The interesting problems of elections

Proposed Certificate of Citizenship (1915 Royal Commission upon the Commonwealth Electoral Law and Administration)

Totally fraud-proof. Toooootally.

So, in the course of my studies for POLS2111 Elections, Political Behaviour and Public Opinion in Australia, I came across the 1915 Report from the Royal Commission upon the Commonwealth Electoral Law and Administration (13.6MiB PDF). Commissioned by the Cook Government in 1914, this report gives an interesting insight into the history of Australia’s electoral system.

It seems that good old King O’Malley, Minister for Home Affairs and Member for Darwin (Tasmania), was at it again in the 1913 federal election, objecting to the appointment of at least 43 officials on the grounds that they were “known partisans, some who have openly taken sides in political matters”. O’Malley went further than that, however – he suggested the names of some more “suitable” appointees, including one who had previously run in a Labor preselection contest (paragraph 4). The Commissioners, unsurprisingly, took a rather dim view of this unjustified ministerial intervention, which “almost resulted in a complete breakdown of the electoral machinery for the State of Tasmania”. One Divisional Returning Officer replied, stating “I consider his selection of any one immediately disqualifies person selected [sic]“. At the time, of course, the Chief Electoral Officer and his staff did not have anywhere near the independence enjoyed by the Australian Electoral Commission today. The Commissioners recommended that “Ministerial intervention in the administration of the Act should be strictly confined to regulations approved by the Governor-General in Council” (paragraph 8).

Apart from the political issues plaguing electoral administration at the time, there were plenty of technical issues too – the report discusses such topics as ballot paper shortages (paragraph 25), lost mail bags (paragraph 26), age verification (paragraph 19), ballot paper packaging (paragraph 27), and how-to-vote cards (Maloney and Laird Smith further report paragraph 6). One of the more amusing recommendations, in this day and age at least, was to “provide for the closing of the poll at 7 p.m.” (paragraph 30). At the time, the Act prescribed 8pm as the closing time – moving it an hour earlier “would save considerable expense in lighting, and minimize the danger of destruction of records by fire”.

Among several comments about multiple voting issues, they also report an absolutely hilarious case of incredibly brazen voting fraud: “A case in which a person succeeded in impersonating another was discovered at Toowoomba. He voted as an ordinary elector in his brother’s name, and without leaving the polling booth, demanded absent voting papers in his own name, when he was detected by one of the scrutineers, who drew the attention of the Assistant Returning Officer to the irregularity. Unpardonable departmental delay was shown in taking action in this case by way of prosecution. The offender was caught in the act, with the ballot-papers in his possession. He was kept under surveillance by the police from the 31st May until the 28th June, but they had no instructions to arrest him until that date. He escaped, and is still unpunished. In such cases the Divisional Returning Officer should have power to act.” (paragraph 20) This makes one wonder how easy it would be to get away with a similar crime today – I suspect that at a busy urban polling place you might be able to hide away in the crowd…

A particularly interesting recommendation they make is found in the Addendum – the complete abolition of electoral rolls, with proof of enrolment provided by a Certificate of Citizenship (pictured above). A certificate system would have advantages – “the enormous saving effected by the abolition of rolls” (paragraph 3) and “absolute prevention” of dual voting, duplication and impersonation (paragraphs 4-6) among other things. Certificates would also save time: “At the booth we estimate that the time taken in dealing with one elector will be half that taken at present. … In some cases the elector will merely state that he is enrolled for, say, “Gippsland” Division, and perhaps the whole of the 29 subdivisional rolls for that Division will have to be searched before he is located. With this system the whole of this is done away with.” (paragraph 7) I am somewhat surprised, given the emphasis they put on “absolute prevention” of voting offences, that they didn’t consider that the certificates could simply be copied, although presumably that was a bit harder in 1915. It doesn’t appear that this recommendation was ever adopted, though.

While many of the issues of 1913 have faded from public memory today, three recommendations of the Commission have become the most distinctive aspects of the Australian electoral system today. “Under the prevailing party system, electors must either vote for the party nominee or refrain from voting. Political thoughts should not be confined in perpetuity to too narrow channels. There must necessarily be many shades of political opinion, which, in a democratic country, should be given expression to in the freest possible manner. In order that public opinion may be portrayed in distinct broad tones of thought, we strongly urge the adoption of preferential voting for the House of Representatives.” (paragraph 11) Preferential voting, also known as the Alternative Vote or Instant Runoff Voting, is only used in a handful of other countries worldwide, and was notoriously defeated in a 2011 UK referendum. In Australia, however, preferential voting was quickly adopted with the passage of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918.

The Commission’s recommendations for enhancing the expression of political opinion in the House were extended to the Senate, which at the time used plurality-at-large voting: “In view of the large area represented by Senators, a system of proportional representation should be adopted; applying, of course, to each separate State.” (paragraph 12) The Single Transferable Vote had been used in Tasmania since 1896, so Australians were not entirely unfamiliar with the system. Nevertheless, the Senate voting system did not change until the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1948.

Arguably the most unique feature of the Australian electoral system, however, especially among English-speaking democracies, is our relatively strong system of compulsory voting. Compulsory enrolment for federal elections was introduced in 1912, but voting was not enforced. The Commission, however, viewed compulsory voting to be “a natural corollary of compulsory enrolment” – a recommendation subsequently adopted by Parliament in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1924. To this day, compulsory voting remains rare. The Australian Election Study finds that a clear majority of the population support compulsory voting, and that there is a very strong voting culture in Australia that would result in high turnout even if compulsory voting were to be abolished.

I haven’t been able to find any other copies of the Royal Commission’s report online, so I’ve scanned it from the Parliamentary Papers Series, courtesy of the ANU Library’s Official Documents repository – it’s available here (13.6MiB PDF).

I find the history of Australia’s electoral system to be fascinating – unfortunately the current limitations of our digitised historical collections makes it somewhat difficult to piece together the original sources. Such is life, however…


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