comprehensive victory in most other states and still be locked out of power. Largely because Playford was the main beneficiary, the setup was called "the Playmander," although it was not strictly speaking a gerrymander.

This gross distortion came into sharp focus during three consecutive state elections in the 1960s. In 1962, Labor routed the LCL in the two-party vote, but came up one seat short of a majority. However, it only managed a two-seat swing, one short of victory. Playford was able to continue in power with the support of two independents. The Playmander was not overcome until Labor defeated the LCL in 1965. Even then, rural weighting was strong enough that Labor won just barely enough seats for a majority, despite winning resoundingly in the two-party vote.

The LCL regained power in 1968, in another case that demonstrated the gross inequities of the Playmander. While Labor won the popular vote with 52 percent to the LCL's 43.8 percent, Labor suffered a two-seat swing, leaving both parties with 19 seats each. Conservative independent Tom Stott threw his support to the LCL. Playford's successor as LCL leader, Steele Hall, was highly embarrassed at the manner in which he became premier, and immediately set about enacting a fairer system. A few months after taking office, Hall enacted a new electoral map with 47 seats—28 seats in Adelaide and 19 in the country. Previously, there had been 39 seats—13 in Adelaide and 26 in country areas. However, for some time the LCL's base in Adelaide had been limited to the wealthy eastern crescent and the area around Holdfast Bay. While it came up short of "one vote one value," as Labor demanded, the new system allowed Adelaide to elect a majority of the legislature, all but assuring a Labor victory at the next election. By nearly all accounts, Hall knew that he was effectively handing the premiership to his Labor counterpart, Don Dunstan, at the next election. As expected, Labor won the 1970 election handily.


In Queensland, the malapportionment initially benefitted the Labor Party, since many small rural constituencies were dominated by workers in provincial cities who were organised into the powerful Australian Workers' Union. But after 1957, the Country Party (later renamed the National Party) governments of Sir Frank Nicklin and Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen tweaked the system to give the upper hand to their rural base and isolate Labor support in Brisbane and provincial cities. In later years, this system made it possible for Bjelke-Petersen to win elections with only a quarter of the first preference votes. On average, a Country/National seat took only 7,000 votes to win, compared with 12,000 for a Labor seat. Combined with the votes of the Liberals (in Queensland, the National Party had historically been the senior partner in the non-Labor coalition), this was enough to lock Labor out of power even in years when Labor was the biggest single party in the legislature. This "Bjelkemander" was not overcome until the final defeat of the Nationals in 1989. Under new Labor premier Wayne Goss, a revised map was enacted with 40 seats in Brisbane and 49 in the country. Seats had roughly the same number of voters, with a greater tolerance allowed for seats in rural areas.

Western Australia

Western Australia retained a significant malapportionment in the Legislative Assembly until 2008. Under the previous system, votes in the country were worth up to four times the value of votes in Perth, the state's capital city, even though Perth contained almost three-fourths of the state's population. On 20 May 2005 the state Parliament passed new electoral laws, removing the malapportionment with effect from the following election. Under the new laws, electorates must have a population of 21,343, with a permitted variation of 10%. Electorates with a land area of more than 100,000 km² (40,000 mi²) are permitted to have a variation of 20%, in recognition of the difficulty of representing the sparsely populated north and east of the state.[42] Large districts would be attributed an extra number of notional voters, equal to 1.5% the area of the district in square kilometres, for the purposes of this calculation. This Large District Allowance will permit large rural districts to have many fewer voters than the average district enrolment. The Office of the Electoral Distribution Commissioners[43] gives the following example: Central Kimberley-Pilbara district has 12601 electors and an area of 600038 square kilometres. The average district enrolment for WA is 21343. Central Kimberley-Pilbara thus obtains 9000 notional extra electors, bringing its notional total to 21601, which is acceptably close to the average district enrolment.

