South Australia, William Robinson Boothby & the development of Australian electoral institutions

In 2012 I gave a talk in Adelaide’s Parliament House to the Electoral Regulation Research Network. It was a short version of the main findings of my PhD thesis, with the boring bits taken out.

It deals with the development of South Australia’s electoral apparatus in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was the model of running elections, and most importantly enrolling people, that the Australian Electoral Office adopted upon its creation in 1902.

Be warned: it’s five and a half thousand words long and written as a rough guide for speaking. It has no references.

Also a website I constructed while writing the thesis. I took it down several years ago but have put it up again here.

Title page

I’m talking today about some of the things I discovered when researching and writing my PhD thesis I submitted in 2008. About things that happened in this province, this colony in the second half of the 19th century.

I came to it not from a historical background, nor from an electoral administration background, but from an electoral behaviour background—which is totally different. I learnt many new things and along the way became someone who is interested in electoral administration.

Some of what follows will not be new to historians or South Australians generally, some will, and how they came together to explain the development of Australia’s electoral apparatus: that is new, unless you are one of the very few people to have read my thesis or academic papers.

I’m going to meander around a bit. Please feel free to interrupt if I haven’t explained something properly, feel free to interrupt for any reason.

The reason the things that happened in South Australia in the late nineteenth century are important for us today is that they are responsible not just for the way elections are run in this country, but for the actual existence of the Australian Electoral Commission. I mean, the standalone, independent electoral apparatus we have grown up with but which is unusual in the international context. It gets rave reviews from international great and good, such as David Butler. Australian electoral expertise is exported to new democracies.

Any country looks good in comparison with the United States in the running of elections. We look good compared to most modern democracies.

There is no party involvement in the electoral process here. The AEC has permanent staff located across the country. Until a couple of decades ago each electoral division had a permanent AEC office, containing returning officer and staff. Nowadays there are about 130 or 140 of them to service 150 electorates. There’s been some rationalisation.

But the permanent existence of electoral officials, geographically dispersed, around the country: that is unique, or if not unique, very unusual.

That was the organisation structure the new Commonwealth parliament chose in 1902 when they build the new electoral office. And they got it from South Australia. Not just that, they got lots of things from South Australia: continuous enrolment, transfers, voting through the post office.

They did because they judged it judged the best.

We tend to think of federation in 1901 as the time when Australia became a “nation” or “country”. This is natural in terms of telling stories about our nation, but at the time it was mostly seen as an amalgamation. The status of the new, federated body, vis a vis the mother country, changed a bit but not much in 1901.

Those pre-federation colonies considered themselves countries. They had two houses of parliament and the titles premier and prime minister were interchangeable.

In the sense that New Zealand was the first “country” to give women the vote, South Australia was the second “country”. South Australia and New Zealand had equivalent statuses vis a vis the mother country. And of course South Australia was also the first country to enable women to stand for parliament.

Australia today has nine EMBs – election management bodies. Each is run by a commissioner. Kay is the commissioner here. Each conducts its elections, although they lend each other personnel, give support at election times.

It’s a rather inefficient setup, and consideration was given at federation in 1901 to just have one that would do them for all the states. Consideration was also given to continuing the arrangements under which the first election in 1901 had been conducted, when each state conducted its own portion.

As happens today, in America. Except over there some 14 000 local councils run their portion of national elections.

Americans get bad reviews for their electoral administration—and rightly so. Practically any country that takes elections seriously compares favourably with them. America’s decentralised system is at the extreme end of international practice and Australia’s is at the other.

Local council involvement is the usual way of doing things in “old democracies”. In England local government still do the vote-taking and registration, but the rules, the laws, are central, they’re acts passed by parliament. That’s the usual setup in democracies, for example in continental Europe.

If local government had existed in any meaningful way in South Australia 150–160 years ago, the way we run elections today would be very different. We wouldn’t have the Australian electoral commission. We would be more like England.

Picture: Bentham

This man is Jeremy Bentham. He was an English philosopher who wrote about Utilitarianism, about the greatest good for the greatest number. He famously called Locke’s idea of natural rights of man “nonsense on stilts”. The statement “All men are born free” he called “absurd and miserable nonsense!” because:

“not a single man ever was, or will be. All men, on the contrary, are born in subjection, and the most absolute subjection—the subjection of a helpless child to the parents on whom he depends for every moment of his existence.”

To Bentham, rights and happiness needed to be sustained by laws. Of course there were such things as bad laws, but laws per se were desirable and necessary. They could be arrived at scientifically, rationally.

The thoughts, the writings of Bentham, and others such as James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill, were popular at the time Australian post-European settlement institutions were being created.

There was a parliamentary democracy “back home” in England, with a limited franchise, not very democratic by today’s standards, not as democratic as some parts of the world, but it was a different time to, say, the earlier settlement of the United States.

This is one reason Government was never the dirty word here that it is in America. Because of that time of settlement. The conditions in England, and fashionable ideas at the time.

Bentham was interested in electoral reform. He advocated having a secret ballot, widening the franchise, equal electoral districts and so on. In 1819 he published what he called a ‘Radical Reform Bill’ which described how he envisaged elections being conducted. It included a description of a secret ballot. It involved bits of wood in a box that electors would stick their hands in.

In the radical reform bill Bentham advocated the creation of “[a]n office, under the name of the National Election Office … attached to the House of Commons.’ The ‘office-bearer’ could be called either ‘Master of the National Elections Office, or Election-Master-general, or Election Master.’

