How to run an election – ACT style

I’ve lived in the Australian Capital Territory for more than 10 years.  Things are a little different in here to other parts of Australia.  Since ACT is a territory and not an original state, the constitutional arrangements are very different.  Until 1989 the ACT did not self-govern and had a variety of Administrators and systems run by the Federal Parliament.

Since 2013 is Canberra’s centenary, I’ll have plenty of enlightening stories about the governance of the ACT in future posts.

A few things to note:

  • Voting and enrolling to vote has been compulsory in Australia since the 1925 Federal Election.
  • Australia uses various proportional voting systems to determine elections.
  • While there are regional differences, the 2 main parties are the Australian Labor [sic] Party and the Liberal-National coalition.
  • Since 1995 ACT has used the Hare-Clark system to fill 3 multi-seat constituencies; Two with 5 members and one with 7 members.
  • To avoid “donkey votes“, where a voter writes 1 at the top and so on down the page, ACT uses Robson Rotation to randomise the order of candidates so that no-one will receive an advantage.  I heard that there were 220 different ballot papers produced.
  • Since 2001, the ACT has had electronic voting.  You can even download the source code from the ACT Electoral Commission website.  How’s that for transparency!
  • 256702 voters are enrolled.
  • As at 24/10/2012 21:38:42, 224648 votes have been counted.
  • 70008 pre-poll votes were submitted representing 27% of the electorate.  That seems very high.
  • 47677 pre-poll votes were electronic and are therefore counted in the first hour, giving the TV coverage something to talk about.
  • While coalitions with minor parties and hung parliaments are treated with horror in state and federal elections, the ACT has had minority governments 5 out of 7 times.  Doesn’t seem to bother use that much.

In my electorate there were 26 candidates for 7 seats.  As I’ve done in Senate elections forever, I also number every square.  This is as much to direct preferences in my own way as well as the particular pleasure that comes from putting someone last.  In a NSW upper house ballot I numbered all the way just to put “65” next to Fred Nile.

The local polling booth was electronic, with some 20 computers to record votes.  Paper ballots were available upon request, but the majority voted electronically.  There may be some who miss the opportunity to write rude words, which only the election official will see before it is counted as informal, but the computer only guides your selection and prevents duplicate numbering.  You can still finish voting before you fill out the numbers.

To get elected, name recognition is very important.  You can’t ride the coattails of your party and hope to be taken along as there’s no guarantee that a voter will choose all candidates from the same party.  With Robson Rotation your name could be anywhere on the ballot or the computer screen. So every candidate plasters the city with Corflute  (TM) signs; the voters must known you by name, not just find you near your party colleagues.

With Hare-Clark you are just as likely to be ousted by a member of your own party as by another party.  

And it takes a week or more to determine the winners.  In the meantime, you can learn more by reading Antony Green’s election blog at to see how the preferences are shaping up.  By Saturday 27 October we might know who won.

Why do I like this system so much?  It sounds draconian (forced to vote under pain of penalty?), complicated (you have to use numbers and fill ever square?), with results that change with the wind (one day you’re leading the count, next day you’re being excluded), that takes too long (a week is a long time without politics) and ultimately returns a hung parliament (so what was the point?)

Quite simply, it results in a parliament that has to work together, that represents the community, comprising members who are connected to the people.

I’ve called ACT government “reserve grade” politics and that really is unfair.  If I call it amateur in the sense of being for the love of, then that’s a fairer description.  And I mean that even for those I didn’t want elected… except for the twit I put at number 26.


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