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.