His functions are as follows:-

1. To issue out election-writs for the receipt of votes.

2. To receive the returns made in obedience to such writs.

3. To direct and superintend the conduct of all persons in the offices of polling and

district clerks.

Nothing like this existed anywhere in the world. It did come to exist, largely, in South Australia, in the body of the returning officer for the province. And that position was filled by one man, William Robinson Boothby, from its creation in 1856 to his death in 1903.

It’s actually not clear whether the people who created this position were consciously following Bentham’s prescription. I found no record that they did. It came about largely due to necessity.

Bentham was popular among the chartists and particularly the middle class radicals who would come to occupy important positions in Australia. The chaps we’ll meet here, Boothby and Richard Hanson, probably read Bentham.

It was this mindset towards society and an active role for the state, active that was responsible for the invention in Melbourne of that crazy bit of bureaucracy: the Australian ballot. To many in London at the time, when they heard about this, they thought it was typical of the colonies: coercive, red tape. Expensive. Pretty wacky.

The Australian ballot was an important driver of the development of our electoral institutions.

In some historical narratives the Australian ballot is conflated with “secret ballot”. Some have said and written that the secret ballot was first used in Australia. That isn’t true. And when chartists and radicals were calling for a secret ballot her and “back home” in England, they weren’t calling for the Australian ballot. No one had ever suggested such a thing. If they thought specifically about what they wanted, it was many people in, for example, France and America had.

Those countries, or American states, with “secret ballot” generally had a system that was supposed to be secret because it wasn’t open.

Electors bringing their own bits of paper, with candidate’s name written on it, and it was “secret” because the voter’s name wasn’t on it, and they didn’t announce who they were voting for publicly.

But in practice a candidate’s agent could stand near the ballot box, with their sometimes coloured pieces on which was the candidate’s name, and the elector could take that bit of paper and put it in the box, in full view.

The whole idea of secret ballot was to eliminate bribery and coercion, these secret ballots were not very secret. They didn’t work very well. Secrecy had to be mandatory, not optional. This was what motivated Bentham to plan his weird bits of wood in box.

The identifying feature of the Australian ballot is the government-supplied voting paper, with candidates’ names on it. And the electoral official signing the paper, giving to the voter who goes to the secret compartment before coming out and putting the paper in a box and leaving. This was the invention.

It was the mandatory nature of the Australian ballot that made it special, and something adopted, eventually, later in the century, around the world. It was also a hell of a lot of work for electoral officials. A real hassle. Expensive. Typical of the Australian colonies.

The Australian ballot was invented in Victoria in January 1856, but it was refined in South Australia two years later.

This “Benthamite”stuff I’ve mentioned go the perhaps social, philosophical conditions in which electoral administration, along with other institutions, developed. The later harvester case, White Australia, tariffs, compulsory enrolment and compulsory voting, all of these can be seen in the context of the Australian way of enforced equality, of making people do things that are good for them. The “talent for bureaucracy”.

This is the context. But the events I’m going to describe were also driven by particular, more material circumstances. There were of course many drivers, but three were particularly important in the development of an electoral apparatus in South Australia: the male franchise in 1856, the Australian ballot at the same time, and enrolment of electors.

Enrolment was the main driver of the development of the electoral office. It made it a permanent, going concern, rather than something that would come into being at election time. Today it remains the glue that keeps the AEC in operation.

Because this South Australian story is substantially about enrolment, here is a quick history of enrolment, of electoral rolls, until then.

Way way back in the mother country, before Europeans came to Australia, there was no electoral roll. Not many people enjoyed the franchise, the right to vote, and everyone knew who those people were, and chaps would turn up and vote for so and so. Different boroughs and counties had different franchises. Some widened their franchise, and the increase in eligible voters saw some confusion on election-day. There were sometimes arguments about who could vote.

In 1832 the franchise was made uniform across the country, or at least across all boroughs and across all counties, and widened. With more and more people able to vote, it needed to be written down, codified. With a written roll, arguments about who could and could not vote were sorted out before election day.

The 1832 set of acts, collectively known as the first Reform Act, did both of these. It described who could vote, and it laid out in detail an annual registration procedure of hanging notices, written in forms, objections and revision courts. The procedure on election day was also described. Unlike today, such legislation was detailed, it was very specific. The tasks were performed by local council employees.

This, with some amendments, was the process inherited by Australia when we started running elections, colony-wide elections, in the 1840s. That was the first New South Wales Legislative Council election in 1843.

There had been local government elections before that. One had been for the Adelaide Corporation, in 1841. That procedure was based on British practices, involving Returning Officers and lists, but the election-day procedure was something of a hybrid of some pre- and post- 1832 practices. It also involved arguably the first use of proportional representation anywhere.

That’s a South Australian first, but it is separate to the story I’m telling here. It does not seem to have influenced later, colony-wide elections that started a decade later in 1851.

So in 1843 NSW conducts its first colony-wide election, with limited franchise, for 2/3 of the 36 man legislative Council. That proportion was the standard in the pre-self government colonies.

But who to run it? Who would construct the rolls?

There was by now a local council structure in Melbourne and Sydney, and so they were used to collect the roll. Elsewhere there was no local government in place, and the only administrative structure in place was police. There were police districts, which had a magistrate atop each. Strangely, I couldn’t determine exactly how many, but between 35 and 40. There were 18 electoral districts, for 24 seats, two thirds of the 36-man Council.

At election time the returning officers were appointed. And it was their duty to construct a list for their district, from those created in the procedure above.

