House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

3 - Elections and the electoral system

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Members of the House of Representatives are elected on the basis of universal adult franchise for citizens. This principle is based on the interpretation of constitutional provisions.[11] Elections are characterised by:

These features, together with the following innovations, make up the principal voting provisions which are currently followed in federal elections:

  • Compulsory registration of voters since 1911. A roll of electors is kept for each electoral division and every eligible voter is required to enrol.[15]
  • Preferential voting system since 1918.[16] Up until 1918 the first-past-the-post system was used at federal elections.
  • Compulsory voting became effective at the 1925 general election.[17] It is the duty of every elector to vote at each election.[18]
  • Extension of franchise to Aboriginal people on a restricted basis since the 1949 general election,[19] to all Aboriginal people since the 1963 general election,[20] and to persons 18 years of age and over since 1973.[21]

In summary, persons entitled to enrol and to vote at federal elections (subject to certain disqualifications) are all persons who have attained 18 years of age and who are Australian citizens. British subjects whose names were on the electoral roll on 25 January 1984 are also entitled to be enrolled and vote. Enrolment may be claimed by 16 year olds but they are not entitled to vote until they turn 18.[22] Persons who have applied for Australian citizenship may also apply for provisional enrolment which takes effect on the granting of citizenship.[23]

A person who is the holder of a temporary visa for the purposes of the Migration Act, or a person who is an unlawful non-citizen under that Act, is not entitled to enrolment. A person who, being of unsound mind, is incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting, or who has been convicted of treason or treachery and has not been pardoned, or who is serving a sentence of three years or longer for an offence against the law of the Commonwealth or of a State or Territory, is not entitled to enrolment or to retain enrolment.[24] The Registrar-General (of births, deaths and marriages) and the Controller-General of Prisons, or their equivalents, in each State and Territory are required to provide to the appropriate electoral authorities details of relevant deaths and convictions, as the case may be.[25]

Electors should normally be enrolled in the subdivision in which they live. Special provisions apply to enrolled persons leaving Australia but intending to return within six years,[26] Australian citizens resident on Norfolk Island,[27] itinerants,[28] prisoners,[29] and Members of Parliament. Senators may be enrolled in any subdivision in the State or Territory which they represent, and Members of the House of Representatives may be enrolled in any subdivision of the electoral division which they represent, even if they do not live in the division.[30]

11. Constitution, ss. 30, 41.
12. Originally excluding Aboriginal people (other than those already enrolled in a State in 1902). The passage of the 1902 Act made Australia the first country to give women (with the exception of Aboriginal women in some States) both the right to vote and the right to stand for election in the national Parliament. New Zealand had given women the right to vote, but not stand for election, in 1893. In some Australian States at Federation women already had the vote (South Australia from 1895, Western Australia from 1899), and were thus able to vote in the first federal election in 1901.
13. The main innovation of the type of secret ballot which originated in Australia in the 1850’s (and is still in some jurisdictions referred to as the ‘Australian ballot’) was the government printed ballot paper listing all eligible candidates, combined with the marking of the paper in private. Earlier ‘secret’ systems, where used (notably in France and some States of the United States), had involved ballot papers, perhaps supplied by candidates or interested parties, being brought to the poll by the voter.
14. Plural voting is precluded by the Constitution, s. 30.
15. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, ss. 82, 101.
16. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 240.
17. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1924.
18. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 245. Failure to vote at an election is an offence. An elector who fails to vote can avoid the matter going to court by providing ‘a valid and sufficient reason’ or paying a $20 penalty to the Electoral Commission.
19. Those entitled to State enrolment, or members or former members of the Defence Force. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1949.
20. Amending legislation passed in 1962 in response to recommendations by the Select Committee on Voting Rights of Aborigines, H of R 1 (1961).
21. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 93. Change effective for 1973 Parramatta by-election and 1974 general election (previously age 21).
22. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, ss. 93, 100.
23. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 99A.
24. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 93. The High Court has ruled that amendments to the Act to exclude all persons serving a sentence of imprisonment were invalid, being inconsistent with the system of representative democracy established by the Constitution, Roach v. Electoral Commissioner [2007] HCA 43.
25. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, ss. 108, 109.
26. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 94.
27. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 95AA–95AC.
28. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 96.
29. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 96A.
30. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 99(4).