The Voice

The AEC’s Simple Minds Make a Complicated Mess

Australia earned a deserved reputation in the nineteenth century for its ballot design that had a great influence world-wide. In 1858 the simple system of putting a cross in a square opposite the candidate of choice was created in South Australia. It was a model replicated in Victoria and adopted in the UK in 1872 and in Canada’s Federal Electoral Act in 1874. In America it was named the Australian Ballot and adopted in 40 out of 48 US jurisdictions between 1888 and 1910.

The simplicity of the system was also recognised in the first Commonwealth electoral legislation in 1902   and, of course, survived until the introduction of preferential voting in 1918. But even that system retained the simple ballot design.

The recent dispute about whether a cross would be accepted on the ballot for the Voice to Parliament referendum exposed the weakness of the current ballot design for the referendum.  The ballot requires the voter to write Yes or No in the square. The legislation also provides that Y for yes and N for no would also be acceptable. According to the AEC website a tick would be accepted as a Yes but a cross would not be accepted as a No.

The ensuing argument about this was totally unnecessary had the AEC considered a simpler design pioneered in South Australia in 1895. In that year the colony passed legislation for a referendum on the proposed Federal Constitution Bill.

The instructions for the ballot were simple. The voter had a choice of two boxes, one labelled Yes and the other labelled No. They were then told to put a tick in the yes box or a cross in the no box.  This model probably informed the design of the ballot for the very first Commonwealth constitutional amendment referendum in 1906. The legislation for that referendum also had, unlike this year’s referendum, two boxes one labelled Yes and the other No.  The voter was instructed to put a cross in the yes box to approve the referendum question or a cross in the No box to signal disapproval of the question.

State legislation, such as the Electoral Act of New South Wales, actually bans both ticks and crosses and advocacy of such methods.  This approach has the merit of avoiding guessing whether a cross is a yes or a no.

It would be tragic if the Voice referendum, of great importance to Indigenous Australians in particular, was marred by confusion about how to mark the ballot. Given the multicultural nature of the much of the electorate simplicity must always be the aim in ballot design.

David Clark is Emeritus Professor of Law at Flinders University

12 thoughts on “The AEC’s Simple Minds Make a Complicated Mess

  • Adelagado says:

    The recent same sex marriage ballot paper had two boxes. “Should the law be changed…. Tick the Yes box or the No box”. Where’s the consistency?

  • ianl says:

    The AEC declares that for the single YES/NO Voice box, a tick is valid but a cross is not. This confuses those who are semi-literate in English, at least. Counting a cross as invalid will advantage the YES side of the question, given there is only one single box.

    Despite this, last week I observed several times on Sky Nightime a TV screen where exactly the tick/cross combination was displayed in big, bright coloured fonts. Are the little millipedes that run the place behind the cameras just doing their bit for YES vote ? Such big, bright TV screen displays are at least subliminal advertising.

  • Daffy says:

    Forget it if you are dyslexic, hard of vision, illiterate, don’t write or read English, are disabled, or agraphic. But they were expected to vote No anyway, so no problemo in the genius calculation in the AEC. Once a fine organization, now a corrupted political lap dog, it would seem.

  • STD says:

    Guy’s n girls ya got it all wrong. The cross(X) in this secular age of the neo Marxist religion is completely unacceptable and is deemed discriminatory and a left wing Marxist human ‘rights’ abuse. Any reference or for that matter subliminal reference to Christianity or Christian ideals is to be frowned upon and at the risk of being cheeky completely out of the Question, and the interests of inverted diversity is again DEEMED to create an unequal playing field and is found to be equitably well short of the Mark (X).

  • Stephen Due says:

    The secret ballot is a great innovation. But note that the results must be hand-counted in a properly supervised environment. No computer capable of connecting to the Internet should be used in the counting process. The alternative – using a ‘trusted’ data processor – is wide open to tampering and corruption, as appears to have happened in the election at which President Trump was defeated by the senile ventriloquist’s doll who is currently in office.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    A cross cannot be used to register a vote because some people sign their names with a cross. Can’t have voters identified in a secret ballot.
    Geoff S

    • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

      I generally plead illiteracy and sign with an “X” and when asked my name reply with Xavier Xerox Xylophone and that usually guarantees “X” is accepted. We must be ever thankful that the Govt. isn’t run by Coles or Woollies who know where you shopped and at what time, what you bought and how much you spent, via their rewards type cards.

  • rabel111 says:

    Well said David. The law is clear. While the AEC may have previously accepted a tick for yes but not a cross for no, that is not a law written in stone. It’s an indictment of AEC bias that passed uncontested when no one gave a toss about the referendum question. But even if that is a precedent, precedent is even less immutable than black letter law. It’s how black letter law may be adapted to the changing context of culture and societal standards, particularly as the Australian population becomes less angliocentric and English focused, and our written language less formal.

    The arrogance of the Electorial Commissioner is reminiscent of a smug school thug, bullying others while reciting the infamous meme “well these are my rules”.

  • pgang says:

    I have a copy of the official referendum booklet in front of me, which is surprisingly informative (apart from lacking a date). The back page clearly states that you must write either yes or no.
    I don’t know where this story is coming from.

  • gardner.peter.d says:

    All this seems to be out of date. The official referendum booklet is clear. It shows two images of the ballot paper, one completed for yes, the other for no. the ballot paper states under the answer box: ‘Write “Yes” or “No”‘.
    Above that and under the heading, “Directions to Voter’, the ballot paper states:
    ‘Write “Yes” or “No” in the space provided opposite the question set out below.’

    What could be clearer than that?

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    September 7, 2023
    Nevertheless, according to news reports, the AEC has said that a tick will mean yes, a cross will be invalid. This may not seem right and may not be right, but the AEC says that it has been its policy for decades. Unfair or not, it is hardly a policy directly aimed at getting a win for this particular referendum.

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