The construction of the roll was performed under magistrates but more directly supervised by chief constables who could be a former convict and, several decades earlier at least, probably was.

I searched the Australian Dictionary of Biography online and found no reference to any of them. I don’t claim this is a rigorous, foolproof measurement of “importance”. But it’s an indicator.

What about returning officers? I got hold of 16 of the 18 names of returning officers and searched for their presence of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. There were 8 appeared, and 3 would go on to contest elections themselves.

That’s all for NSW. But here’s a webpage I started to construct several years ago about those first returning officers.

On to South Australia in 1851 for the first legislative council elections. Like elsewhere, for 2/3 of the Council.

Picture: Paths to Oz

South Australia was the only part of the country holding elections that hadn’t been part of NSW. It looked instead to England. Tasmania did the same, having separated before NSW’s first election. This was a feature of the colonies/countries: looking to England rather than the other colonies. (The Australian ballot, which zipped around the colonies in January and February 1856, was an exception.)

So, who to construct the rolls? Not local council employees, because there were none. The Adelaide Corporation had been abolished. It was re-activated in 1852. There was none outside Adelaide.

There wasn’t a colony-wide, robust police force, possibly partly because South Australia hadn’t had convicts. There were some unpaid militia.

The closest operation South Australia had to a colony-wide apparatus were the District Roads Boards. These were bodies that oversaw construction of roads. There were elections for these.

So the 1851 Legislative Council Act said “the Clerks and Collectors of the several District Road Boards … shall ex officio be Collectors’.

These men collected eligible names in their Roads district they had previously worked on. Once again, these did not coincide with Legislative Council electoral districts. As with collection by police district, this procedure necessitated that extra step of separating names into correct electoral districts.

Returning officers were then appointed. 15 of the 16 of them were magistrates. The exception, CB Newenham, was Sheriff of the colony, the third since the position was created in 1837.

Our friend Mr Boothby was still in England, but he would succeed Newenham in 1856.

Magistrates had high status. These South Australian returning officers sat on Revisions courts. This was a break from English (and NSW) practice. They sat on revisions courts for neighbouring electorates, not their own. In later decades they would start sitting on their own.

This is the webpage I made for the SA 1851 returning officers.

Responsible government, ie self-government, came in 1855. It had been envisaged that it would come earlier and in 1853 a parliament bill contained arrangements for the new bicameral legislature was passed. It described the House of Assembly and Legislative Council which would replace the Legislative Council. It was rejected by London, some say because it included a fully appointed upper house.

Picture: Hanson

Advocate-General Richard Hanson drafted the enrolment clauses, about which there was little debate.

This is a feature of much of these developments. There were chartists and radicals and other meetings demanding this that and the other, ballot, equal districts, etc, but none made demands regarding arcane matters such as who constructed the roll and how. Understandably.

Hanson explained that it was

‘was well known that in some of the electoral districts the electoral roll was very defective, and in [one district] there was no list of electors”

And so, as the Register reported on 20 June; “The machinery of Collectors of Claims and Electoral Clerks will be dispensed with, and the duty of making the roll thrown upon the Returning Officer.’

This meant that Returning Officers were no longer just appointed whenever an election was held, but for at least several months every year. For the first time, in each electoral district in the colony, one person was in charge of virtually all aspects of elections, and he was responsible for his district and no other. Rolls were collected along the boundaries for which they would apply. In reality, rather than construct the rolls themselves, they employed staff to do it.

This is a very important development.

That bill passed parliament but was killed in London. There was one more election for the Legislative Council (two-thirds of it) in 1855. It was carried out under the old legislation.

The returning officer for the district of West Torrens was a 26 year old W R Boothby Esq.

Also included in the 1855 list of Returning Officers were the current and two future Mayors of Adelaide.

Picture John Lazar

John Lazar, one of the latter, was a Scotland-born ‘prominent member of the Jewish congregations in South Australia and [later] New Zealand.’ His CV included a comedian, playwright, theatrical manager, tailor, jeweller and silversmith. His career as a Shakespearean actor had been cut short by ‘[a]ttacks from the … press on his limited acting capabilities and “vulgar cockneyism”‘. He was an alderman of the Adelaide City Council in the 1850s and Mayor of Adelaide from 1856 to 1858. He was the Returning Officer for Adelaide until 1861. He went to New Zealand and I recently read that he played a part in introducing the Australian ballot there.

That was the last general election before self-government. It was apparently very disorderly, which probably accounts for South Australia going overboard with, for example, the gagging clause. (I can tell people what that was in questions if you like.)

In 1856 the second consolidated electoral act contained instructions on how to run elections for a 36-member House of Assembly, elected on virtual full male franchise, and an 18-member Legislative Council, also fully elected, but on a restricted franchise. House of Assembly members were returned from 17 electoral districts electing from one to six MPs each.

Full male suffrage roughly doubled the number of electors.

It had the new ballot, the Victorian invention. There was a system of voter certificates, which had to be presented on polling day. They also abolished nomination on the hustings and plural voting.

And there were those new clauses that gave returning officers enrolment duties. Enrolment was, as in England and other colonies, annual. But now it was Returning officers, these important chaps, not roads collectors or council employees, who performed enrolment duties.

So those first bi-cameral 1857 elections were held under doubled franchise and new rules.

And another thing. The Legislative Council was elected from one multi-member district, the whole colony. This was radical, as it meant all votes counted equally: weighting in favour of rural votes, as was done in the lower house, was not possible. It eliminated plural voting.

