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