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Oz legislation

the strike and the cross

1856 Tasmanian Electoral Act

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Wakefield and ballot


The Australian Ballot

Secret ballot - not an Australian first
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Wakefield Jnr describes the Secret Ballot 

I found this in American magazine The Forum (1889, Volume 8 pp148-158). The idea, and indeed practice, of a 'secret ballot' had been around for decades, but the specific procedure of the "Australian ballot" was concocted by a Victorian Legislative Councillor, Henry Samuel Chapman, and refined by South Australian bureaucrat, William Boothby [no link, but this guy's uncle] (federal seat of Boothby named after William) in the late 1850s. Of course it has evolved in the century and a half since then, but it is remarkable, from the passage below, how much has stayed the same.

The Victorian and SA ballots were slightly different. Two of the distinguishing features were: (1) In Victoria the voter crossed out all the candidates he (they were all male) didn't want, while in South Australia the ballot slip had boxes next to the candidates' names, and the voter put a cross in preferred candidate(s)' box. (2) In Victoria the vote wasn't entirely "secret", being traceable with a number. NZ, from the account below, obviously adopted the Victorian version on both these counts, but today - in Australia at least - the SA one "rules". (I understand votes are still traceable in the UK; emails notifying other jurisdictions still doing that would be appreciated.)

The author of the passage below is "Edward Wakefield". As far as I can tell, it is Edward Jerningham Wakefield, son of Edward Gibbon Wakefield (who the South Australian federal electorate is named after).

But Wakefield Junior died in 1879, a decade before this was published. Don't know whether it had been published previously.

The piece is called 'The Australasian Ballot', presumably to include New Zealand in the story, but actually New Zealand waited until 1870 before adopting the ballot.

Picture of Wakefield Jnr, right, from NZhistory.net

Below is the section that describes the workings of the secret ballot.


Prior to the day appointed by the election, a sufficient number of conveniently-situated buildings or rooms are publicly announced as polling booths, and early on the morning of the election these places are taken possession of by the "returning officer" and his deputies, none of whom have a vote or are in any way concerned in the election. The returning officer (or deputy) seats himself at a table, with his poll clerk, and one scrutineer, appointed by each candidate if he choose, the scrutineer being a non-voter. Nobody else is allowed in the polling booth, which is thus absolutely private for the purpose of voting. The returning officer has before him the electoral roll, on which are registered the names and descriptions of all qualified voters, arranged and numbered from No. 1 upward, in alphabetical order. He also has a corresponding number of ballot papers, which are small sheets of printing paper, containing the names of the candidates in alphabetical order, and a direction to the voter, plainly printed, instructing him to draw a line through the names of the candidates whom he does not wish to vote for. The ballot box, which is simply a large wooden box with a slit in the top, stands on the table in front of the returning officer, who alone has the key of it. In another part of the room, but in view of the returning officer, there is a screen, behind which is a writing table or shelf, and a supply of blue pencils.


At the hour appointed for opening the poll (the polling hours differ in different colonies, but are generally from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M.), a constable opens the door of the polling booth, and the voting begins. The elector walks in, states his name in full, and answers any questions the returning officer may put to him for the purpose of identifying him for the electoral roll. The returning officer then ticks him off on the roll and gives him a ballot paper, having first written the elector's number, from the electoral roll, in the corner of the page, and gummed it down. I mention this detail for a reason which will appear later.[1]


The elector takes the paper, goes behind the screen, draws a blue pencil line through the names of the candidates whom he does not wish to vote for, comes out with the paper folded in his hand, drops it in the slit in the lid of the ballot box, and goes about his business. A constant succession of voters will repeat this process all day until the hour for closing the poll, when, on the stroke of the clock, the constable shuts and locks the door of the booth. Blind or otherwise physically incapable electors, or those who cannot read, are entitled to the assistance of the returning officer if they ask for it.


The voting over, the returning officer unlocks the ballot box and, with the assistance of his poll clerk, and in the presence of the scrutineers, counts the votes. All papers are rejected as informal on which the names of all the candidates beyond the number to be elected are not struck out, or on which all the names are struck out, or on which anything has been written or marked except the pencil mark through the names, or which have been tampered with in any way. The candidate whose name has been left without a pencil mark through it, by the greatest number of voters, at all the booths in the district, is the successful candidate. As soon as the poll has been officially declared, the returning officer, who has had the papers in his possession all the while, seals them up and posts them to the clerk of Parliaments, a highly responsible non-political officer at the seat of government, who, after keeping them for the time prescribed for disputing elections, burns them."

[1] “This”, Wakefield explains on page 153 “is absolutely necessary to in order to prevent or detect personation or double voting”, and apart from “some well-intentioned people who do not understand the subject”, those who object to the measure are “demagogues and grievance-mongers” (pg154).