And for this story, there was another consequence. By the English tradition every electoral district has a Returning Officer. So this new, massive electoral district has one

The Register noted the logic of this in late January 1856. The electoral bill, it said, ‘clearly implied’ the existence of the position of a ‘Returning Officer-in-Chief’, but did not appear to ‘empower the Governor to appoint’ such a person.

But the paper’s fears proved unfounded, and in November that year—five months before the first general election—the Governor did appoint the first ‘Returning Officer of the Province’ (sometimes referred to as Returning Officer for the Province), young William.

Returning Officers needed assistants, or deputies, to perform the duties at the various polling places. In the case of the single Legislative Council district, the deputies were the Returning Officers for the House of Assembly. That is, each of these men was a Returning Officer for his district of the House, and also a deputy Returning Officer for a portion of the Council district (the whole colony), answering to the Returning Officer of the province (Boothby). The geographical area each Returning Officer was responsible for in the lower house, his electoral district, was also a sub-district for the upper-house.

Returning officers now constructed the rolls as well as ran elections. This new returning officer for the province position was very powerful.

Picture: Boothby

And it was, of course, William Boothby who was appointed in late 1856. In March that year he had become Sheriff.

So Boothby had nothing to do with the 1856 electoral act but he was returning officer for the province in 1857 elections.

William was born in 1829 in Nottingham Park, England, the second of 15 children of Benjamin and Maria. His mother’s maiden name was Robinson. He ‘took his BA degree at London University’ and years later he spoke of having “three months of an experience in an election for the Borough of Finsbury, in London.”

When his father was appointed as the second Judge on the South Australian Supreme Court in 1853 the family sailed to Australia.

I can’t tell what William did for the next year and a bit; he may have worked for the government in some capacity, or perhaps assisted his father, but in December 1854, aged just 25, he was appointed Deputy Sheriff of the Province.

In addition, his father Benjamin had sat on a Revision Court in the Borough of Ripon in 1845.

William’s father Benjamin is actually better-known: an apparently difficult and pedantic judge whose behaviour led to Westminster’s 1865 British Colonial Laws Validity Act, which applied not just to South Australia but all or most British colonies. I’m sure others know more about this than me.

Boothby was returning officer for the province, as well as sheriff and, for a time at least, superintendent of prisons, right through to his death in 1903. He didn’t, as some have reported, draft every electoral bill, but he drafted some and he was a constant presence through those decades.

An obituary in the Public Service Review described William as ‘though reserved, … always courteous and affable’ and noted ‘prowess upon the cricket field’, ‘remarkable intellectual facilities, indicated by his broad, high brow’ and his being ‘a signal example of the advantage of the great public school and university system of education in England’. He was ‘fair, just, firm and resolute’.

But back to 1857. Actually, back a bit further.

The old English way of running elections involved very little expense for government. Electors paid a shilling to a collector to get on the roll, and a further shilling to stay on it every year. This was the collector’s only remuneration aside from the wage he received for performing his usual, non-electoral tasks. In addition, at the elections themselves, the candidates paid expenses for the hiring of venues and so on.

South Australia’s 1851 act was along these lines, although the state paid for unanticipated expenses. But the 1856 act fully shifted costs from candidates and electors to the state. Collectors (now returning officers) still received a shilling per claim, but it now came from the government, and so electors paid nothing to get on the roll. Similarly, Returning Officers and their staff received remuneration, but it also came from the public purse. The ‘other expenses’ clause remained, meaning general colonial revenue would still pay for any unforeseen expenses.

So now the government paid all electoral expenses. How very Australian. And commonplace today.

And pay they did. The 1857 elections cost a hell of a lot, partly because of the newly enrolled people, and because of the new ballot system. Returning officers and their staff had to write or print ballot papers. And certificates. Costs exploded mainly under the “other expenses” category.

Boothby later recalled that because ‘the first election conducted in South Australia … under the Act drawn up by the Attorney-General of the day, the late Sir Richard Hanson … was found to be exceedingly expensive in its provisions’, Hanson had told Boothby that he ‘thought that an electoral system which cost so much as that would be a great deal too expensive for South Australia.’ Boothby suggested modifications to bring costs down, and Hanson ‘asked me whether I would mind preparing a bill to give effect to my opinions’. This he did with what would become the 1858 Electoral Act. According to Boothby (decades later), Hanson ‘did not alter’ any of Boothby’s work, and it was ‘passed with scarcely any amendments in the House’.

The Act eliminated the open-ended ‘reasonable costs’ funding clause and in its place attempted to define all tasks Returning Officers (or their staff) might perform, or would pay third parties to perform, stating amounts payable for each task. It really nailed the procedure down.

It put the Returning Officers on annual salaries of £25, and declared that Returning Officers were to be paid the amounts stated in the legislation, ‘and no other’.

William gave himself a salary of £100 on top of the £500 he got as Sheriff.

The 1858 Act created, therefore, almost certainly the world’s first salaried electoral officials, by which I mean people who were paid an annual amount specifically to perform electoral tasks. The position of Returning Officer was not full-time, and £25 not a large amount—Attorney-General Hanson, for example, earned £1000 for annum. Keeping expenses down was, after all, the Act’s chief raison d’être.

Being returning officer was permanent, but it was part-time. They tended to do other things, be small business people with their own offices.

In financial terms, the 1858 Act produced extraordinary results, slashing costs and must have earned many points for Boothby.

It also introduced continuous enrolment, using what were in effect habitation reviews: police and council workers, reporting to returning officers, went door to door with enrolment forms around the colony. Initially every year but quickly changed to every five years. In between times, people could get on the roll themselves by contacting their returning officer. There were still revisions courts every six or so months. A system of transferring between electorates came into being.