A modified form of malapportionment was, however, retained for the Legislative Council, the state upper house, in which rural areas are still slightly overrepresented. According to ABC election analyst Antony Green, the rural weighting in the Legislative Council is still significant enough that a Liberal state premier has no choice but to include the National Party in his government, even if the Liberals theoretically have enough seats in the Legislative Assembly to govern alone.[44]

The Parliament

The Parliament of Australia is a bicameral (two-house) Parliament. It combines some of the features of the Parliament of the United Kingdom with some features of the United States Congress. This is because the authors of the Australian Constitution had two objectives: to reproduce as faithfully as possible the Westminster system of parliamentary government, while creating a federation in which there would be a division of powers between the national government and the states, regulated by a written Constitution.

In structure, the Australian Parliament resembles the United States Congress. There is a House of Representatives elected from single-member constituencies of approximately equal population, and there is a Senate consisting of an equal number of Senators from each state, regardless of population (since 1975 there have also been Senators representing the territories).

But in function, the Australian Parliament follows the Westminster system. The Prime Minister holds office because they can command the support of the majority of the House of Representatives, and must resign or advise an immediate election if the house passes a vote of no-confidence in their administration. If they fail to do so, they risk dismissal by the Governor-General. All ministers are required to be members of Parliament (although the Constitution permits a person who is not currently a member of parliament to hold a ministerial portfolio for a maximum period of three months).

The House of Representatives

A sample ballot paper from NSW for the House of Representatives.

The Australian House of Representatives has 150 members elected from single-member constituencies (formally called "Electoral Divisions", but usually called seats or electorates in Australia; see Australian electorates) for three-year terms. Voters must fill in the ballot paper by numbering all the candidates in order of their preference. Failure to number all the candidates, or an error in numbering, renders the ballot informal (invalid).[45] The average number of candidates has tended to increase in recent years: there are frequently 10 or 12 candidates in a seat, and at the Wills by-election in April 1992 there were 22 candidates.[46] This has made voting increasingly onerous, but the rate of informal voting has increased only slightly.

The low rate of informal voting is largely attributed to advertising from the various political parties indicating how a voter should number their ballot paper, called a How-to-Vote Card. On election day, volunteers from political parties stand outside polling places, handing voters a card which advises them how to cast their vote for their respective party. Thus, if a voter wishes to vote for the Liberal Party, they may take the Liberal How-to-Vote Card and follow its instructions. While they can lodge their vote according to their own preferences, Australian voters show a high degree of party loyalty in following their chosen party's card.

A disinterested voter who has formed no personal preference may simply number all the candidates sequentially, 1, 2, 3, etc., from top to bottom of the ballot paper, a practice termed donkey voting, which advantages those candidates whose names are placed nearest to the top of the ballot paper. Before 1984, candidates were listed in alphabetical order, which led to a profusion of Aaronses and Abbotts contesting elections. A notable example was the 1937 Senate election, in which the Labor candidate group in New South Wales consisted of Amour, Ashley, Armstrong and Arthur—all of whom were elected. Since 1984, the listed order of candidates on the ballot paper has been determined by drawing lots, a ceremony performed publicly by electoral officials immediately after the appointed time for closure of nominations.

Lower house primary, two-party and seat results since 1910

A two-party system has existed in the Australian House of Representatives since the two non-Labor parties merged in 1909. The 1910 election was the first to elect a majority government, with the Australian Labor Party concurrently winning the first Senate majority. A two-party-preferred vote (2PP) has been calculated since the 1919 change from first-past-the-post to preferential voting and subsequent introduction of the Coalition. ALP = Australian Labor Party, L+NP = grouping of Liberal/National/LNP/CLP Coalition parties (and predecessors), Oth = other parties and independents.

