The Voice

The Pen is Mightier than the Fraud

Being somewhat anachronistic, I always feel at home in a polling place. There is something comforting about going to a primary school, university café or tin shed somewhere in our great democracy, especially if it is a place is where one spent some of one’s formative years. So I am looking forward to October 14 and another opportunity to cast my vote with an Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) pencil.

AEC’s official guide to the 2023 referendum is only four pages at the end of its 25-page official referendum booklet. It describes exactly what happens in a polling place. What you need to know is all there in black and purple.

Point 6 caught my eye: “If you have used an AEC pencil, deposit it in the box on the way out. There will be hand sanitiser available near the exit.” With over 7,000 polling places and “up to 100,000 temporary referendum workers” (TRWs), that suggests almost a million pencils with be available on the big day.

Why are pencils supplied in polling booths? After all, the last time a lot of voters used one was probably at school or the races. According to the AEC, it was a legal requirement until a change three years ago.

Since 2020 under section 206 of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 the AEC is required to provide an ‘implement or method for voters to mark their ballot papers’.

The AEC has found from experience that pencils are the most reliable implements for marking ballot papers. Pencils are practical because they don’t run out and the polling staff check and sharpen pencils as necessary throughout election day. Pencils can be stored between elections and they work better in tropical areas.

There is, however nothing to prevent an elector from marking their ballot paper with a pen if they so wish.

Presumably the AEC will have systems in place to ensure that none of the 100,000 TRWs involved in this exercise take an eraser into a polling place. After all, at virtually every election or referendum a few voters have expressed concerns about their use. Four years ago, for example, the ABC reported on the case of Clare Williams from Western Australia. Ms Williams asked: “Why do we vote in pencil? Wouldn’t pens be more secure?” She worried that voting in pencil would leave her ballots “wide open to tampering”. The ABC posted its response online.

The Electoral Act stipulates that all voters must be supplied with a pencil if they’re voting in a polling booth, but there’s nothing stopping you from bringing in your own pen and using it to vote instead.

The AEC uses pencils because they’re cheap, they don’t run out (polling officials can sharpen them across the day), and they’re easily stored between elections.

But they don’t supply erasers, so if you make a mistake you’re advised to ask for a new ballot paper.

Once counting begins, special scrutineers are trained to inspect the votes to make sure they’re authentic and have not been inappropriately altered.

Given controversies elsewhere over the efficacy and accuracy of electronic voting, Australia apparently is still out in front with its pencils.

Mr Tom Rogers, the Electoral Commissioner, reassures us that all is well. Indeed, he is “proud of the role we play in delivery a referendum with integrity at every step of the process.”

But then, does it matter whether one uses a pen or pencil, or like Clancy of the Overflow, a “thumbnail dipped in tar”?

Whatever voting “implement” you chose, note that an “X” will not be counted as a No vote. On September 20 the SMH’s Michaela Whitbourn reported:

Mining magnate Clive Palmer and United Australia Party senator Ralph Babet have lost a Federal Court bid to force the Australian Electoral Commission to count crosses on Voice referendum ballot papers as a vote against the proposal. (SMH, September 20, 2023)

Federal Court Justice Steven Rares ruled that an “X” was “inherently ambiguous” and could not be counted as a No vote on October 14.

The judgment reaffirmed what the AEC said in a statement last month:

The longstanding legal advice provides that a cross can be open to interpretation as to whether it denotes approval or disapproval: many people use it daily to indicate approval in checkboxes on forms.

The legal advice provides that for a single referendum question, a clear ‘tick’ should be counted as formal and a ‘cross’ should not.

Several months ago I found a 1992 edition of Boris Bazhanov’s The Memoirs of Stalin’s Former Secretary at a book sale. According to the author, Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) said the following in 1923:

I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this—who will count the votes, and how.


On reflection, I think I will take my Mitsubishi waterproof and fade-proof uni-ball eye micro. When entering the local polling place I shall also say a prayer that Mr Rogers is right and the AEC’s “special scrutineers” will do the right thing and leave their erasers at home.

15 thoughts on “The Pen is Mightier than the Fraud

  • Solo says:

    I’ve been a attendant for a few regular elections. Once the doors are closed for the polls, the ballot boxes are upturned on a bunch of tables and people get to work counting them. During the (occasionally long night) every discount official and political hanger-on will peer over your shoulder to make sure you’re counting the correct ballots and they’ll challenge anything even remotely out of the ordinary. I’ve never come across anything suspicious or untoward in the counting, and its fairly boring overall! That said, a pen is good idea all the same!

    • ianl says:

      Thank you for your comment.

      A few questions that you seem not to have covered:

      1) you say you have been an “attendant”. What is that, how did you become one, what does an attendant do, exactly ?

      2) Are there scrutineers for both YES and NO while the ballots are being counted and transported anywhere in the chain of custody ? Or is one scrutineer per counter allocated care for both YES and NO ?

      3) If there are scrutineers, how are they chosen ? Who chooses them ? How are they volunteered ?

