A Quick and Easy Referendum Voting Guide

(Update – the writ for the referendum was issued on Monday 11 September and you can now apply for a postal vote through the AEC website. The electoral roll will close on Monday 18 September.)

Over the last fortnight I have read several referendum voting guides that are over-long, over-complicated and in some cases downright confusing.

What needs to be understood is that the process of turning up to vote at a referendum is exactly the same as at a general election.

With one single exception – a different ballot paper is used.

All the options on when, where and by what method you vote are identical to last year’s Federal election.

In this post I am not addressing whether you should vote for or against the referendum. Every household in the country has been sent a guide to the referendum including the official Yes and No cases. The media and internet are full of information about the referendum and its consequences, though not all of the information is accurate.

In this post I’m trying to de-mystify the process with a simple FAQ about voting at the referendum.

Let me start with the only real difference in the process – the ballot paper and how to complete it.

How to Complete Your Ballot Paper

Referendums are unique in being the only Australian ballot papers that are not completed using numbers.

Instead of two ballot papers given to voters at a general election, referendum voters will be handed one small ballot paper. Its colour is officially described as “buff” and looks like the sample below –

The wording in the centre for “The Voice” referendum is –

A proposed law:
To alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

The ballot paper then asks –

Do you approve of this proposed alteration?

In response, on the voting square, write the word YES if you approve of the amendment, or NO if you do not approve.

As simple as that. Just write YES or NO.

The voting paper at the 2017 same-sex marriage vote had two boxes and you marked one with your vote. This does not apply at the referendum.

There is only one box, and in that box you write YES or NO.

There has been a lot of loose talk about using other words and symbols, but the simple rule is to write Yes or No. It can be in either upper, lower or mixed case.

If you vote YES your vote will be tallied as a yes vote. If you write NO your vote will be tallied as a no vote.

If you write anything else, an electoral official will assess what you have written to determine if it can be interpreted as an intended yes or no vote. If it can’t it will be treated as informal.

So if you want your vote to count and not rely on an electoral official interpreting what you have written, then write YES or NO.

It’s that simple.

Who is Allowed to Vote?

As at all Australian elections, anyone registered to vote can vote at the referendum.

If you are at the same address as you were at last year’s Federal election, or at the NSW and Victorian elections held since, you are already registered to vote.

If you have moved since then, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) may have automatically changed your address and contacted you concerning the change.

If you have moved and want to update your address, or you have turned 18 or become an Australian Citizen, you can update or register your enrolment through the following links.

Information on enrolling and checking your enrolment.

AEC enrolment FAQ.

Is Voting Compulsory?

Yes. The usual fine applies if you do not vote.

Will there be Election Day Voting?

Yes, the same as at last year’s election. The AEC will publish details of polling places across the country closer to polling day.

What if I am away from my electorate on election day?

As at Federal elections, you can cast an Absent vote at any polling place in your home state. If you are outside your home state, you will need to locate an interstate pre-poll or polling day centre. Again, refer to the AEC website.

Is there Pre-Poll Voting?

Again, exactly the same as at last year’s Federal election. Pre-Poll voting starts two weeks before polling day, on Tuesday 3 October in states celebrating an October long weekend, or Monday 2 October in other states.

Details on pre-polling centre venues will be available on the AEC website before pre-polling starts.

Will Postal Voting be Available?

Yes and with the same rules as at last year’s Federal election. The only difference at a referendum is that you cannot apply for a postal vote until the formal writ for the referendum is issued. This will be issued at the latest on Monday.

The best way to apply for a postal vote is through the AEC’s website at this link.

You may receive a postal vote application in an envelope labelled something like “Official Electoral Material”. Be warned, this will be sent to you by a political party. It will include a return address to the party, who will note your details before passing the application to the AEC. The party may use your address to send out how-to-vote material.

Once the AEC receives your application, they will send you a postal vote pack. Only the AEC can send out postal packs. Once completed your postal vote must be returned to the AEC. If you want to avoid double handling, and avoid giving your details to a political party, it is best to apply through the AEC’s postal vote application page.

As at Federal elections, voters on the permanent postal vote register will be sent a postal voting pack automatically once ballot papers are availalble.

Will there be remote polling?

As at Federal elections, the AEC will send remote polling teams to distant parts of the country where there is no postal service. The AEC will notify communities of dates, times and places when mobile polling teams will visit.

Is there information available in other languages?

