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