Australian Electoral Commission

Events in Australian electoral history

Updated: 23 March 2016

Pre-Federation

Prior to European settlement Australia was occupied by groups of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples led by elders and subject to traditional laws.

1788

European settlement occurred and Australia became a penal colony run by a governor (autocratic government). When colonising Australia, the British Government used the term Terra Nullius to justify the dispossession of Indigenous people.

1829

British sovereignty was extended to cover the whole of Australia. Everyone born in Australia, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, became a British subject by birth.

1835

Australia’s first political party, the Australian Patriotic Association, was established under W. C. Wentworth. The party demanded democratic government for New South Wales.

1840

Australia’s first election was held on 31 October with the establishment of Adelaide City Council. Nearly 600 people cast votes.

1843

Australia’s first parliamentary election was held for the New South Wales Legislative Council.

Men with £200 free–hold or £20 annual value householders were allowed to vote.

1850

Elections for legislative councils were held in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.

Men with £100 free–hold, £10 annual value householders, 3 year lease of £10 annual value, or depasturing licence were allowed to vote.

1855

New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania were granted limited self–government.

1856

The Australian version of the secret ballot was introduced in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. Its defining feature was the government–supplied ballot paper containing candidates’ names. It was adopted around the world and became known as the Australian Ballot.

Men over 21 years allowed to vote in South Australia.

1857

Men over 21 years allowed to vote in Victoria.

1858

Men over 21 years allowed to vote in New South Wales.

Secret ballot introduced in New South Wales.

1859

Queensland was granted self–government.

Secret ballot introduced in Queensland.

1872

Men over 21 years allowed to vote in Queensland.

1890

Western Australia was granted self–government.

1891

Draft Constitution Bill for proposed federation of colonies was presented.

1893

Men over 21 years allowed to vote in Western Australia.

Secret ballot introduced in Western Australia.

1895

Women and Indigenous people over 21 years allowed to vote in South Australia.

1896

Men over 21 years allowed to vote in Tasmania.

1899

Women over 21 years allowed to vote in Western Australia.

 


Post–Federation

1901

Federation occurred. The six self–governing colonies of Australia formed the Commonwealth of Australia. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia came into effect on 1 January.

The first federal election for the Commonwealth Parliament was held under state legislation on 29 and 30 March. Edmund Barton became Australia’s first Prime Minister.

The Commonwealth Parliament met for the first time in Melbourne on 9 May with 75 members of the House of Representatives and 36 senators (6 for each state).

State franchises applied at the first federal election with disqualifications varying. Most men over 21 years could vote in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania. In South Australia and Western Australia, men and women over 21 could vote.

Enrolment and voting was voluntary in all states.

Voting systems varied between states with the first past the post system used in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia; a block voting system was used in South Australia; and a single transferrable voting system used in Tasmania. Postal and absent voting was available in some states.

1902

The first Commonwealth Parliament passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 granting universal adult suffrage for most men and women over 21. However, it specifically excluded any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from Commonwealth franchise unless they were already enrolled in a state. The franchise was further reduced in practice by admitting only those already enrolled in a state in 1902. The Act also excluded from voting all persons who were under sentence for an offence punishable by imprisonment for one year or longer, those of ‘unsound mind’ and those ‘attainted of treason’.

The Electoral Branch of the Home Affairs Department was established to conduct federal elections.

Women over 21 years allowed to vote in New South Wales.

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902 created a Chief Electoral Officer for the Commonwealth, a Commonwealth Electoral Officer for each state, Divisional Returning Officers in each division and Electoral Registrars to maintain the roll for specific polling places. It also included provisions for postal and absent voting.

1903

The first federal election under federal law was held on 16 December with a 46.86 per cent voter turnout.

The Electoral Divisions Act 1903 adopted the House of Representatives divisions provided under state legislation until a distribution made under Commonwealth legislation was approved.

The Senate Elections Act 1903 distinguished between elections for periodical vacancies (those created at the end of a senator’s term) and casual vacancies (those created before the end of a senator’s term) in the Senate.

Women over 21 years allowed to vote in Tasmania.

1905

Commonwealth electoral divisions were created under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1905.

Women over 21 years allowed to vote in Queensland.