      While I know the AEC constantly preaches its’ own virtue, I am ever mindful of the WA Senate vote imbroglio in 2013, where a batch of votes already counted went “missing” before recount. Chain of custody meant nothing, the AFP poked around and then threw its’ hands up in the air. Since the Senate result was likely known by then (WA is by virtue of geographic time on the end of the counting chain), the resultant WA re-election ordered by the HC – as was proper – altered the composition of the Senate and removed probable Senate control from the newly elected Govt by virtue of the “lost” swag of votes. I am not a believer.

      Since a NO vote cannot be counted if written as an X, any such vote marked in that fashion is invalid and so accretes an accumulation factor to the YES vote. Sharp scrutineers for NO are imperative.

      • Davidovich says:

        My wife and I have volunteered to be scrutineers for Fair Australia on 14th October. I have scrutineered many times in the past for the Liberal Party but not since I left them in disgust. To be a scrutineer you have to be registered with a recognised entity such as Fair Australia or whoever runs the Yes campaign (is that Yes23?). I understand the Liberal Party will man polling booths so Labor may well do so too.

    • padraic says:

      I agree Solo. I have been an AEC casual working on many elections and everything was above board at all times with the paper system. But I am not so sure about electronic voting, particularly as older voters sometimes have to be helped on what buttons to press.

    • ianl says:

      Quite by accident, I’ve just come across an advertisement from ON describing the process for selecting scrutineers.

      According to this, only political parties may register scrutineers. With regard to cross-loyalties with this referendum, the scrutineering will be critical.

      So far, that ON advertisement has been the most informative offering.

    • norsaint says:

      do you reckon the homo “marriage” burlesque was above board?
      I find it highly unlikely.

      • Solo says:

        I’d say the marriage vote was probably OK when being counted. I’ve found most people who are counting ballots are there for a bit of extra money for their Saturday (its about $350 I think for a 16 hour day). I haven’t come across rabid-agenda types behind the scenes and in the school I was counting votes in there was no place to hide or misplace votes. The doors are locked as well, I vaguely recall. That said for the same sex vote, there were reports of people just going down streets and grabbing the voting forms out of mailboxes and returning them with YES. If this was a widespread trend maybe it’d have some impact. The overton window is shifting left at a rate of knots, so between some skullduggery and broad idiocy across the land, it wasn’t surprising that the yes vote got up. Hopefully it’s not the case this time around, but give it a couple of decades and the voices of reason will all be in the ground so who knows what will happen then

  • Solo says:

    ianL: 1) I forget the position description specifically. I suppose electoral roll officer or something along those lines. Essentially you get there before the polling station opens, facilitate people getting their ballot and getting ticked off through the day. When the polls close, you then need to join in with the rest of the staff to being the actual count. We were there til 1am one morning. 2) I am unsure about referendums, but I’d say there would just be a pile of papers on a table at the end of the night and people sort through them into yes and no and would also check for ticks, crosses and donkey votes etc. 3) Election officers, managers and any of the paid positions are advertised through the AEC and anyone can potentially do the job. Usually it’s older, retired, women from what I’ve found. Official scrutineers are usually representatives of MPs or hopefuls and have credentials as to who they represent.

  • Jason Gardner says:

    I’ve been a temporary election worker for several elections now at all three levels of government. I can assure the author and anyone else who cares that come the time to count, recount and scrutinise, there’s neither enough time nor people for anyone to play silly buggers with an eraser. We do this job because regardless of the party, people or issue being voted upon, we enjoy doing our bit to ensure it’s done fair and square.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    If an X is regarded by the Federal Court as inherently ambiguous our Customs & Immigration people don’t seem to be aware of it.
    When I last flew back International into Queensland in February this year, unless my memory fails me, they were still instructing clearly on the arrival card to mark the relevant box with an X.

  • David Cragg says:

    I had an indirect working relationship with the AEC in the late 1980s, and we pursued the possibility of biros with them at the time. The very firm response was – pencils can be stored in warehouses for three years between elections, and are as good the day they come out as the day they went into storage. Biros and other cheap alternatives clog up/the ink congeals, and you would effectively need a million new ones every three years (great news for China or wherever cheap pens are made).

  • Sindri says:

    Really. An entire article given over to the idea that “they” might be planning to steal your vote if you use the proffered pencil, so take a pen! Pure conspiracy theory and nothing else, with absolutely zero evidence.
    Thankfully there are some responses from people who have actually been scrutineers.

    • lbloveday says:

      There is no degree of cheating that I would put beyond the ALP and AEC.
      One incidence with which I am familiar and that determined the SAust government was:
      The Norwood, SA, 1979 state election result (won by Frank Webster, Liberal) was overturned by a court decision, and a by-election held 16/2/1980.
      In the few months between the general election and the by-election, the Norwood electoral roll numbers increased by 10%. The vast majority were not newly turned 18yos, new residents, or people who had omitted to enrol by the previous cut-off date, they were election riggers – people from outside Norwood, typically Left-wing UofA students, who had voted in another electorate in the general election and who changed their enrolled, but not physical, address to vote again.
      There were 22 people enrolled at the one address, but the Electoral Commission did nothing despite being given proof. So Greg Crafter, ALP, romped in.
      “Vote often, vote Labor” is not just a catch·phrase.

    • john mac says:

      The guardian beckons for you .

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