Development of Modern Electoral Administration
a postgraduate project of the ANU and the Electoral Council of Australia
funded by a grant (no: LP0453987) from the Australian Research Council
Read about this site
November 2012 updates:
May 2009 It's official, I'm a PhD graduate.
March 2009 The Boykett Family
Received an email from Doug Laidlaw, pointing me to this site he has created about this ancestors. In particular he was keen on this unposted 1854 letter getting some exposure.
December 2008 Thesis submitted
October 2008 New Yorker
article on the Australian ballot
By Harvard historian Jill Lepore, this is a great
Letter from JS Mill
to HS Chapman (in Victoria)
July 1858, about the ballot and other things. Here.
August 2008 Who were the first
Australian returning officers?
Am constructing tables of returning officers for the early
Australian elections - who were they, have we heard anything of them since, and
in particular did they get a mention in the Australian Dictionary of
Biography? (A fantastic resource, but often slow.)
Here is a (very rough and
truncated - I'm holding the full thing in store) taste of
what I've done.
July 2008 Too many Kings: What’s
wrong with the AEC
This week I attended the APSA
conference in Brisbane, and gave a paper on the Electoral Commission. It's
actually a larger version of a previous Democratic Audit discussion
APSA paper here.
June 2007 Independence of
Australia today has nine Electoral
Management Bodies - the federal one and one for each state and
(By comparison, India's Election
Commission runs all elections, state and federal. Something like this was
contemplated here - and pretty quickly dismissed; you can imagine what the state
governments thought about it - after federation in 1901.)
A couple of years ago I began a paper that I thought might also
evolve into a thesis chapter. It looked at independence of Australia's EMBs,
specifically the on-paper independence of the Electoral Commissioners - method
of appointment, how easy to sack etc.
It no longer fits into my thesis, and remains uncompleted,
possibly never to be completed. Here
is the very rough draft. This
table outlines statutory features of independence of each Commissioner. It
also has links to current bodies and legislation.
March 13 2007 When is a ballot not
The intro (not by me) to the radio segment below (March 9)
might lead you to believe it was all about the Australian ballot. Not true,
although I do mention Boothby's 1858 ballot changes.
But while we're on the topic, one common misconception is that
Boothby wrote the ballot clauses of the 1856 act. In fact, as far as I can tell
he had nothing to do with that act at all, and the position of returning officer
for the province - of which he was the first occupant - was ten months away from being created when that act was
The SA 1856 act originally had a pretty generic secret ballot
clause, of the sort that was then in use in France and parts of America, ie
voters brought along their own bits of paper. There was argument about whether
they should be given an envelope to ensure secrecy.
The SA legislators probably hadn't heard of Chapman's Victorian
ballot, which had only just been introduced into the Victorian Legislative
Council. But several weeks later, in late February 1856, the SA Council amended
it, replacing the old ballot clause with the 'Chapman-esque' one.
You can see both the clauses here.
March 9 2007 South Australia's
150th anniversary on the radio
On Monday March 9 1857, South Australia held its first
elections under responsible government.
The 150th anniversary fell last Friday, and I commemorated with a five
minute talk about some of the subsequent electoral innovations of that colony
under the world's first chief electoral officer, William
It was on ABC Radio National's 'Perspective' program, and you can listen or
read at the program's website
November 28 2006 Transferring
I'm looking at the evolution of the 'transfer' procedure, by
which people would change their electoral district. See this
October 14 2006 Australian
Dictionary of Biography
Launched this year, and a
October 12 2006 The first
In 1901, after the Australian colonies federated, the new
government constructed the first national body to run federal elections and
referendums. (The first election, in 1901, had been run by the states.) The
Electoral Branch of the Home Affairs Department set about
constructing the first electoral rolls for elections in 1903. It was a huge
task. Originally the intention was to use each state's most recent census information
(from 1901), but that data
proved to be of poor quality. So instead they sent police out a-door-knocking to
all corners of the country.