The 1858 Act also saw the change in the secret ballot paper from strike through to cross in the square.

This was South Australia’s big change to the Australian ballot, one that proved versatile. The commonwealth picked it up, and then the states gradually did.

Interestingly, after just one general election, in 1860, everybody involved—including Boothby and the DROs—agreed the replacement of the ‘strike through’ method with the cross and the square had been a serious mistake. It had caused widespread confusion and resulted in a jump in accidently spoilt ballot papers. Boothby went so far as to recommend a return to the old method.

However, it was not reversed and people got ued to it. At the 1861 committee it is unclear who was responsible. Was it Hanson? Boothby? Someone else?

Decades later, Boothby was happy to claim credit.

There were five more consolidated Electoral Acts in South Australia between 1858 and the end of the century. With the possible exception of the final one, in 1896, none was as ground-breaking as that of 1858. However, the 1861 consolidated Act did give birth to a new arrangement of words. T Previous references had been to ‘Returning Officers for the Electoral Districts’, but from that year they were called the ‘District Returning Officers’. This came to be shortened in general usage to ‘DRO’, an acronym that remains in use today (although at the commonwealth level the ‘D’ stood for ‘divisional’ and not ‘district’.

For the next several decades, until the Commonwealth adopted South Australia’s electoral arrangements, the Returning Officer for the province and his DROs would form the organisational framework of an ever-expanding bureaucracy, created by both internal and external pressures, some of which we will examine in future chapters. Despite this enrolment system Boothby felt able to boast in 1889 that South Australia had the least expensive electoral arrangements of all the Australian colonies.

Through the decades there was tension between Boothby and his DROs. They often complained to committees that they were underpaid. He thought they were well remunerated. In 1889 he actually tried to get rid of them, at least as permanent fixtures, and move towards a system more like other colonies and England. He wanted to deal directly with council employees.

He reckoned:

the clerks of municipal corporations and district councils [should] make up and keep the rolls, and the Returning Officers … should have entirely distinct and separate duties from the registration.

The DROs said no. They argued that this system would be ‘more costly’ and would mean ‘the whole control of the electoral power of the colony is centred in one person (Boothby)’ and that the ‘autonomy of electoral districts [would be] absolutely destroyed’.

Boothby stood firm. So did the DROs. The DROs won. One reason a committee member gave was that council clerks would be ‘considerably mixed up in the affairs of the people’, they would be ‘likely to be partisans on one side or another’.

This committee report included a sop to William: that future legislation should:

contain enactments whereby the experience of the Returning Officer for the Province may be effectively employed for the purpose of directing and controlling the preparation and maintenance of the electoral rolls throughout the province.

One of Boothby’s greatest foes in this and other endeavours was James Dominick Woods, ‘barrister and journalist’, author and DRO for East Torrens. He served as Returning Officer from 1861 until 1899 and wrote several books, one of which, South Australia, devoted six pages to the election process with an emphasis on a Returning Officer’s duties.

Picture: John Banks Shepherdson

Another was this guy, John Banks Shepherdson. Although he boasted in 1889 of ‘twenty years experience’ as a DRO, there is no mention of it in his ADB entry.

The next Act, the Electoral Code 1896, kept the permanent Returning Officers but did state for the first time that they answered to the province Returning Officer.

So by the turn of the century, in every colony but South Australia, the coordinating office mentioned in the legislation for electoral matters was of the Chief Secretary (or Colonial Secretary). In South Australia it was the Returning Officer for the province, a public servant, paid a specific salary to run elections across the colony.

And it was this arrangement that the new Commonwealth government adopted for the new electoral office, a branch of the department of Home Affairs, in 1902.

In 1903 the first Commonwealth Chief Electoral Officer explained the change to a conference of DROs in Sydney.

He began by describing the DROs, along with their deputies and registrars, and the six State Commonwealth Electoral Officers (CEOs), plus of course Lewis himself, as collectively ‘embrac[ing] the entire permanent working staff of the Act’.

Every other person involved either performed electoral duties on top of their normal jobs (police were in this category), or were full time but temporary, for example the clerks working on electoral rolls.

But Lewis warned that anyone who had worked as Returning Officer in the States/colonies would, with the exception of those who had had experience in South Australia, find these new arrangements very different.

Lewis employed rhetorical flourishes. He referred to the ‘old’ arrangements, that is, in the colonies other than South Australia, under which:

[t]he Returning Officer is galvanized into life about four or five weeks prior to the Election to prepare for warfare, and then all the energy of the Electoral Officer is centred into about six or eight weeks of time. Then he lapses into a state of quiesence (sic) during the winter of his Electoral age, until the drum sounds once more. Now all this is changes.

Now, under the arrangements, Commonwealth DROs would be:

the very centre of life and authority from which all the active, motive, administrative power emanates, and upon the Returning Officer of the Division will rest the responsibilities as well as the privileges of administering the entire Act … From the time you accept the responsibilities and privileges of the position, you are the directing, controlling power …you become the Electoral King. [Italics added.]

Kings indeed. DROs remain strong today, too strong for recent Australian Electoral Commissioners. They would sympathise with Boothby in the 1880s.

But that’s another story.

A quick history of enrolment

In 2013 I attended and gave a paper to a workshop run by CABER.

CABER was the then Electoral Commissioner Ed Killesteyn’s Advisory Board for Electoral Research.

