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The Australian Ballot

Secret ballot - not an Australian first
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The Development of Modern Electoral Administration:  
postgraduate project of the ANU and the Electoral Council of Australia 
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The Australian Ballot

[December 2005: Canberra Times piece here.]

This paper (large PDF) begins with the following 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.

One reader accused me of "splitting hairs". Another reckoned I hadn't properly differentiated between the ballot and secret ballot. I've adjusted the paper to try to take these complaints into account; let me state for the record: the ballot and the secret ballot are one and the same. There ain't no difference.

Now, as the paper shows, the accepted Australian account has it that the secret ballot was first used in Australia. But this is only justifiable if we define secret ballot as meaning the specific "Australian ballot" - which basically means government-printed ballot slips - because other kinds of secret ballot were certainly in use (in the US and France, for example) long before 1856. 

That's fine, but then we can't in the same breath (as many historians etc do) describe the English (and Australian) chartist/radical/reformist agitation for vote by ballot as finally bearing fruit in Australia, because none of them ever advocated the secret ballot as we have just defined it. They advocated the secret ballot in a generic sense, or as their counterparts overseas enjoyed it. Or we can buy into that specific tale about Britain and her colonies, but not in the idea of a  "world first" in Australia. No-one at the time was under any such misapprehension.

One example: at right is a piece from the New York Times of January 17 1853 p1 about the Massachusetts legislature amending its Secret Ballot Law. 

Click here for a longer piece from the New York Daily in 1857, by an American visitor to the United Kingdom. The writer expresses admiration for England's "bold" and "open" voting, which rendered "fraudulent voting" and "ballot-stuffing" impossible, finding it "infinitely preferable" to the "secret and irresponsible" American ones. (He also gripes about the caucus preselection process in the US.)

The Australian Ballot goes to America

Contemporary American journal and newspaper articles on the introduction of the Australian Ballot to that country from 1889 literally number in the hundreds; and that's obviously from restricted sources - hardcopies in Australian libraries and available digital databases. Here are a few (others are cited in the paper):

  • 1889 New York Times: an interview with Wigmore upon publication of his 1889 book

  • 1890 New York Times: on new system

  • 1892 Los Angeles Times: answers a Q&A from a reader with diagrams of how the Australian ballot works.