House of Representatives results and polling
Primary vote 2PP vote Seats
ALP L+NP Oth. ALP L+NP ALP L+NP Oth. Total
2 July 2016 election 34.7% 42.0% 23.3% 49.6% 50.4% 69 76 5 150
28 Jun – 1 Jul 2016 Newspoll 35% 42% 23% 49.5% 50.5%
7 September 2013 election 33.4% 45.6% 21.1% 46.5% 53.5% 55 90 5 150
3–5 Sep 2013 Newspoll 33% 46% 21% 46% 54%
21 August 2010 election 38.0% 43.3% 18.8% 50.1% 49.9% 72 72 6 150
17–19 Aug 2010 Newspoll 36.2% 43.4% 20.4% 50.2% 49.8%
24 November 2007 election 43.4% 42.1% 14.5% 52.7% 47.3% 83 65 2 150
20–22 Nov 2007 Newspoll 44% 43% 13% 52% 48%
9 October 2004 election 37.6% 46.7% 15.7% 47.3% 52.7% 60 87 3 150
6–7 Oct 2004 Newspoll 39% 45% 16% 50% 50%
10 November 2001 election 37.8% 43.0% 19.2% 49.0% 51.0% 65 82 3 150
7–8 Nov 2001 Newspoll 38.5% 46% 15.5% 47% 53%
3 October 1998 election 40.1% 39.5% 20.4% 51.0% 49.0% 67 80 1 148
30 Sep – 1 Oct 1998 Newspoll 44% 40% 16% 53% 47%
2 March 1996 election 38.7% 47.3% 14.0% 46.4% 53.6% 49 94 5 148
28–29 Feb 1996 Newspoll 40.5% 48% 11.5% 46.5% 53.5%
13 March 1993 election 44.9% 44.3% 10.7% 51.4% 48.6% 80 65 2 147
11 Mar 1993 Newspoll 44% 45% 11% 49.5% 50.5%
24 March 1990 election 39.4% 43.5% 17.1% 49.9% 50.1% 78 69 1 148
11 July 1987 election 45.8% 46.1% 8.1% 50.8% 49.2% 86 62 0 148
1 December 1984 election 47.6% 45.0% 7.4% 51.8% 48.2% 82 66 0 148
5 March 1983 election 49.5% 43.6% 6.9% 53.2% 46.8% 75 50 0 125
18 October 1980 election 45.2% 46.3% 8.5% 49.6% 50.4% 51 74 0 125
10 December 1977 election 39.7% 48.1% 12.2% 45.4% 54.6% 38 86 0 124
13 December 1975 election 42.8% 53.1% 4.1% 44.3% 55.7% 36 91 0 127
18 May 1974 election 49.3% 44.9% 5.8% 51.7% 48.3% 66 61 0 127
2 December 1972 election 49.6% 41.5% 8.9% 52.7% 47.3% 67 58 0 125
25 October 1969 election 47.0% 43.3% 9.7% 50.2% 49.8% 59 66 0 125
26 November 1966 election 40.0% 50.0% 10.0% 43.1% 56.9% 41 82 1 124
30 November 1963 election 45.5% 46.0% 8.5% 47.4% 52.6% 50 72 0 122
9 December 1961 election 47.9% 42.1% 10.0% 50.5% 49.5% 60 62 0 122
22 November 1958 election 42.8% 46.6% 10.6% 45.9% 54.1% 45 77 0 122
10 December 1955 election 44.6% 47.6% 7.8% 45.8% 54.2% 47 75 0 122
29 May 1954 election 50.0% 46.8% 3.2% 50.7% 49.3% 57 64 0 121
28 April 1951 election 47.6% 50.3% 2.1% 49.3% 50.7% 52 69 0 121
10 December 1949 election 46.0% 50.3% 3.7% 49.0% 51.0% 47 74 0 121
28 September 1946 election 49.7% 39.3% 11.0% 54.1% 45.9% 43 26 5 74
21 August 1943 election 49.9% 23.0% 27.1% 58.2% 41.8% 49 19 6 74
21 September 1940 election 40.2% 43.9% 15.9% 50.3% 49.7% 32 36 6 74
23 October 1937 election 43.2% 49.3% 7.5% 49.4% 50.6% 29 44 2 74
15 September 1934 election 26.8% 45.6% 27.6% 46.5% 53.5% 18 42 14 74
19 December 1931 election 27.1% 48.4% 24.5% 41.5% 58.5% 14 50 11 75
12 October 1929 election 48.8% 44.2% 7.0% 56.7% 43.3% 46 24 5 75
17 November 1928 election 44.6% 49.6% 5.8% 48.4% 51.6% 31 42 2 75
14 November 1925 election 45.0% 53.2% 1.8% 46.2% 53.8% 23 50 2 75
16 December 1922 election 42.3% 47.8% 9.9% 48.8% 51.2% 29 40 6 75
13 December 1919 election 42.5% 54.3% 3.2% 45.9% 54.1% 25 38 2 75
5 May 1917 election 43.9% 54.2% 1.9% 22 53 0 75
5 September 1914 election 50.9% 47.2% 1.9% 42 32 1 75
31 May 1913 election 48.5% 48.9% 2.6% 37 38 0 75
13 April 1910 election 50.0% 45.1% 4.9% 42 31 2 75
Polling conducted by Newspoll and published in The Australian. Three percent margin of error.