From memory this was a two-day workshop and the session I spoke at dealt with automatic enrolment, or as the Commish wanted us all to call it, direct enrolment. This is something I’ve been going on about for years.

The Coalition was strongly against it and one person in attendance was the Shadow Minister of State Bronwyn Bishop. When it was time for questions she commandeered the podium to … patiently explain her position, and eventually had to be talked down so others could have a go.

I called my talk A History of Enrolment in Australia. (I think some of the words were filched from other of my presentations.) It gives a brief history of enrolment, in the “mother country” and then here, before moving to direct enrolment.

The words I read out are more or less those below.

Although this session isn’t about turnout, I’ll just draw your attention to official 93.2 per cent turnout figure at the 2010 election. Australians tend to be proud of our turnout numbers, invariably in the 90s. But that figure is not right. A figure for Australia that could be compared with, say, the much-quoted American on of 50-something—that is the proportion of eligible voters who cast a valid vote—would be below 80. Probably in the high 70s.

Some of that difference is in the five per cent informal vote. But more importantly, around 10 per cent of our eligible voters aren’t on the roll. And our turnout figure is total votes as a proportion of the roll.

That missing 10 per cent is the 1.5 million missing voters the AEC talks about.

To me the worst consequence of this is in another number: two per cent. Several hundred thousand Australians (about two per cent of eligible voters), tried to vote in 2010 and couldn’t, because they weren’t on the roll. They unsuccessfully lodged provisional votes. There would have been more who upon learning they weren’t on the roll, just turned around and left.

It is so important to have a comprehensive electoral roll.

I’m not a great fan of compulsory voting and compulsory enrolment, partly because it muddies the waters in discussions such as this. Some people say: well, it’s the law, and so people should make sure their enrolment details are up to date.

It means things like the state of the roll are seen as a tool to force people to the polls. I prefer to see it in terms of enabling people to vote. Which is what the electoral roll and the full electoral apparatus are: an infrastructure to enable an efficient, and as full as possible, registering of people’s preferences on election day.

Canada has voluntary enrolment, but a more complete roll than us. The figure they put on their missing electors is seven per cent. Why?

The answer is: because until June, at least, the AEC operated with one hand tied behind its back.

To understand what’s happened, I’m going to give a two-minute history of the electoral roll in Australia. Enrolment is responsible for the shape of the AEC today. It drove the whole process, the development of a stand-alone independent electoral apparatus.

In the United Kingdom before 1832 there was no written electoral roll. The 1832 Reform Act changed that, laying out the annual process of sticking notices on public buildings like churches and courts, advising people to get on the roll if they wanted. People did this by writing up and handing in enrolment forms. There were public objections and revision courts. People paid to get on the roll. The work was done by council employees.

This was the process inherited by Australia when we started running elections in the 1840s.

It was in South Australia from the 1850s that things started to change, and diverge from both Britain and the other colonies. Registration fees were abolished. The state became proactive: every several years police and council workers knocked on houses around the colony leaving enrolment forms (or in practice filling it out on the spot with the occupant). In between times the roll was maintained continuously. People could get on the roll or change their details at any time. By, naturally, filling in bits of paper. Births deaths and marriages records were used by officials to take people off when they died.

A standalone permanent electoral apparatus developed, the world’s first, with permanent, salaried returning officers responsible for the roll in the electorate, reporting to a central figure, the returning officer for the province.

That person was the precursor to the current Australian Electoral Commissioner. These were world firsts. As far as I can tell there were no specifically designated, permanent electoral officials anywhere else.

And towards the end of the century census collectors started doubling as roll collectors. They were building a roll, and didn’t particularly care if people wanted to vote or not.

In 1901 came federation, and in 1902 the Australian Electoral Office was created. Most of its organisational structure was picked up from South Australia: a chief electoral officer with spokes going out, this time to six state electoral officers, to whom permanent returning officers reported.

The first Commonwealth electoral roll was created in 1902–3, a centrally coordinated effort that in most states involved door to door knocks by police. But not South Australia,

because they already had a good roll and their franchise was virtually identical to the new one.

It seems to have been the one and only time the Commonwealth electoral roll was created from scratch (the SA part exempted). After that, there was continuous roll maintenance, electorate by electorate, as in SA.

Piece by piece joint roll arrangements were agreed upon, first Tasmania in 1905 and last Queensland in 1991 and then the ACT with its first elections the next year.

The rolls were initially kept in large books at the level of sub-division. In 1912 these were replaced with a card system, and in the 1970s databases on computers. Regular habitation reviews became the main source of enrolment information in the late 1970s.

A big change came in 1999. Continuous Roll Update (CRU) replaced habitation reviews. Under CRU, the AEC obtains data from various Commonwealth, State and Territory government bodies and cleans, crunches it.

Every year several million Australians move house and with CRU the AEC has been very efficient, with this new data, at taking them off the roll at their old address. But it has not been able to put them on at their new one. All it can do is send enrolment forms out and plead with people to fill them out, and they are increasingly discarded.

And this is probably the main reason for the deteriorating roll. The AEC has been asking for the right to do the other side. To do, for example what Canada can.

In June lat year, finally, parliament passed a bill to enable just that. Welcome to the 21st century. The AEC is fond of saying direct enrolment and direct update is not a panacea, it’s not a silver bullet, but it is a fine development. It was introduced in Victoria and NSW in 2010, and as Antony Green has written the resulting growing divergence between the state roll and state portion of the commonwealth roll has made the change at the commonwealth level even more necessary.