As today, police were employed by states, and the rolls were
printed by state printing offices. It proved to be a bit of a nightmare,
particularly in Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales, with
telegrams and letters flying around from the then capital Melbourne to and from
state Premiers and Police Commissioners. (One or two of the Police Commissioners
weren't too keen the whole idea.)
But it was alright on the night (more or less) and the December
1903 elections went pretty well. At a Select Committee in 1904, the Home Affairs
Minister handed in a
diagram of the office's structure.
1904 electoral office diagram The top right hand
numbers of people employed: some 26,000. Australia was unusual at the time in
devoting so many resources to elections.
October 5 2006 Voter
conference in Boston looks jolly interesting, involving some big names and with
some jolly interesting looking papers.
Apparently they may webcast it ... at some stage.
Postal voting suggested
in SA in 1861
Science Assoc paper on origins of parts of Australian electoral practice
is the only country in the world where electoral rolls are maintained at the
divisional level by full-time, permanent returning officers. This approach to
registration was inherited in 1901, along with a number of other ‘modern’
features of electoral administration, from the pre-federation colony of South
‘path dependence’ terms, three decisions taken in South Australia in the
1850s heavily influenced the colony, and then the Australian federation, for the
next century and a half. The first, taken in 1853 in preparation for self
government, was to give divisional returning officers responsibility for
collecting and maintaining the rolls, on top of their vote-taking duties. The
second was to elect the newly self-governing colony’s Legislative Council from
one electoral district, which led to the creation of the world’s first de
facto chief electoral officer. The man who would hold this position for 47
years, William Robinson Boothby, then drafted the 1858 electoral act, largely in
response to a cost blow-out at the 1857 elections. This legislation contained
the third critical juncture: the move to continuous, rather than once a year,
enrolment, with accompanying annual salaries for Boothby and his returning
officers. These were substantial departures from accepted practice.
by electoral district has served the country well, and was for a time world’s
best practice, but it does not necessarily remain the most appropriate
arrangement. More broadly, Australia was once a world leader in electoral
governance but appears to have fallen behind in several important areas.
Warning: don't vote on an empty stomach. From Elections
July 29 2006 Returning Officer
Ever wondered exactly what a divisional returning officer does
Here's a duty statement from Australian Electoral Commission's website (in
the Foreign Minister's electorate). And
here is a
bunch of other available AEC positions. (Lots in Queensland, I assume related to
with addition of one net seat.)
June 26 2006 Mr Dutton grovels
It's early 1851, and Francis S
Dutton, future South Australian Premier (and, according to historian Ernest
Scott, a bit of a bullsh*t artist - see note
9), is running for the colony's first Legislative Council elections.
Several months before election day he attempts to mend fences with German
immigrants by taking out a front page advertisement in the daily paper.
It is true, he concedes, he had called them 'slow, awkward and
dull of comprehension'. But he had also said nice things about them! Read
his ad (180kb). (Dutton won his seat.)
June 25 2006 barebones
history of 19th century Australian elections.
May 2006 State payment for
It is accepted practice today around the world for governments
(that is, the state) to pay the cost of elections, but it wasn't always so. Australian electoral
apparatus inherited from the mother country in the 1840s and 1850s was based on
the 1832 Reform Act, which itself was the first time the UK 'codified' its
electoral roll. Under this Act, collectors - who made the rolls - were paid by
people who wanted to get on to the roll, say a shilling a man. (They, or whoever
had the roll at the time, could also sell copies.) Payment of returning officers
and other costs of elections were incurred by candidates. Other incidentals were
paid by the County and 'Her Majesty's government'.
The first Australian legislation, NSW in 1843, moved all
expenses to the public purse. More here.
