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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Secret Ballot : Australian Ballot

On the topic of elections, Australians tend to take for granted their system of elections. Some of them whinge about compulsory voting. And, indeed, some conservative politicians would like to adopt an optional voting system. But, by law, voting in Australia is a must. Each citizen must be on the Electoral Roll. You may get fined if you don't vote unless, as with some religious traditions, you hold a conscientious objection to voting. [A bit different from the US system which frequently results in the US president being elected by a minority of US citizens.] Some Australians make their silent protest about this by deliberately casting an invalid vote or putting a blank ballot in the ballot box. But the informal vote is only ever a few percentage points of the total.

Australia has not introduced computerised voting (except that at the 2006 Victorian election computerised voting was available for people with vision impairment) and Miss Eagle hopes this never happens. Voting is by the good old fashioned paper and pencil method - not even a ball point pen is used.

Voting always happens on a Saturday with polling booths open from 8am to 6pm. This is convenient for most people. However, if it is not convenient, there are pre-polling booths in each electorate during the week so it is possible to vote in person if you are unable to attend the polling booth on election day. There is a system of postal voting available if you are unable to get anywhere near a polling booth. This means you have to apply by mail for a vote. The ballot material is returned to the voter and the ballot has to be posted and postmarked prior to election day. Places like hospitals, retirement villages and nursing homes, usually get a visit from a mobile booth on or before election day. In the Northern Territory, which has a large number of small remote Aboriginal communities, the week prior to election day involves a massive effort with mobile voting booths as electoral office officials fly into a community for a few hours before moving on to the next one.

So balloting is compulsory, simple, highly organised and efficient. Elections are managed by Electoral Commissions. Each state has its own electoral commission and there is a national one as well to run Federal elections: the Australian Electoral Commission.

But one unique and historic aspect of the voting system is little recognised by Australians: the secret ballot. In the United States, it is referred to as the Australian ballot. What would a democratic vote based on universal suffrage be without a secret ballot?