Yes. Try this page on the AEC website.

Is Assisted Voting Available?

If you need help in voting at a polling place or early vote centre, the usual rules on asking for and receiving assistance apply. Blind, low vision and Antarctic voters have access to telephone voting.

Is There Internet Voting?

Internet voting is not used at national elections and referendums.

Is there overseas voting?

Overseas voting options are limited. Check at the AEC website for where it is available, or apply for a postal vote as soon as applications open.

Will we see the usual reporting of results on election night?

Again, everything is as at a general election or a by-election. All polling places and all pre-poll centres will count and report on election night. Some postal votes will also be counted. Individual results will be reported and accumulated to electorate, state and national totals.

The difference is how the totals are treated. While you can talk about the Yes and No sides winning an electorate, this isn’t a general election decided by who wins the most seats.

To amend the Constitution, a referendum must pass the so-called double majority test. The Yes vote must achieve –

  • a majority of the national formal vote; and
  • a majority of the formal vote in a majority of the states, that is a majority in at least four states.

How quick will the count be?

Very quick. At general elections, the speed at which polling places and count centres report depends on –

  • How many votes are to be counted;
  • How many candidates are on the ballot paper, the count slowing down as the number of candidates increases; and
  • How much of the vote is with candidates needing exclusion to work out an indicative preference count. The more ballot papers that need to be examined for preferences, the slower the count.

At a referendum, the ballot paper in every polling place in every electorate is the same, effectively a two-candidate contest between Yes and No candidates. With only two candidates and no preferences, counts will be reported very quickly and the order polling places report their results will be strongly correlated with polling place size.

Even more than at a general election, the early reports will be dominated by a flood of results from small rural centres.

Based on patterns at past referendums, and the two-party vote at general elections, the early returns will heavily favour the No side. The Yes percentage will start low and rise. The question is – will the Yes vote rise enough to reach 50%?

At the 1999 Republic referendum, early Yes-No rural returns tracked traditional Labor-Coalition voting patterns. But the trend disappeared once the metropolitan vote rolled in, with some safe Liberal seats voting Yes and safe Labor seats voting No.

Picking the winner will need to wait for unfolding metropolitan trends. If it is apparent early that each state’s capital is voting no, then the fate of the state-wide result will be a clear no.

For more information

Everything on when, where and how to vote will be published on the AEC website before it comes time to vote. Here’s the link to the AEC’s Referendum home page.

Any Questions?

Fire away with any questions. I’ll try and give answers or point to where there is useful information.

17 thoughts on “A Quick and Easy Referendum Voting Guide”

  1. Nice article Antony. At about what time during the night would you expect to have a pretty good idea as to the direction of the vote, considering you mentioned how quick the results would be reported. Say 8pm perhaps?

    COMMENT: A trend should be apparent in about an hour. The closer the result, the longer you have to wait.

    1. Okay, so the polls close at 6pm right (correct me if I’m wrong) and then by 7pm we should have a reasonably good idea as to the outcome unless of course it is quite tight.

  2. I’m interested in why the decision was made to have voters write in their choice of yes or no, rather than mark a box next to their preferred option. Is this to do with avoiding confusion related to ticks and crosses? Or another reason?

    COMMENT: The current ballot paper has been in place since 1967. The current referendum ballot paper produces the lowest rate of informal voting for any Australian electoral event. The informal vote in 1999 was only 0.9%, less than a fifth of informal voting at House elections.

    The original referendum ballot had two boxes, yes and no, with voters marking an X. The last time it was used was in 1926 at a stand-alone referendum. The introduction of preferential voting a decade earlier had ended the use of ticks and crosses at lower house elections. With a referendum being held in conjunction with the 1928 Federal election, the old ballot paper was abandoned. At referendums from 1928, a two box form was used where voters were instructed to number the boxes 1 and 2, with very liberal savings provisions for people filling only one box. 1951 was the last referendum to use this form, the current one-box version used first at the next referendums in 1967.

    The problems with a two-box referendum was shown up sharply at referendums held in conjunction with the 1991 and 1995 NSW elections. NSW uses optional preferential voting, and in the 1980s, courts decided that ticks and crosses could be treated as a one on a ballot paper. The Greiner government did not like that ruling and ahead of the 1991 state election, changed the electoral law to specifically exclude ticks and crosses from being treated as formal votes.

