Electoral Pocketbook 2011 - 3 The electoral process

Updated: 15 June 2011

3.5 Voting

Voting is compulsory at federal elections and referendums for all enrolled electors.

Polling day is always on a Saturday and voting takes place between 8am and 6pm.

Types of votes

Australians can vote by:

  • Ordinary vote – a vote recorded by an elector on election day at a polling place within the electorate for which they are enrolled. This is the simplest way to vote and the method used by the majority of electors.
  • Absent vote – votes cast by electors who are out of their electorate but still within their state or territory on election day. These votes may be cast at any polling place in the state or territory.
  • Pre-poll vote – a vote recorded by a voter (that has declared their eligibility to make an early vote) made at an early voting at an early voting centre or an AEC divisional office. Pre-poll votes made within a voter's own electorate (pre-poll ordinary votes) are counted on election night. Those votes made outside a voter's electorate (pre-poll declaration votes) are counted during the declaration vote counts after election night. For the 2010 election, electors who are blind or have low vision were able to cast a secret vote at any AEC divisional office or at a small number of early voting centres determined by the Electoral Commissioner. Votes were cast, via a call centre, for a period of up to three weeks prior to and on election day.
  • Postal vote – electors who for various reasons cannot attend a polling place in the state or territory for which they are enrolled on election day can apply in writing for a postal vote. They will then be sent their ballot papers, which must be posted back before the close of polling.
  • Provisional vote – a vote cast where an elector's name cannot be found on the certified list, or the elector's name is already marked off the certified list as having voted, or the elector is registered as a silent elector. Provisional votes are not entered into the count until evidence of identity has been provided and a check of entitlement has been completed. Provisional electors need to provide evidence of identity either at the polling place or to the AEC by close of business on the first Friday after election day.

Electors making a postal, pre-poll, absent or provisional vote must complete a declaration giving their personal details. Divisional staff will check their entitlement before the votes are counted.

Electors in many hospitals, some prisons, and in some remote areas, can cast a vote when visited by a mobile polling team.

Mobile polling is carried out during the 12 days up to and including election day.

How to vote

The electoral systems for the two houses of Australia's Federal Parliament are different.

House of Representatives

Candidates for the House of Representatives are elected using the preferential voting system. This system has been used in federal elections since 1918. Candidates stand for election in a particular electoral division. To be elected, a candidate must have more than half the formal votes cast for that division.

Members are elected for a maximum three-year term.

For the House of Representatives ballot paper, voters put a '1' in the box beside the candidate who is their first choice, '2' in the box beside their second choice and so on, until they have numbered every box. If any candidate gains more than 50% of the formal first preference votes (i.e. an absolute majority), he or she is elected. If no candidate has an absolute majority the voter's other preferences are taken into consideration. The distribution of preferences takes place in every division, even where a candidate already has a majority of first preference votes. For information on how House of Representative votes are counted see Counting the votes for the House of Representatives.


Candidates for the Senate are elected using a proportional representation system also known as the 'single transferable vote' method. Candidates stand for election in a state or territory. To be elected, a candidate must receive a certain proportion of the votes, known as a quota.

It is a Constitutional requirement that each original state be equally represented regardless of its population. There are a total of 76 Senators: 12 for each state and two for each territory. Senators for each state are elected for six-year terms on a rotating basis with half of the senators retiring every three years (or facing a half-senate election).

The terms of senators representing the ACT and the NT commence on the day of their election and expire at the close of the day immediately before the polling day for the next general election. The election of these senators is held at the same time as every House of Representatives general election.

Forty Senate vacancies are contested at a half-Senate election when it is held simultaneously with a House election. When a double dissolution is declared all 76 Senate positions are made vacant.

The method of counting Senate votes is different to the House of Representatives. More information on how Senate votes are counted.

The Senate ballot paper has two sections. An elector can either vote above-the-line or below-the-line, but not both. However, if the elector completes both sections formally, the below-the-line section takes precedence.

  • Above-the-line – if a voter chooses to vote above-the-line, the number '1' must be written in one of the boxes in the top section of the ballot paper. All other boxes on the paper should be left blank. If an elector votes in the top section the vote will be counted in the way chosen by the group or party, and as notified to the AEC. This is called a group ticket vote and booklets are available at all polling places showing how each party or group has decided to have its preferences distributed. This information is also available on the AEC website prior to election day.
  • Below-the-line – if a voter chooses to vote below-the-line, they must put a '1' in the box beside the candidate who is their first choice, '2' in the box beside their second choice and so on, until they have numbered every box.

Electors are issued with separate ballot papers for each election, green for the House of Representatives and white for the Senate.