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Oz legislation

the strike and the cross

1856 Tasmanian Electoral Act

Talented Mr Boothby

Wakefield and ballot


The Australian Ballot

Secret ballot - not an Australian first
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Enrolling the People


The 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 piece.

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 paper.

APSA paper here.

'April 2008 Amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918

June 2007 Independence of Australian EMBs

Australia today has nine Electoral Management Bodies - the federal one and one for each state and territory. 

(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 a ballot?

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 passed.

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 Robinson Boothby.

It was on ABC Radio National's 'Perspective' program, and you can listen or read at the program's website (March 9). 

November 28 2006 Transferring between electorates

I'm looking at the evolution of the 'transfer' procedure, by which people would change their electoral district. See this page

October 14 2006 Australian Dictionary of Biography

Launched this year, and a great site.

October 12 2006 The first electoral office

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. 

  • See 1904 electoral office diagram The top right hand box shows numbers of people employed: some 26,000. Australia was unusual at the time in devoting so many resources to elections.

October 5 2006 Voter Identification/Registration Conference

This 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

Aust Political Science Assoc paper on origins of parts of Australian electoral practice

Up on the APSA site. Comments appreciated, abstract is:

Australia 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 Australia. 

In ‘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. 

Enrolment 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 Canada

July 29 2006 Returning Officer duty statement

Ever wondered exactly what a divisional returning officer does in 2006? 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 recent redistribution 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 elections

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.

Other new additions: Oz legislation and Monarchs.

March 2006

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.

March 2006

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.  

January 2006

Where my supervisor goes, so go I, so now at the School of Social Sciences, ANU, aka 'The Faculty'.

December 19 2005

Me 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.

The Iraq stuff is from the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, specifically this PDF page.

August 2005

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:

about this site

the talented Mr Boothby  

the Australian Ballot

All content copyright 2005. Attributed quoting and linking is most welcome,
  but unattributed reproduction of any material on this site is strictly prohibited.

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."

Constructive comments appreciated!

Tassie history rewritten

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 this page.

That's all for now