Counting votes in elections for the House of Representatives

The House of Representatives uses full preferential voting, which is known outside Australia by names such as "instant runoff voting" (IRV) and "alternative voting".

When the polls close at 6 pm on election day, the votes are counted. The count is conducted by officers of the Australian Electoral Commission, watched by nominated volunteer observers from the political parties, called scrutineers, who are entitled to observe the whole voting process from the opening of the booth. The votes from each polling booth in the electorate are tallied at the office of the returning officer for the electorate. If one of the candidates has more than 50% of the vote, then they are declared elected. Australian politics are influenced by social and economic demographics, though the correlation between "class" and voting is not always simple.[47] Typically, the National Party will poll higher in rural seats. The Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party are not as easily generalised. In a strong seat, the elected party might win up to 80% of the two-party-preferred vote. In the 2004 federal election, the highest winning margin in a seat was 25.1%,[48] with most seats won by a margin of less than 10%.

In the remaining seats, no single candidate will have a majority of the primary votes (or first-preference votes). A hypothetical result might look like this:

White (Democrat) 6,000 6.0%
Smith (Labor) 45,000 45.0%
Jones (Liberal) 35,000 35.0%
Johnson (Green) 10,000 10.0%
Davies (Ind) 4,000 4.0%

On election night, an interim distribution of preferences called a TCP (two-candidate-preferred) count is performed. The electoral commission nominates the two candidates it believes are most likely to win the most votes and all votes are distributed immediately to one or the other preferred candidate.[49] This result is indicative only and subsequently the formal count will be performed after all "declaration" (e.g. postal, absent votes) votes are received.

In this example, the candidate with the smallest vote, Davies, will be eliminated, and his or her preferences will be distributed: that is, his or her 4,000 votes will be individually re-allocated to the remaining candidates according to which candidate received the number 2 vote on each of those 4000 ballot papers. Suppose Davies's preferences split 50/50 between Smith and Jones. After re-allocation of Davies's votes, Smith would have 47% and Jones 37% of the total votes in the electorate. White would then be eliminated. Suppose all of White's preferences went to Smith. Smith would then have 53% and would be declared elected. Johnson's votes would not need to be distributed.

Exhausted preferences

The exhausted counts correspond to votes that ought to be informal, if strictly following the rules above, but were deemed to have expressed some valid preferences. The Electoral Act has since been amended to almost eliminate exhausted votes.

Section 268(1)(c) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 now has the effect of making the vote of any elector that does not preference every candidate on the ballot paper an informal vote as opposed to counting the vote until the voter's preference exhausts.

Two-party majorities, swings and pendulums

Since 1984 the preferences of all candidates in House of Representatives seats have been distributed, even if this is not necessary to determine the winner of the seat. This is done to determine the percentage of the votes obtained by the winning candidate after the distribution of all preferences. This is called the two-party-preferred vote. For example, if (in the example given above), Smith finished with 58% of the vote after the distribution of Johnson's preferences, Smith's two-party vote would be 58% and the seat would be said to have a two-party majority of 8%. It would therefore need a two-party swing of 8 percentage points to be lost to the other side of politics at the next election.