    They then held a referendum on Legislative Council reform in conjunction with the 1991 election. The ballot had two boxes marked Yes and No and instructions to tick one box, an informal form of voting on lower house ballot papers. The rate of informal voting in the lower house election tripled to more than 9%, and in two-candidate seats passed 20%. Informal voting was still high at a second referendum held in conjunction with the 1995 election but lowered with more attention to warning about ticks and crosses.

    NSW has since adopted the Federal referendum ballot paper and also removed the ticks and crosses over-ride for lower house elections.

  3. I still wonder about how people who are illiterate are supposed to cast a valid vote.

    COMMENT: The rate of informal voting at referendums is much much lower than at general elections. In high migrant areas you can be sure there is plenty of information around in other languages. It is much much easier to vote at the referendum than at House elections where the informal vote in high migrant areas regularly reaches double figures.

    1. Illiterate people aren’t stupid and can ask for help in completing their ballot papers. Just as they can at other elections.

      Being unable to read or write is not a bar to understanding issues or participating.

    2. Of the significant cohort of functionally illiterate, most can deal with the written Yes/No, just as if the question were in another language you or I could manage to write Da or Nyet (the Swahili ‘ndiyo’ for yes might challenge a few more). The bigger challenge is to activate the lazy-brained or disinterested, rather than pitch to lowest common denominator to rest in ignorance. The don’t-know=no slogan is an appalling go-dumb/go-early invitation to celebrate imbecility.

  4. Is it possible to quote the case law (just the case names, which we can then find on places like AustLii) which considered the issues with ticks and crosses at previous federal referendums, please?

    COMMENT: I’ve read the legal advice in the past. I don’t have a copy so can’t provide it.

  5. If it is true that a tick will be counted as a Yes, but a cross will be discarded, will this lead to the likelihood of a legal challenge in the event of a narrow yes win?

    COMMENT: All votes not written with Yes or No will be examined for intent, and if intent can be determined, the vote will count as a Yes or No. The law has had this intent provision since the 1980s. The legal advice on ticks and crosses has also been in place since the 1980s, that a tick on a one box form is a mark of agreement, a cross can be wither agreement or objection and so intent is not clear. The AEC can only admit votes where intent is clear.

    Informal voting under these rules in 1999 was 0.9%. Most informal votes are blanks, so there can’t be many X’s used so the election would have to be incredibly close to go to court and the legal view is that the AEC’s legal advice would stand.

    Which is why it is important that voters write YES or NO in the voting square. That’s why I wrote this article and repeated this advice over and over again, that voters should write YES or NO. I deliberately did not discuss ticks and crosses in the article because voters shouldn’t use them, they should write YES or NO. Every time people discuss ticks and crosses, people get confused about how-to-vote. People shouldn’t be confused because the method of voting is quite clear, write YES or NO.

  6. Would you expect a higher rate of informal voting, and a lower participation rate, in remote locations compared with metropolitan centres?

    COMMENT: The turnout is higher in rural areas than the inner city. The more remote a seat, that is in areas beyond agricultural and grazing districts, the lower the turnout. Turnout is always low in vast remote districts like Durack, Lingiari and Gray, simply because of the lack of access to places to vote and the lack of postal service. The AEC will try and visit many communities with remote polling teams, but they always miss some voters. I’d expect the informal vote to be lower than at a Federal election because the method of voting is much easier.

  7. Do residents of the ACT and Northern Territory get to vote? If so, are their votes lumped in with NSW and SA?

    COMMENT: Following a referendum in 1977, voters in the ACT and Northern Territory can vote at referendums and have their votes included in the national totals. But the result in the two territories does not play a part in the decision on whether the referendum passes in a majority of states.

  8. Antony, some people may not be aware that the 2nd part of the “double majority” rule applies only to states, not territories. So if say, ACT, NT, Tas, Vic and SA vote “Yes”, but Qld, NSW, WA vote “No”, then No wins because only 3 of the 6 states voted Yes. This rule seems very anachronistic and unfair, especially given that the population of Tasmania is only a bit more than the ACT. What do you think is a better rule?

    COMMENT: It’s in the Constitution. The Constitution was changed in 1977 to give Territory voters the right to vote and have their votes included in the national totals. But there was no plan to give the Territories a say in the “majority of states” clause and it would take a referendum to change. I very much doubt that such a referendum would pass.