The more I read about Mr Boothby,
the more I get the feeling he was a cantankerous, difficult chap. In several
Select Committees on electoral legislation, transcripts show him as
combative - with the MPs quizzing him and in his attitude to his subordinates,
the district Returning Officers. Then again, everyone else gives as good as they
get; there's little apparent love lost.
Anyway, Mr Boothby began receiving an annual salary for the
position of Returning Officer for the Province in 1858. It was £100, on top of
the salary for his 'real' job, Sheriff for the Province, of £500. For
context, his clerk, aka (presumably) personal assistant, earned £120. Was he
the world's first salaried (albeit part-time) electoral official?
I'm also rather ignorant of how they did things on continental
Europe. Today many/most of the countries have automatic registration for voting,
with their ID cards. What was the situation in the 19th century?
Please drop me a line with any answers, comments or
suggestions, address top left-hand bar.
I have a paper in the March issue of the Australian
Journal of Political Science on - yes, again! - the Australian Ballot. You're right,
it is time to move on, and my next
journal publication plan is 'revisiting Crisp', as in Fin Crisp's classic Australian
National Government, first published in the 1950s - in particular his
table of Australian electoral innovations, much reproduced (and added to) by
political scientists ever since. Terry Newman of Uni of Tasmania has already
corrected the 1858 year (to 1856) for the intro of the Australian Ballot in
Tasmania, and I've come across some other updates, such the early existence
of plural voting in South Australia.
Where my supervisor goes, so go I, so now at the School of
Social Sciences, ANU, aka 'The Faculty'.
December 19 2005
in the Canberra Times on the Australian ballot. (Page dummied up because
the Canberra Times has not at this stage posted it.) Here's
a 200kb scanned version.
This site has suffered from neglect since its creation
at beginning of year. Yes, it's still rough-looking, but will improve .....
At left from the Los Angeles Times August, 1892, a diagram of
the organisation of the new "Australian system" of voting (aka
"the Australian Ballot") which swept the United
States between the Presidential Elections of 1888 and 1892. See
the full article.
Other recent additions to the left hand bar:
content copyright 2005. Attributed quoting and linking is most welcome,
but unattributed reproduction of any material on this site is strictly
Here's a draft paper of mine
[warning: large PDF] which attempts to counter an Australian
misconception that the secret ballot was first used here. The abstract:
"Australian historical and political science academic accounts of the "secret ballot" often describe it as being designed in Australia and first used in Victoria in 1856. Narratives often focus on Chartists and radicals finding fertile ground in the New World for ideas that had met insurmountable resistance in the Mother Country. But this concentration on the "British story" has led to a misconception: that the secret ballot was first tried in Australia. This comes from conflating the "Australian ballot" with the "secret ballot." Voting by ballot, in "secret" - that is, not by a show of hands, on the voices or signed voting paper - was in use in America and Europe well before being implemented in Australia. And after the Australian colonies of Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland introduced the ballot, jurisdictions across the world continued for decades to use their own versions of the secret ballot.
What was an Australian first, and has become, with exceptions, the norm across the world, was the "Australian ballot", which was a particular version of the secret ballot. While it had many unique characteristics - for example a private compartment in which to fill in the ballot slip - its central feature was government responsibility for the printing of official ballot slips that were then handed out by electoral officials. This was the revolution in design, but this was not the ballot called for by Chartists, Radicals and reformers, whose demands were generic: for vote by "secret ballot", as many of their brethren enjoyed in America and France. Conflating the accounts of the secret ballot and the particular subset, the Australian ballot, has led to a misconception that the ballot - as long advocated by reformers - was first implemented in Australia, which in turn has seen some contortions in the work of Australian historians and political scientists."
to paper in PDF It's big - 360kb - so might be best to download by
rightclicking and choosing 'save target as'.
Constructive comments appreciated!
A couple of years ago a guy in Tasmania rewrote
"Australian ballot" history with the discovery of the previously
too-hard-to-find-and-so-ignored 1856 Tasmanian Electoral Act. Bits and pieces on
That's all for now