Once the two-party majorities in all seats are known, they can then be arranged in a table to show the order in which they would be lost in the event of an adverse swing at the next election. Such tables frequently appear in the Australian media and are called election pendulums or sometimes Mackerras pendulums after the political scientist Malcolm Mackerras, who popularised the idea of the two-party vote in his 1972 book Australian General Elections.

Here is a sample of the federal election pendulum from the 2001 election, showing some of the seats held by the Liberal-National Party coalition government, in order of their two-party majority. A seat with a small two-party majority is said to be a marginal seat or a swinging seat. A seat with a large two-party majority is said to be a safe seat, although "safe" seats have been known to change hands in the event of a large swing.

Seat State Majority Member Party
HINKLER Qld 0.0 Paul Neville NPA
SOLOMON NT 0.1 Dave Tollner Lib
ADELAIDE SA 0.2 Hon Trish Worth Lib
CANNING WA 0.4 Don Randall Lib
DOBELL NSW 0.4 Ken Ticehurst Lib
PARRAMATTA NSW 1.1 Ross Cameron Lib
McEWEN Vic 1.2 Fran Bailey Lib
PATERSON NSW 1.4 Bob Baldwin Lib
HERBERT Qld 1.6 Peter Lindsay Lib
RICHMOND NSW 1.6 Hon Larry Anthony NPA
DEAKIN Vic 1.7 Philip Barresi Lib
EDEN-MONARO NSW 1.7 Gary Nairn Lib
HINDMARSH SA 1.9 Hon Christine Gallus Lib


The boundaries of Australian electoral constituencies are drawn up by the Australian Electoral Commission, an independent statutory authority, completely independent of political considerations. Members of Parliament and political parties may make submissions to the Commission on proposed new boundaries, but any interference with the Commission's deliberations would be a serious offence.

The Electoral Act requires that all seats have approximately equal numbers of enrolled voters. When the Commission determines that population shifts within a state have caused some seats to have too many or too few voters, new boundaries are drawn up. This is called a redistribution. Redistributions are also held when the Commission determines (following a formula laid down in the Act) that the distribution of seats among the states and territories must be changed because some states are growing faster than others.

In 2003, for example, redistributions were held in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. South Australia lost one seat, while Queensland gained a seat. Victoria kept the same number of seats, but one seat was abolished and one new seat created.

House casual vacancies

If a member's seat becomes vacant mid-term, whether through disqualification, resignation, death or some other possible reason, a by-election may be held to fill the causal vacancy. A member may resign by tendering the resignation to the Speaker, as required by section 37 of the Australian Constitution, or in the absence of the Speaker to the Governor-General. A resignation is not effective until it is tendered in writing to the Speaker or Governor-General.

The Senate

The Australian Senate has 76 members: each of the six states elects 12 Senators, and the Northern Territory (NT) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) each elect two Senators. The several other Australian Territories have very small populations and are represented by Northern Territory and ACT Senators (for example, Christmas Island residents are represented by NT Senators, while Jervis Bay Territory residents are represented by ACT Senators).

Senators for the states serve six-year terms, with half the Senators from each state usually being elected at each federal election. The terms of the territory Senators coincide with the duration of the House of Representatives.

The Senate is elected both proportionately and preferentially, except that each state has an equal number of seats so that the distribution of seats to states is non-proportional to the total Australian population. Thus, although within each state the seats proportionally represent the vote for that state, overall the less populous states are proportionally stronger in representation for their population compared to the more populous states.