1906

The first Constitutional referendum for the Commonwealth was held on 12 December in conjunction with the second federal election under federal law.

Published results for the 1906 federal election included counts of postal and absent votes. While postal and absent voting were available in all states for the 1903 federal election (and in some states for the 1901 federal election) counts by vote type were not published.

1907

The Constitution Alteration (Senate Elections) Act 1906 enabled the elections for both Houses of Parliament to be held concurrently, with six–year terms of senators to commence on 1 July and end on 30 June, instead of commencing on 1 January and ending on 31 December.

The Disputed Elections and Qualifications Act 1907 established that the Court of Disputed Returns was the sole authority for settling disputes about casual vacancies to the Senate.

1908

Continuous electoral rolls were established.

Women over 21 years allowed to vote in Victoria.

1909

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1909 authorised the appointment of three commissioners for redistributions in each state. It also gave Divisional Returning Officers and other officers who were conducting recounts the same powers as if the recounts were the scrutiny (including the power to reverse decisions made during scrutiny regarding the formality of ballot papers).

1911

Compulsory enrolment was introduced. Voting at federal elections remained voluntary.

Postal voting was abolished.

Elections to be held on Saturdays only.

Campaign expenditure by political organisations and returns of advertising by newspaper proprietors to be reported.

1914

Full time Divisional Returning Officers appointed.

1915

Compulsory voting was introduced for state elections in Queensland.

Compulsory voting was introduced for referendums.

1918

Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was passed (followed by Commonwealth Electoral Act 1919).

Preferential voting was introduced for both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Preferential voting was used for the first time at the Corangamite by–election on 14 December.

Postal voting was reinstated.

1919

First federal election with preferential voting was held on 13 December.

1920

The Nationality Act 1920 granted British subjects with ‘all political and other rights’ including the right to vote. South Sea Islanders were not eligible to vote despite being British subjects.

1921

The first woman elected to any Australian Parliament, Edith Cowan, was elected to the Legislative Assembly as member for West Perth in the Western Australian state election.

1922

Grouping of names on Senate ballot papers was introduced.

The Northern Territory was granted a member of the House of Representatives with limited voting rights.

The final election in which voting was voluntary was held with 59.38 per cent turnout.

1924

Compulsory voting was introduced after a private member’s bill to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was passed.

1925

Voting was compulsory for the first time at a federal election with 91.31 per cent turnout.

Natives of British India living in Australia allowed to vote.

1927

Parliament met in Canberra for the first time on 9 May.

1934

Senate voting system was altered to require all preferences to be shown.

1940

Horizontal ballot papers used in a Senate election for the first time.

1943

Australia’s first female member of the Commonwealth Parliament, Dame Enid Lyons, was elected to the House of Representatives. Australia’s first female senator, Dorothy Tangney, was elected to the Senate.

1948

The Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 established that all Australian born people are citizens of Australia rather than British subjects.

The number of senators was increased to 60 (10 for each state), and the number of members of the House of Representatives was increased to 121 (excluding the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory).

The Australian Capital Territory was granted one member of the House of Representatives with limited voting rights.

1949

Industrial ballots were first conducted by the Industrial Branch.

Aboriginal people were given the right to enrol and vote at federal elections provided they were entitled to enrol for state elections or had served in the Australian defence forces.

Proportional representation using the single transferable vote was introduced for Senate elections.

1962

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was amended to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the right to voluntarily enrol and vote at federal elections and Northern Territory elections.

1965

Queensland was the last state to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the right to vote in state elections.

1966

The member for the Australian Capital Territory was granted full voting rights in the House of Representatives.

1967

A Constitutional referendum was held with more than 90 per cent of Australian voters in all states voting in favour of amending the Constitution. Two references which discriminated against Indigenous people were removed, allowing Commonwealth Parliament to make special laws for Indigenous people and include them in population counts. These two references are outlined below.

A. The words other than the aboriginal race in any State were struck out of Section 51 xxvi so that the Commonwealth Parliament could now make special laws for Australian Aboriginals.

s.51 The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:

xxvi The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.

B. Section 127 was struck out in its entirety.

s.127 In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other parts of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.

1968

The member for the Northern Territory was granted full voting rights in the House of Representatives.

