2022 is a big year in elections – in more ways than you think

With much focus on the upcoming Federal and state elections this year, it’s worth recalling that it is 120 years since Parliament created the legislative framework of our federal electoral system. 

It’s a big year for elections in Australia, with the Federal election forecast for the first half of 2022, as well as elections in South Australia on 19 March and Victoria on 26 November. However, it’s easy to take for granted the important rules that govern how elections are conducted and who gets to vote in them.

For the first Commonwealth Parliament, these were important and contentious issues: the Australian Constitution only provides that members of Parliament are ‘directly chosen by the people’[1] – it left making the detailed rules to Parliament.

Australia’s first federal election in 1901 took place as six separate elections held according to the legislation in place in each of the states ‘for the more numerous House of the Parliament’, with significant differences in electoral procedure and franchise across the country. The Review of Reviews observed that:

Perhaps there never was a more distracted election. The issue in each State was different … again, each State followed its own electoral method, and the result was the strangest patchwork of suffrages and of systems …

For example, while most colonial parliaments had established federal electoral divisions, Tasmania and South Australia voted as a single electorate. Women had the vote only in South Australia and Western Australia, while a property-based franchise effectively denied most Indigenous Australians the vote in Western Australia and Queensland. In some states, individuals of ‘unsound mind’, drunkards, those sentenced for treason or felony, or in receipt of charitable aid, police, or members of the armed forces were also denied the vote.[2]

In April 1902, Senator Richard O’Connor introduced a Bill to establish a uniform franchise for the Commonwealth[3] proposing a universal adult franchise to anyone resident in Australia for six months who is a ‘natural born or naturalized subject of the King’ (s. 3), as:

we do not want to have any proportion of our community disfranchised and in a position of political inferiority, having no right to a voice in the making of the laws. It would be a great mistake from every point of view to have any portion of the community in such a position that, while it had to obey the laws, it would have no right to vote in the election of those who had to make the laws.[4]

This didn’t win support in Parliament: although female suffrage was accepted after lengthy debate, the idea of extending the vote to Indigenous Australians or persons from Asia, Africa or the Pacific provoked vociferous opposition. The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 as amended instead provided that:

No aboriginal native of Australia Asia Africa or the Islands of the Pacific except New Zealand[5] shall be entitled to have his name placed on an Electoral Roll unless so entitled under section forty-one of the Constitution (section 4).

(While s. 41 of the Constitution provides that no one entitled to vote in state elections should be excluded from the Commonwealth electoral roll, in practice this was narrowly interpreted). As a result of a court challenge, a 1925 amendment extended Commonwealth franchise to all naturalised Australians regardless of their race.[6] Not until 1949 did Amendments give Indigenous Australians the right to vote at Commonwealth elections if they were enfranchised under a state law or had served in the Defence Forces.[7] The full right to vote finally extended to all Indigenous Australians in 1962, though not until 1984 would enrolment and voting become compulsory.[8]

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902 (and the later Electoral Divisions Act 1903) established the machinery for federal elections. The Electoral Bill had a difficult passage, with significant amendments made during debate (including the defeat of the Government’s proposals for optional preferential voting).[9]

Many of the Act’s key elements remain familiar today, including single-member electorates for the House of Representatives (although the first elections used the ‘first past the post’ voting system in which the candidate with the greatest number of votes is elected).

Setting electoral boundaries was a matter for the Electoral Commissioner in each state, but the distributions had to be approved by both Houses of Parliament. This inherent conflict of interest remained until 1983, with the creation of the modern independent Australian Electoral Commission.

Postal voting was available for voters more than five miles from a polling place on polling day, and the High Court was designated as the Court of Disputed Returns.

The federal elections were to be run by an ‘Electoral Branch’ established in the Department of Home Affairs. A first job for the acting Chief Electoral Officer, George Lewis, was to compile the new Commonwealth electoral roll and in the end, 1,893,000 electors were enrolled, largely by police going from house to house across the country.[10]

There was controversy over the proposed new Electoral divisions—particularly the balance between urban and rural constituencies—and only the divisions proposed for South Australia and Tasmania received Parliamentary approval. NSW MP and future Prime Minister George Reid dramatically resigned in protest at Parliament’s rejection of a proposed additional Sydney seat (although he was back only two weeks later, having been comfortably re-elected in a by-election).

Australia votes (a second time)

The new rules were put to use in Australia’s second Federal election, held on Wednesday 16 December 1903. Because the Parliament had negatived most of the proposed electoral divisions, candidates in all states except South Australia and Tasmania stood for the electorates made by state parliaments for the 1901 election. The election cost £46,119.[11]

Voting was still voluntary; voter turnout across the country was around 50% for the House of Representatives and 47% for the Senate.[12]

As in 1901, no one party gained a majority in the House of Representatives. In the end, Prime Minister Deakin governed with the continuing support of the Protectionists and the Labour party until 27 April 1904.

The 1903 election was the first in which women (or those women who qualified for the franchise) enjoyed the right to vote and to stand for Parliament. Three women (Vida Goldstein, Nellie Martel, and Mary Ann Moore Bentley) campaigned for Senate seats and one (Selina Anderson) for the House of Representatives seat of Dalley (NSW). None were successful and it would be another 40 years before women entered the Federal Parliament, with Enid Lyons elected in 1943 to the House of Representatives for the Tasmanian seat of Darwin and Dorothy Tangney becoming a Senator for Western Australia (via a casual vacancy) in the same year.

Parliament House will hold an exhibition on women’s suffrage, commencing in late May 2022.

Image credit:  A border Polling Booth at the recent Commonwealth Elections at Jennings, NSW, near Tenterfield Town and Country Journal, 11 May 1901, p. 26



[1] Commonwealth of Australia Constitution, sections 7 and 24.

[2] J Summers, ‘The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia and Indigenous Peoples 1901–1967’, Research Paper series, 2000-01, Parliamentary Library, October 2000. See also J Norberry & G Williams, ‘Voters and the Franchise: The Federal Story’, Research Paper series, 2001-02, Parliamentary Library, 2002.

[3] Senator O’Connor, ‘Commonwealth Franchise Bill: Second Reading Speech’, Senate, Debates, 9 April 1902, p. 11450.

[4] Ibid., p. 11453.

[5] Maori were represented in the NZ Parliament, and their enfranchisement in Australia was at least in part to avoid creating obstacles to New Zealand one day joining the Federation. See R O’Connor, ‘Commonwealth Franchise Bill’, Senate, Debates, 29 May 1902, p. 13010.

[6] Commonwealth Electoral Act 1925

[7] Commonwealth Electoral Act 1949

[8] Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962

[9] J Uhr, ‘Rules for Representation: Parliament and the Design of the Australian Electoral System’, in Geoffrey J Lindell & RL Bennett, eds, Parliament: The Vision in Hindsight, Federation Press, Annandale, 2001, p. 266 [p.11 of extract].

[10] House of Representatives, Report from the Select Committee on Electoral Act Administration, October 1904, p. 2.

[11] Costs of elections and referendums, Australian Electoral Commission website, accessed 16 February 2022.

[12] Voter Turnout 1901–-Present, Australian Electoral Commission website, accessed 4 February 2018.