An associated remnant of the past is the organisation of the AEC. Those permanent returning officers are still there, with their 2.5 staff. The AEC has for years wanted rationalise them and parliament has let them a bit, with processes called ‘regionalisation’, ‘shared premises’, ‘amalgamation’, ‘collocation’, ‘workload sharing’, but it’s still, with a few exceptions, a DRO per electorate.

At least until a few years ago it was the case that when people sent in enrolment forms to the state office of the AEC, someone would put them into the pigeon hole for the division and they would get posted out there and data-entered.

Nowadays most of them come via the website, at least.

This structure was once a significant driver of Australia’s trailblazing in running elections, but it’s long past its usefulness.

I want to raise a couple of concerns, that really kick in with a comprehensive roll, no matter how it is created. One is privacy. The electoral roll is given to candidates at elections, electronically. Electronic data is so easy to pass around. It is a big worry.

A full, comprehensive roll, one that is closer to 100 than 92 per cent complete, will mean a lower on-paper turnout. That’s a good thing, because it is more “correct”.

But it also means more people are fined. The AEC doesn’t fine people for not being on the roll but it does for not voting. Do we really want that? The state/territory with the highest proportion of unenrolled is the Northern Territory, predominately Indigenous Australians. Direct enrolment won’t necessarily be very effective with that portion of the population, but if it were, you would get many of them being fined for not voting.

There is the political angle. It is a sad fact that over the centuries “left” progressive parties have seen it as in their interests to get as many people as possible to vote, and conservative, right wing ones have wanted to narrow it. Unfortunately parties’ attitudes to these things are driven by backroom operators who are always on the lookout for that minuscule advantage, just in case the result is close. Which it rarely is.

Some of the figures put out about the change to the vote if all these people are included are wacky. Some have suggested a 20 point two-party preferred vote advantage to Labor. By that I mean 60 40 if the rest of the country votes 50 50. That really would only apply to the minority, about 17 per cent, of the unenrolled who are aged 18-19. Overall I think it’s closer to 53 47. Which, if the roll were 100 per cent complete—it will never be—and if all the new people voted and voted formally—a large minority won’t—would mean a 0.3 per cent increase in the Labor two-party preferred vote.

I see roll maintenance, as electoral administration per se, as like maintaining the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It is there to serve the public, and its shape and nature is determined by what is in the public’s interest, but there really is no need to get the people involved in the decisions. You let the experts get on with it. So I don’t put a premium on engaging people in the process.

I also don’t see much value in finding out why people aren’t enrolling. Who cares? Just get them on the bloody roll.

It’s a bit different. A bridge, unless it is torn down and built again, will always be recognisable as that structure that was opened in 1932. It will have that look.

There are reasons why the maintenance of the electoral roll is like that: the ancestor of that organisation created in 1902. So much of it is recognisable. But it doesn’t have to be. And this change, to direct enrolment, is an important change.

I’ll just finish by mentioning election-day enrolment, which was rejected by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) report and it not being sought by the AEC. This is a pity. Hopefully it will come soon.

Short history of preferential voting

Australians have had preferential voting for national elections since 1918, but it took almost half a century for some key concepts to be understood.

This is something I wrote in 2006 for an academic paper I never finished. This being a longish Sunday, I’ve slightly polished and updated it and plonked it here.

It’s about the history of preferential voting in single member electorates (aka AV) in Australia, and people’s understanding of it. Thinking in terms of a national two party preferred vote (which is not very applicable to UK’s three party system) didn’t really arrive until at least the 1960s.

(A bit rough and ready but not too long.)

I. History of Preferential Voting in Single Member Electorates

Preferential voting in single member electorates, using one ballot paper, is an Australian invention.

When the colonies started running elections in the 1840s–50s their starting point, as with most things, was how it was done ‘back home’—in England. For voting system this meant first past the post.

The pre-federation colony of Queensland introduced a voting system called ‘contingent voting’ in1892. It replicated the then (and now) French two-round system, but on the one piece of paper, on the one election day, rather than successive weeks or fortnights or months. From the point of view of the voter filling out his (only males voted in Australia in 1892) ballot paper, it was identical to what we today know as Optional Preferential Voting: for a vote to count, a first preference had to be indicated, and the numbering of any more squares was optional. However, in the counting it differed from today’s OPV in that there were only two ‘rounds’: if no candidate achieved over 50%, all but the top two candidates were eliminated at once and all their preferences distributed.

Contingent voting saved the added expense of an extra election. Queensland carried it on at state level until 1942, when it adopted first past the post. In 1962 it joined most of the rest of Australia in moving to compulsory preferential voting, and in 1992 joined New South Wales in adopting OPV.

At the national level, the first elections for the new federated nation, in 1901, were run by the colonies/states. Each ran its own portion, using its own rules and franchise. Federal parliament then appointed a conference of the states’ electoral administrators to make recommendations for electoral arrangements, which were to be the genesis, with substantial modification, of the first electoral act in 1902. The conference recommended Queensland’s contingent voting, but with compulsory numbering of every square (recommendation 29). The version promoted by the Barton government, through Senator Richard O’Connor, was what we would today call OPV (Jan 30 1902, page 9534) (The government also advocated proportional representation in the Senate); Australia instead got first past the post in the lower house (and the terrible ‘block vote’ in the senate).

