Voting in Australia: easier said than done

Voting X on ballot paperHappy New Year, dear reader!

If you’re an Australian citizen, as we now are, then you have to vote in elections here. Well, you don’t have to, but if you don’t you get a slap on the wrist in the form of a $25 fine, though it can go up to as much as $70 if they get really cross with you. In many ways I’m not surprised they have to force people to vote, because voting is so damn confusing here. For starters, there are three types of election in Australia:

  • Local government elections. These are where you elect the councillors that form your local council. Council areas are often divided into wards if they’re big.
  • State elections. In these elections, you decide who will run the state – in our case, New South Wales.
  • Federal elections. These elect the federal government (the one that runs the whole country).

To add to the confusion, there are two chambers in the Australian parliament that you have to vote your favourite pollies into. There’s the Senate, which is the upper chamber, and the House of Representatives, which is the lower chamber. From what I can tell, they both do the same sort of thing: argue about stuff for days on end, then eventually pass the odd law or two. The main difference is that the House of Representatives is, well, representative – the number of elected members for each party proportionally represents the number of people who voted for them – while the Senate always has twelve senators for each state. Yes, that means twelve senators for Tasmania (pop. 450,000) and twelve senators for New South Wales (pop. 6 million). Go figure.

I hope they recycle the ballot papers

So why do you need to know all this? Because when you vote, you get not one ballot paper, but two. The House of Representatives one is relatively straightforward; you have, say, six people you can vote for, one from each party. The slight catch – compared to, say, the UK – is that you have to vote for all of them! You don’t just put a X in your chosen box; you have to write a 1 for the pollie you hate the least, then a 2 for the slightly more onerous one, all the way up to a 6 for the bugger you want to get rid of. (This is known as preference voting.)

Once you’ve digested the entrée that is the House of Representatives paper, it’s time to move onto the main course: the Senate ballot paper. This is of truly epic proportions. The one in the recent federal election was so wide that I couldn’t fit it all in the booth without curling it up. Here you get a choice of how to vote (whoopee!): you can simply write the number 1 next to your chosen party in the list above the line, or, if you’re really bored, you can write 1, 2, 3, etc for each and every candidate in the list below the line. Bearing in mind the below-the-line list can contain as many as 60 candidates – and if you make a single slip-up your vote is void – it’s not surprising that 95% of people vote “above the line”.

Once you’ve done all that, you fold up your papers, stick them in the box, go home, and have a well-deserved lie down.

If you’re still confused about how to vote in Aussie elections, good old Wikipedia has the full gory details. The AEC also has useful practical info on the subject, which is just as well.

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