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The Australian ballot - born 1855 and still going strong
PETER BRENT Scanned version

Monday December 19 2005

The identification officer draws a line through the name of the voter on the voter list ... the ballot paper issuer stamps the back of the ballot paper with the official IECI stamp gives the ballot paper to the voter [and] tells the voter to go behind one of the empty voting screens, mark her/his ballot there in secret, fold the ballot so that her/his choice cannot be seen, and place it in the ballot box. 

                      - Official Iraqi voting procedure 

WHEN Iraqis elected their first full-term Council of Representatives last week, they used an Australian invention whose 150th anniversary fell yesterday. 

Forget the stump-jump plough and black box recorder. Spare us the Hills Hoist. Australia's greatest gift to the world is the Australian ballot, and it was largely devised by one man. 

What was the Australian ballot? Many equate it with the secret ballot: a reform long advocated around the world and first realised in Australia. But it was much more than that. 

When, on December 18, 1855, a majority of Victoria's Legislative Council members agreed to include voting by secret ballot in their first post-independence electoral act, they didn't intend a world first. At least two countries were already using the secret ballot. True, all the Australian colonies (like England) elected politicians by open voting - electors holding up their hands and later handing in signed voting papers containing their favoured candidate(s) and their own name, address and voting qualification. But France, and many American states, employed a system called the secret ballot, where the voting papers included nothing to identify the voter. Many Australians wanted such a system, but they got much more, thanks mainly to Henry Samuel Chapman. 

H.S. Chapman was one of those middle-class Englishmen who lived in various parts of the British Empire but always called England home. He was a lawyer, friend of philosopher John Stuart Mill, former bankrupt, ex-newspaper proprietor (in Canada) - and a Radical. Being a Radical meant favouring a list of reforms such as universal (white male) voting rights and the secret ballot. In 1855, Chapman was elected to the Victorian parliament, and after that crucial December vote, the nuts and bolts of the scheme fell to him. What he came up with, early next year, was wholly original. 

Chapman invented the government-printed ballot slip. Commonplace now, but there is no evidence anyone had even thought of it before. Until then, all modes of paper voting involved the elector supplying his own ballot-paper (or getting it from a third party). With the printed ballot, listing all candidates, came a detailed system, whose main components, such as the private compartment, remain recognisable the world over today. For example, substitute the stamp with an official's initials in the instructions at top of this article, and you have the Chapman invention. 

Like most changes, the new system had its opponents. Expensive red tape, they said, that would facilitate voter fraud, and voting in secret was wimpy. Worst of all, it was ''un-English''. But it quickly spread to the other Australian colonies, and in 1870 travelled to New Zealand, and then England, Canada and Belgium. From 1888 to 1892 it swept about half the American states (where the term ''Australian Ballot'' is still used today), and the rest is history. 

Another objection, that it would make elections boring, did transpire, mainly due to changes to the nomination process. Under open voting, candidates gathered to nominate at a chosen time and place in their electorate. This was actually the main event, the ''election day'', where they would debate each other and the gathered electors. A show of hands was then usually followed by the written poll a few days later at the various polling places. Election day, especially in England, was quite an event: alcohol flowed, any women present were generally of 'low morals'', and rentacrowds guzzled free food and drink supplied by politicians. A debauched and violent time was often had by many. 

To print the ballot paper, authorities had to know well in advance who was running. South Australia was the first to introduce written nominations, but by the 1860s faced a conundrum: while the ''country'' (as the self-governing colonies called themselves) had possibly the most inclusive elections in the world, a shrinking proportion could be bothered participating. This, it was roundly agreed, was mainly because the new nomination system took the human contact and fun out of the process. It was touch and go, but written nominations stayed, as did restrictions on alcohol near and attendance inside polling places, which are all largely standard today. 

Chapman promptly lost his seat at the 1856 elections and eventually became a Supreme Court Judge in New Zealand, where he died of old age. But a century and a half later, the Victorian invention thrives - including in Iraq.

Peter Brent is a PhD student at the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University, and publisher of enrollingthepeople and mumble.com.au

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