Following the 2013 election, the Abbott Liberal government announced it would investigate changing the electoral system for the Senate. On 22 February 2016, the Turnbull Liberal government announced several proposed changes.[50] The changes had the support of the Liberal/National Coalition, the Australian Greens, and Nick Xenophon − a three-vote majority.[51] The Senate reform legislation passed both houses of the Parliament of Australia on 18 March 2016 after the Senate sat all night debating the bill.[52]

The changes abolished group voting tickets and introduced optional preferential voting, along with party logos on the ballot paper. The ballot paper continues to have a box for each party above a heavy line, with each party's candidates in a column below that party's box below the solid line. Previously, a voter could either mark a single box above the line, which triggered the party's group voting ticket (a pre-assigned sequence of preferences), or place a number in every box below the line to assign their own preferences. As a result of the changes, voters may assign their preferences for parties above the line (numbering as many boxes as they wish), or individual candidates below the line, and are not required to fill all of the boxes. Both above and below the line voting are now optional preferential voting. For above the line, voters will be instructed to write at least their first six preferences, however, a "savings provision" will still count the ballot if less than six were given. As a result, fewer votes are expected to be classed as informal, however, more ballots will "exhaust" as a result (i.e. some votes are not counted towards electing any candidate). For below the line, voters will be required to write at least their first 12 preferences. Voters will be free to continue numbering as many preferences as they like beyond the minimum number specified. Another savings provision will allow ballot papers with at least 6 below the line preferences to be formal, catering for people who confuse the above and below the line instructions; an additional change to the savings provision will also accept below the line votes with a higher number of sequence errors than previously, treating the sequence as stopping at the first error (missed or repeated numbers).

ABC electoral psephologist Antony Green wrote several publications on various aspects of the proposed Senate reforms.[53][54][55][56][57][58]

The Senate count

The form of preferential voting used in the Senate is technically known as the "Inclusive Gregory".[59]

The system for counting Senate votes is complicated, and a final result is sometimes not known for several weeks. When the Senate vote is counted, a quota for election is determined. This is the number of valid votes cast, divided by the number of Senators to be elected plus one.

For example, here is the Senate result for the state of New South Wales from the 1998 federal election. For greater clarity the votes cast for 50 minor party and independent candidates have been excluded.

The quota for election was 3,755,725 divided by seven, or 536,533.

Enrolment:                              4,031,749
Turnout:                                3,884,333 (96.3%)
Informal votes:                           128,608 (03.3%)
Formal votes:                           3,755,725
Quota for election:                       536,533
Steve Hutchins ALP 1,446,231 38.5 ELECTED 1
Hon John Faulkner *             ALP 2,914 00.1 Group H
Michael Forshaw *               ALP 864 00.0 Q:2.7073
Ursula Stephens ALP 2,551 00.1
David Oldfield ON 359,654 09.6 Group K
Brian Burston ON 570 00.0 Q:0.6729
Bevan O'Regan ON 785 00.0
Bill Heffernan *                Lib 1,371,578 36.5 ELECTED 2
Dr John Tierney *               Lib 1,441 00.0 Group L
Sandy Macdonald *               NPA 1,689 00.0 Q:2.5638
Concetta Fierravanti-Wells Lib 855 00.0
Aden Ridgeway AD 272,481 07.3 Group M
Matthew Baird AD 457 00.0 Q:0.5142
Suzzanne Reddy AD 2,163 00.1  
David Mendelssohn AD 809 00.0
John Sutton Grn 80,073 02.1 Group U
Catherine Moore Grn 748 00.0 Q:0.1521
Lee Rhiannon Grn 249 00.0
Suzie Russell Grn 542 00.0
128,608 (03.3%) informal 3,755,725

In this table, the Group number allocated to each list is shown at right. Below that is the number of quotas polled by each list. Thus, "Q:2.7073" next to the Labor Party list indicates that the Labor candidates between them polled 2.7073 quotas.

It will be seen that the leading Labor and Liberal candidates, Hutchins and Heffernan, polled more than the quota. They were therefore elected on the first count. Their surplus votes were then distributed. The surplus is the candidate's vote minus the quota. Hutchins's surplus was thus 1,446,231 minus 536,533, or 909,698. These votes are multiplied by a factor (called the "transfer value") based on the proportion of ballot papers preferencing other parties. ABC Election commentator Antony Green believes that this method distorts preference allocation.[59]

After Hutchins's surplus votes were distributed, the count looked like this:

                     Votes             Total after 
                     distributed       distribution
HUTCHINS                   E              536,533   14.3  ELECTED 1
FAULKNER *           908,567 (99.9)       911,481   24.3  ELECTED 3
Forshaw *                196 (00.0)         1,060   00.0
Stephens                 130 (00.0)         2,681   00.1
Oldfield                 186 (00.0)       359,840   09.6
Burston                    6 (00.0)           576   00.0
O'Regan                    4 (00.0)           789   00.0
HEFFERNAN *                E            1,371,578   36.5  ELECTED 2
Tierney *                 13 (00.0)         1,454   00.0
Macdonald *                1 (00.0)         1,690   00.0
Fierravanti-Wells          1 (00.0)           856   00.0
Ridgeway                 278 (00.0)       272,579   07.3
Baird                      5 (00.0)           462   00.0
Reddy                      3 (00.0)         2,166   00.1
Mendelssohn                4 (00.0)           813   00.0
Sutton                    66 (00.0)        80,139   02.1
Moore                      2 (00.0)           750   00.0
Rhiannon                   1 (00.0)           250   00.0
Russell                    0                  542   00.0
                     909,698            3,755,725

It will be seen that virtually all of Hutchins's surplus votes went to Faulkner, the second candidate on the Labor ticket, who was then elected. This is because all those voters who voted for the Labor party "above the line" had their second preferences automatically allocated to the second Labor candidate. All parties lodge a copy of their How-to-Vote Card with the Electoral Commission, and the Commission follows this card in allocating the preferences of those who vote "above the line." If a voter wished to vote, for example, Hutchins 1 and Heffernan 2, they would need to vote "below the line" by numbering each of the 69 candidates.

In the third count, Heffernan's surplus was distributed and these votes elected Tierney. Faulkner's surplus was then distributed, but these were insufficient to elect Forshaw. Likewise, Tierney's surplus was insufficient to elect McDonald.

After this stage of the count, the remaining candidates in contention (that is, the leading candidates in the major party tickets) were in the following position:

HUTCHINS                                  536,533   14.3  ELECTED 1
FAULKNER *                                536,533   14.3  ELECTED 3
Forshaw *                                 375,587   10.0
Oldfield                                  360,263   09.6
HEFFERNAN *                               536,533   14.3  ELECTED 2
Tierney *                                 536,533   14.3  ELECTED 4
Macdonald *                               300,313   08.0
Ridgeway                                  273,109   07.3
Sutton                                     80,186   02.1

All the other candidates were then eliminated one by one, starting with the candidates with the smallest number of votes, and their votes were distributed among the candidates remaining in contention in accordance with the preferences expressed on their ballot papers. After this process was completed, the remaining candidates were in the following position:

HUTCHINS                                  536,533   14.3  ELECTED 1
FAULKNER *                                536,533   14.3  ELECTED 3
Forshaw *                                 450,446   12.0
Oldfield                                  402,154   10.7
HEFFERNAN *                               536,533   14.3  ELECTED 2
Tierney *                                 536,533   14.3  ELECTED 4
Macdonald *                               357,572   09.5
Ridgeway                                  286,157   07.6
Sutton                                    112,602   03.0

Sutton was then eliminated. 80% of Sutton's preferences went to Ridgeway, giving Ridgeway more votes than McDonald. McDonald was then eliminated, and 93% of his preferences went to Ridgeway, thus giving him a quota and the fifth Senate seat. Ridgeway's surplus was then distributed, and 96% of his votes went to Forshaw, thus giving him a quota and the sixth seat. Oldfield was the last remaining unsuccessful candidate.

A final point needs to be explained. It was noted above that when a candidate polls more votes than the quota, their surplus vote is distributed to other candidates. Thus, in the example given above, Hutchins's surplus was 909,698, or 1,446,231 (his primary vote) minus 536,533 (the quota). It may be asked: which 909,698 of Hutchins's 1,446,231 primary votes are distributed? Are they chosen at random from among his votes? In fact they are all distributed, but at less than their full value. Since 909,698 is 62.9% of 1,446,231, each of Hutchins's votes is transferred to other candidates as 62.9% of a vote: each vote is said to have a transfer value of 0.629. This avoids any possibility of an unrepresentative sample of his votes being transferred. After each count the candidate's progressive total is rounded down to the nearest whole number. This means that a small number of votes are lost by fractionation in the final count.

