The secret life of the election

The ballot paper was an Australian innovation. AAP

The secret life of the election

The ballot paper was an Australian innovation. AAP

One hundred and fifty years ago, the South Australian House of Assembly handed down the report of its first committee into the running of elections.

Its main purpose was to find the causes of two troubling trends: plummeting voter turnout and an increasing informal vote.

Like New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, the colony had moved to quasi-independent “responsible government” half a decade earlier.

And all but Tasmania had put in place two big democratic reforms – full adult male suffrage for the new lower house and the replacement of English-style open voting with a secret ballot.

Ten years earlier, at South Australia’s 1851 Legislative Council elections, 76 percent of the electoral roll had voted. By 1860 the percentage was just 36. Informal voting, virtually unknown under open voting, was now eight percent.

Why was this happening?

One reason for low turnout was that the electoral roll was now much bigger because virtually all adult males aged 21 and over could now vote.

Most importantly (and almost certainly uniquely in the world at that time) in South Australia enrolment was no longer voter-initiated.

Now council workers and police officers went door to door around the colony constructing a list.

So the roll was now very comprehensive and included people who would not under a voter-initiated system bother to get onto the roll, let alone exercise their vote.

Also, like the other Antipodean colonies, South Australia had abolished the English registration fee.

Conservatives who warned that people wouldn’t value something they didn’t have to pay for turned out to have a point.

But the main reason for low turnout was lack of interest. Elections were less exciting than they used to be. And that was largely the fault of the Australian ballot and its accessories.

The myth of the secret ballot

The popular account in Australia that we led the world in using the “secret ballot” is not really true. France and America, for example, had secret voting decades before us.

What was invented here was the government-supplied ballot paper, containing candidates’ names, which became known as the Australian ballot.

In pre-ballot days, elections in Australia (and England) took place in two stages.

First were nominations, when crowds gathered to watch people announce their candidacy. Alcohol often flowed freely, those assembled argued with each other and candidates, and a rowdy time was had by all.

The second stage was the polling, to which electors brought voting papers with their chosen candidate’s name on it, as well as their own name and details of qualification, and handed them to electoral officials. They might also verbally verify who they were voting for (which is why there was little opportunity for accidental informal voting.)

All the Australian colonies moved to introduce secret voting with responsible government but legislators gave little thought to the mechanics. South Australia’s initial January 1856 bill simply instructed the elector to “deliver to the Returning Officer, or his deputy, a closed white paper containing the Christian name and surnames of the person or persons for whom he votes”.

This was more or less how it was done overseas.

The problem was that this “secret” ballot wasn’t necessarily secret. Voters could simply take a pre-written ballot paper from a candidate’s agent and walk several steps to deliver it to the returning officer.

If the aim of the secret ballot was to eliminate bribery and coercion (and it was) then it did a pretty poor job of it.

Australian ingenuity

But in January 1856, some folks in Melbourne came up with what would become the Australian ballot: pre-printed (or written) voting papers.

They also described the whole box and dice: how voters would have their names ticked off, take the ballot paper into a secret compartment, come out and put it in a ballot box and then leave.

There is no evidence that anyone, anywhere had ever suggested such a thing.

It made secrecy mandatory, not optional. It was, of course, costly for the government—a characteristic typical of the Australian colonies—and not surprisingly was considered quite wacky by many people back home in England.

More organised but more boring

Within weeks South Australia had picked up the Victorian model and added an accessory: the end of public nominations.

Candidates would now send nominations to officials in writing. This also gave returning officers plenty of time to make the ballot papers.

And they took the whole thing further, making it unlawful “for any candidate to solicit personally the vote of any elector, or to attend any meeting of electors, convened or held for the purposes of election, after the issue of a writ for the election”.

In other words, candidates weren’t actually allowed to campaign.

This was colloquially known as the “gagging clause” and along with written nominations its aim was to make elections more orderly.

This they achieved but they also made elections more boring. Without the carnival nominations atmosphere and rowdy, boozy meetings, public interest plummeted.

In 1861 witnesses and committee members all agreed this was a major cause of low turnout.

As simple as ticking a box?

They also agreed that the high informal vote was the fault of a change to the ballot paper.

The original procedure, taken from Victoria, had the voter strike out the names of all candidates but the one he was voting for.

In South Australia in 1858 somebody came up with the idea of putting a box next to each name; the voter would put a mark or tick next to their favoured candidate.

This led to confusion and the high informal vote. The “cross in the square” reform, everyone agreed, had been a mistake, but being human they were loathe to undo it.

There was also unanimous agreement that the gagging clause contributed to low turnout, but here too, many MPs who were unwilling to reverse their grand reforms.

The committee’s recommendations were silent on both.

Just follow our lead

Forty years later, the Australian colonies joined together in a federation. By this time the South Australian version of the Victorian ballot had been taken up by New Zealand, Belgium, Canada and most American states.

The new Australian government adopted it also, along with most features of South Australia’s electoral apparatus.

Low levels of interest remained a feature of our elections, and two decades later a very Australian solution was found for the turnout problem: make it compulsory.

The nineteenth century Australian ideas about society involved a large role for the state to ensure equality of outcome. Only in the running of elections was this approach adopted internationally.

They didn’t know it at the time, but a century and a half ago those South Australians were influencing the way elections would be run, not just in this country but around the world.

And the gagging clause that banned politicians from campaigning? It never travelled beyond South Australia’s borders and was finally put out of its misery in 1896.

Some innovations deserve a quiet death.