The second Commonwealth Electoral Act, in 1918 however, contained compulsory preferential voting in both houses. The Hughes Nationalist government largely introduced it because the rise of the Country Party had threatened to split the conservative vote. In the House of Representatives it was first used at a by-election in the Victorian seat of Corangamite, and then at the full general elections in 1919.
(The CEA 1918 also introduced preferential voting for the senate, which was even worse than the block vote. In 1948 legislation introduced STV, proportional representation, for the senate.) The states adopted preferential voting for their lower houses. Today all but Tasmania, which went its own way early, have CPV or OPV (Queensland and New South Wales) )

II. History of our ‘Understanding’ of Preferential Voting in Single Member Electorates

Preferences and aggregate national two party preferred votes have therefore been with us since 1919. Our understanding of it is another story, and has evolved in part by necessity as support for the major parties has decreased and preferences become more important. It seems that from 1918 until the late 1960s, political strategists and other interested parties no doubt understood the workings of preferences in individual seats, but the concept of a national two party preferred vote did not exist. In part this was because of the limited use of opinion polls and, apart from the rise of Lang Labor in the 1930s and 1940s and the Democratic Labor Party from the 1950s onwards, the major parties enjoyed, between them, high levels of support, and so preferences were not so important as today.

The political scientist Malcolm Mackerras was central in the development of our understanding of the concept. His entry in the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Australian Politics gives a fine summary of events. According to Mackerras, “[t]he intellectual origins of the two-party preferred vote go back to 1949″, conceptually anticipated in a research note by Leicester Webb. In 1957 Joan Rydon, measuring electorate margins, devised what she called the “adjusted two party vote”.

A decade later Mackerras adapted David Butler’s ‘swingometer’ to Australian conditions, called it a pendulum, and the rest is history. Mackerras continues the story:

“The first serious attempt to adjust for the massive changes brought about by redistribution came in my first book, The 1968 Federal Redistribution. The data from that was then put into pendulum form in a newspaper article. … It should be noted, however, that the Rydon expression ‘adjusted two-party vote’ never caught on. By contrast my re-naming of it as the ‘two-party preferred vote’ did win immediate recognition essentially because it was combined with a pendulum and because observers instinctively understood what it meant.”

In an email Mackerras has told me that the first federal election his pendulum was used for was in 1972.

In 1984 the newly created Australian Electoral Commission (which replaced the Australian Electoral Office), headed by academic Colin Hughes, began calculating and publishing full two candidate preferred votes for every seat and two party preferred nationally. They went back to the previous federal election, in 1983, and counted them out to full exhaustion, and then did it for all elections starting with the next one in 1984. They also estimated them from 1949 to 1980 by assuming likely preference flows for minor parties and independents. Gradually, most state authorities followed suit.1 Since around the mid nineteen eighties political scientists and other political observers have recognised the importance of the concept.

To explain the importance of two party preferred over primary votes, I like to make two points. One is that in a seat where the two main contestants are Labor and Coalition, the candidate who gets the higher two party preferred vote wins the seat – always. It is embedded in the preferential electoral system.

Secondly, a simple conceptual explanation is that if, after an election, you took all the voting papers in the country and made of them two piles, one containing ballot papers where the Coalition is ranked ahead of the ALP, and the other vice versa2, this is the two party preferred vote. It doesn’t matter where on the ballot paper the ranking is, and so it might be seen as especially appropriate in an age of much discussion involving electors choosing between ‘the lesser of two evils’. Another clear explanation is to draw on the comparion of the French/Russian/Latin American two round system, alluded to with Queensland’s contingent voting, above.

The most casual observer of Australian politics today can tell you that Labor won the vote but not the election in 1998 and the Coalition did the same in 1990. In 1987 the Coalition won more primary votes than Labor, but fell behind after preferences; this election is never included in the list because consensus, correctly, looks predominately at two party preferred votes. However, contemporary accounts in 1954, 1961 and 1969 observed only that Labor won ‘the vote’, that is, the primary vote, and there was recognition (for the last two) that DLP preferences had made the differences. The concept of a national vote after preferences did not occur. From today’s post-Mackerras world, we can say that, despite DLP preferences, the ALP also won the two party preferred vote on those three occasions. (The 1987 election was the first at which the party leading on primary votes did not win the two party preferred vote; the second was in 2010. [Update: but see this comment and response below about 1954.]) At all elections swings are ‘lumpy’, and there really is no particular reason why the winner of the national two party preferred vote should necessarily win the most seats.

But two party preferred data is a much better indicator of a party’s competitiveness than primary support.

Taking stock …

Cranking this blog up again. Current writing can be found at Inside Story and the Drum.

Older writing at the Oz here and here.

The first returning officers

A tiny slice of my PhD thesis. A five minute slide show on Youtube.

Here.

Electorate tables

Federal election 2013 and other.

Here.

Bolt from the blue

THIS afternoon a strange thing happened on my Twitter stream. I started receiving angry tweets about something I’d written at 1:13pm yesterday (Saturday).

In addition someone found my email address and sent a note that I’m a “low life scumbag … you and your fellow left wing/Green ratbags have absolutely no shame … You should be ashamed of yourself and your employer should sack you.”

“Scumbag” got a mention in the odd tweet too. Most of them were from people I’d never heard from before, who don’t follow me and who I don’t follow. I’ve retweeted most of them, so you can see them on my account if you could be bothered wading through.

Then I worked out what happened. That nice Andrew Bolt had given me a plug on the country’s most widely-read blog.

Now continued here.

A post …

just because ….

Election 2013 census table gallery

Apart from archives there’s nothing new to see at this site since I started blogging at the Oz.

Except for the federal election census and seat table gallery. Check it out here.

Mumble has moved to the Oz

Here