  9. Thank you Antony for making clear the issues around voting.
    So sad that so much fuss is made about ticks and crosses when the real issue is whether to grant Indigenous people a voice to parliament. Even that issue is quite simple.

  10. Antony, is there any reason why the ballot paper could not be designed with two boxes – one for “Yes” and one for “No”, which the voter could then choose which to mark – with a tick, a cross or whatever? a quick google of how referendums are conducted in other English-speaking countries – the EU entry and exit referendums in the UK, the various referenda to amend the Irish constitution over the years, suggests that they all offered a choice of two boxes to choose which to mark. Is Australia unique in giving only a single box, in which the voter is required to hand write the words indicating his/her answer to the proposal?

    COMMENT: The current one-box referendum ballot paper produces the lowest informal vote percentage of any Australian electoral event. Informality was just 0.9% at the 1999 Republic referendum. At the two-box referendums held in conjunction with NSW elections in 1991 and 1995, the informal rates were 5%, 6% and 9%. NSW has now switched to use the Commonwealth one-box ballot paper.

    Australia did use a two box ballot with an ‘X’ for voting from 1906 to the stand-alone referendums in 1926. Until 1917 an ‘X’ was the method of voting for the House, Senate and referendums. But the adoption of preferential voting ended the reign of two-box and ‘X’ ballot papers.

    A referendum was held in conjunction with the 1928 election, and with concern that voters would use crosses on the House ballot paper, the referendum ballot was changed so that voters needed to number the Yes/No boxes. That was such an illogical way to vote that the Electoral Act included numerous savings provisions. That ballot paper was last used in 1951. The next referendum was not held until 1967 when the current one-box ballot paper was first used.

    The basic problem is that there are no current Australian ballot papers where ticks or crosses are the method of voting. At most Australian elections, a tick or a cross is informal. Nobody wants a repeat of the 1991 NSW election where the use of a two-box referendum ballot tripled the lower house informal vote as voters cast informal voters by using a tick on their Assembly ballot.

    With such an incredibly low rate of informal voting at Commonwealth referendums, I don’t see why people keep saying there is confusion. Based on informal voting reports for the 2016 Federal election, the rate of ticks and crosses voting is just 0.4% of all votes. More than 98% of voters write Yes or No so why move to a two-box model and introduce ticks and crosses to voting.

    1. I suppose it all depends on what your used to. As a British person, voting in England, an X is very much the usual method for national and local elections and referendums. Other parts of the UK, however, use numbers for devolved parliaments and local authorities (I think Northern Ireland has used this method longest). From what Antony lays out, an X hasn’t been the norm in Australia for over a hundred years, and there are likely no (or very few) surviving voters from a referendum in 1951 I should think.

      Numbering boxes isn’t suitable for yes/no questions obviously. A tick is widely understood as agreement/affirmation (at least in English, other languages/writing systems might be different?). An X is understood as disagreement/negative in almost all contexts *except* voting in elections, where it’s understood as a vote for a candidate, rather than against them. So, while a tick *could* be allowed, an X might arguably introduce a lack of clarity regarding intent. Allowing one without the other would create a different potential problem; the Australian approach seeks to avoid both those issues and, judging by Antony’s stats, it seems to work.

      The British approach is different; the ballot paper instructs the voter to use an X, but the key bit says (slight paraphrase) “Mark one box ONLY” and “Make no other mark on the ballot paper”. Official guidance for counting staff actually says not to reject a vote just because it isn’t an X; any mark can be accepted (tick, smiley face, whatever) so long as it’s clear and unambiguous. This is deliberately generous, and I get the sense that the number of invalid votes in the sense of those incorrectly/unclearly filled out is very low.

      Two different approaches, determined by the historical and contemporary contexts in which they operate, thus seem to arrive at their desired objective.

  11. Hello Antony, for a referendum to achieve a majority ÝES’ (and indeed a double majority), does this mean a majority of all formal votes? Or does it mean a majority of electors?

    COMMENT: The majority of formal votes. I know people keep raising the wording of Section 128 of the Constitution, but since 1911 the various laws governing elections have made clear it is determined on formal votes.

  12. On the night of the polling day, will the referendum result be identifiable by electorate or just by jurisdiction? Will the ABC have a dedicated guide for the referendum, including preview and results?

    COMMENT: Results are being reported by polling place. The AEC and the ABC will have results on the night by jurisdiction and by electorate. The ABC has an entire site dedicated to the Voice.

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