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The Talented Mr Boothby 

Enrolling The People

Appointments:  1854  1855  1856    Public Service Review 1893   Johns on Boothby 1917       Johns on Boothby 1934   postal voting 1861


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1856 Tasmanian Electoral Act

Talented Mr Boothby

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Secret ballot - not an Australian first
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Picture taken from a cached google page of Trust Bank of South Australia, which in turn credits the State Library of SA

William Robinson Boothby
(1829 to 1903) was a significant figure in the history of Australian electoral institutions. See his ADB entry

He was Returning Officer and Sheriff of the self-governing colony of South Australia from its very first election in 1857 (see three 1856 appointments) until his death almost half a century later. As such he oversaw the development over half a century of the colony's electoral apparatus. He held other positions; according to the SA Public Service Review in 1893, he also "devised the present system of Juror's rolls, and he drafted the Jury Act of 1862". He wrote a book on olives, and as "Comptroller of Prisons", Boothby had inmates planting olives on prison grounds. ("Prize-winning", according to this site.) At the time of his death he was preparing for the second national elections to the Commonwealth parliament.

Shortly after his death, a federal seat was named after him; it still exists today. Those in the electoral business in SA tend to speak of him in hushed tones. There is an argy-bargy between South Australia and Victoria over which colony introduced what we now know as the secret ballot.  (The winner - let's not mince words - is Victoria.) 

See entry in Australian Dictionary of Biography. (A couple of quibbles: he had nothing to do with the 1856 Electoral Act, and at least until the 1890s, the Act of 1858 was the only full one he did author. That statute was, however, hugely important in the development of Australian electoral practice.)

In a sense the increasing influence of Boothby, whose main job was as Sheriff of South Australia, came from electoral mechanics. It was decided upon responsible government that the South Australian Legislative Council (upper house) would consist of just one (multi-member) electorate (the 'province'). The Returning Officers for the House of Assembly electorates (districts, seventeen of them, returning from one to six members apiece) would be Deputy Returning Officers for that part (division) of the province. Therefore all of South Australia's lower house ROs became subservient to Boothby; his role and jurisdiction grew and extended into the running of elections for the lower house. No other colony, as far as I can tell, had anything approaching the situation where one public servant (let alone, of course, the same person for half a century) was responsible for elections; politicians generally did it.

Transcripts at parliamentary committees on electoral matters, at which the Sheriff was invariably a witness, lend evidence to WRB being a prickly personality with difficult relations with his underlings, and perhaps with others as well. 

SA advocates tend to see the cross clauses of the 1858 Electoral Act as the beginning of the "real" Australian ballot. Many credit Boothby with the idea; whether this was so will hopefully be discovered. 

Boothby presided over umpteen SA elections and that colony's portion of the first federal one in 1901. South Australia has often been a leader in democratic reforms - eg widening the franchise, postal voting abolition of plural voting (actually, it never existed there [update: yes it did]). See Crisp's table.

If you look for Boothby in the SA archives you'll find plenty about his father, Judge Benjamin Boothby, and the decade long saga of the government trying to sack him. (Sending requests to London - two month one-way trip - and awaiting reply can stretch for years.)

Visit the links in the header of this page. More to come.

A word of warning: the pictures on this section of the site are of variable quality. My digital camera skills continue to evolve.