1971

Australia’s first Indigenous member of the Commonwealth Parliament, Neville Bonner, was appointed to the Senate.

1973

The Australian Electoral Office was established as a statutory authority.

The first national election for Indigenous people was held to elect 41 members of the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee. More than 27 000 Indigenous people voted.

The age for enrolment, voting and candidature for all federal elections was lowered from 21 years to 18.

1974

The Senate (Representation of Territories) Act 1973 increased the number of senators for the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory to two each.

The Australian Capital Territory was granted a second member of the House of Representatives with full voting rights.

1977

A Constitutional referendum was held. The motion to allow for the filling of Senate casual vacancies was carried. The requirement for a majority of states and a majority of all electors to vote yes in future referendums for the Constitution to be changed was carried to include territory electors in the national total for the first time.

1978

The Northern Territory was granted self–government.

1980

The first election conducted for the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly on 7 June.

1983

The Representation Act 1983 increased the number of senators for each state from 10 to 12. The number of senators totalled 76 including the two senators from each territory. The number of members of the House of Representatives was increased to 148.

1984

The Australian Electoral Commission was established to administer the federal electoral system.

Compulsory enrolment and voting for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders was introduced.

Australian citizenship became an eligibility requirement for enrolment. British subjects on the roll immediately before 26 January 1984 retained enrolment rights.

Registration of political parties introduced to permit the printing of party names on ballot papers.

Public funding of election campaigns and disclosure of political donations and electoral expenditure introduced.

The time polling places closed on election day was changed from 8pm to 6pm.

Group voting tickets introduced for the Senate.

Mobile polling first used in remote Northern Territory and Western Australia for a federal election.

The Australian Electoral Commission became solely responsible for redistributions.

1989

The Australian Capital Territory was granted self-government, with the first election held on 4 March.

Australia’s first female head of government, Rosemary Follett, was appointed Chief Minister for the Australian Capital Territory.

1990

First election for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was conducted.

1991

The number of members of the House of Representatives was decreased to 147 (after New South Wales lost the seat of St. George).

1992

The AEC’s responsibilities were widened to include international electoral assistance.

1994

The number of members of the House of Representatives was increased to 148 (after the Australian Capital Territory gained the seat of Namadgi).

1997

The Constitutional Convention Election was conducted as a voluntary postal ballot.

The Australian Capital Territory lost the seat of Namadgi and Queensland gained the seat of Blair. The number of members of the House of Representatives remained at 148.

1998

Computerised scrutiny for Senate votes was introduced.

1999

Constitutional referendums to determine whether Australia should become a republic with a President appointed by Parliament and whether a preamble should be included in the Constitution were defeated.

An automated postal vote issuing system was introduced.

2000

The number of members of the House of Representatives was increased to 150 (after Western Australia and the Northern Territory gained one seat each).

2001

A Virtual Tally Room (VTR) was developed for the AEC website which provides up to the minute results on election night.

2004

Electoral roll no longer sold commercially.

Prisoners serving a sentence of three years or more were no longer entitled to enrol or vote.

2006

Prisoners serving full time sentences of imprisonment were no longer entitled to vote.

2007

Prisoners serving a full time sentence of less than three years allowed to enrol and vote.

Electronic voting trials were conducted at the federal election for voters who are blind or have low vision and some Australian Defence Force personnel serving overseas.

2010

Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was appointed.

Australia’s first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives, Ken Wyatt, was elected to represent the division of Hasluck in Western Australia.

Telephone voting was trialled at the federal election for voters who are blind or have low vision.

Electronic electoral enrolment introduced.

2011

The Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Enrolment and Prisoner Voting) Act 2011 restored the right of prisoners serving a sentence of less than three years to enrol and vote following the 2007 High Court decision.

2012

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was changed to allow the Electoral Commissioner to directly enrol an unenrolled person or update a voter’s address if information received by the AEC indicates the voter has moved.

2016

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was amended, changing the voting method for Senators.

Political party logos allowed to be printed on House of Representatives and Senate ballot papers introduced.

Forms of optional preferential voting for both above-the-line and below-the-line on Senate ballot papers introduced.

Group voting tickets for the Senate abolished.

A restriction that an individual cannot be a registered officer or a deputy registered officer for more than one federally registered party introduced.