When a person is appointed Divisional Returning Officer for a seat, his electoral enrolment will be transferred from the electorate where he lives to the one he administers. Normally he will be precluded from voting at an election, but instead will have two special powers; these are:

1. If during the count there are two candidates with equal lowest votes, he can decide which will be excluded.

2. If at the end of the count the two candidates left have an equal number of votes, he will get to vote in the election by giving a casting vote to the candidate he prefers. This is his personal vote, just like any other elector's, and is awarded at his sole discretion.

Senate casual vacancies

If a senator's seat becomes vacant mid-term, through disqualification, resignation, death or other cause, the legislature of the relevant state or territory chooses a replacement senator. A senator may resign by tendering the resignation to the President of the Senate or to the Governor-General, as required by section 19 of the Constitution. A resignation is not effective until it is tendered in writing to the President or Governor-General.

Double dissolutions

Further information: Double dissolution

Under the Australian Constitution, the House of Representatives and the Senate generally have equal legislative powers (the only exception being that appropriation (supply) bills must originate in the House of Representatives). This means that a government formed in the House of Representatives can be frustrated if a Senate majority rejects or delays passage of its legislative bills.

In such circumstances, Section 57 of the Constitution allows the Governor-general to dissolve both the House of Representatives and the Senate–termed a "double dissolution"–and issue writs for an election in which every seat in the Parliament is contested. The Governor-general would usually take such action only on the advice of the prime minister.


Candidates for either house must formally nominate with the Electoral Commission. The signature of the Registered Officer of a party registered under the Electoral Act is required for a party-endorsed candidate. A registered party must have at least 500 members. Fifty signatures of eligible voters are required for an independent candidate. A deposit of $1000 is required for a candidate for the House of Representatives, and $2000 for a candidate for the Senate; this deposit is refunded if the candidate gains 4% of the first preference votes. To receive public funding, a party or candidate must receive at least 4% of the vote.[60]

See also


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  11. 1 2 "DOCUMENTS RELATING TO THE CALLING OF THE DOUBLE DISSOLUTION ELECTION FOR 2 JULY 2016" (PDF). Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. 8 May 2016. Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 May 2016.
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  16. 1 2 "Statement from the Australian Electoral Commission on High Court Decision". Australian Electoral Commission (www.aec.gov.au). 2010. Archived from the original on 16 August 2010. Retrieved 2010-08-26.
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  28. 1 2 Derek Chong, Sinclair Davidson,Tim Fry "It's an evil thing to oblige people to vote" Policy vol. 21 No. 4, Summer 2005–06
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  37. "How the House of Representatives votes are counted". Australian Electoral Commission. 13 February 2013. Retrieved 2 May 2015.
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  40. "Voters stung by back room deals between minor parties". news.com.au. Retrieved 7 May 2015.
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  44. Green, Antony (7 February 2013). "2013 WA Election Preview". Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
  45. "Voting HOR". Aec.gov.au. 31 July 2007. Retrieved 16 June 2010.
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  50. Senate election reforms announced, including preferential voting above the line, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 22 February 2016
  51. Explainer: what changes to the Senate voting system are being proposed?, Stephen Morey, The Conversation, 23 February 2016
  52. "Electoral laws passed after marathon Parliament sitting". Abc.net.au. 2016-03-18. Retrieved 2016-12-03.
  53. Antony Green (2016-03-02). "Senate Reform – Below the Line Optional Preferential Voting Included in Government's Legislation". Blogs.abc.net.au. Retrieved 2016-12-03.
  54. Antony Green (2016-02-17). "Would Electoral Reform Deliver the Coalition a Senate Majority at a Double Dissolution?". Blogs.abc.net.au. Retrieved 2016-12-03.
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