Media release

Media advice: Referendum voting instructions

Updated: 25 August 2023

Australian voters are rightly proud of their electoral system – one of the most transparent and robust voting systems in the world.  As a result, there is an intense, and highly appropriate level of public interest in all aspects of that system, and associated commentary online and in mainstream media. Sometimes this commentary is immediate and based on emotion rather than the reality of the law which the AEC must administer.

There has been intense commentary online and in mainstream media regarding what will and will not be a formal vote for the 2023 referendum; specifically around whether or not a ‘tick’ or a ‘cross’ will be able to be counted. Much of that commentary is factually incorrect and ignores:

  • the law surrounding ‘savings provisions’,
  • the longstanding legal advice regarding the use of ticks and crosses, and
  • the decades-long and multi-referendum history of the application of that law and advice.

The AEC completely and utterly rejects the suggestions by some that by transparently following the established, public and known legislative requirements we are undermining the impartiality and fairness of the referendum. 

As has been the case at every electoral event, the AEC remains totally focussed on electoral integrity. Indeed, electoral integrity is a central part of the AEC’s published values; underpinned by, and supported through, complete adherence to all relevant laws and regulations.

How to cast a formal vote

The formal voting instructions for the referendum are to clearly write either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, in full, in English.

It is that easy: given the simplicity, the AEC expects the vast, vast majority of Australian voters to follow those instructions and cast a formal vote.

Previous levels of formality

It is important to keep scale, or a lack of it in this instance, and precedent in mind when discussing this matter.

More than 99% of votes cast at the 1999 federal referendum were formal. Even of the 0.86% of informal votes, many would have had no relevance to the use of ticks or crosses.

AEC communication

Instructions for casting a formal vote – to write either yes or no in full, in English, will be:

  • part of the AEC’s advertising campaign,
  • on the AEC website,
  • in the guide delivered to all Australian households,
  • an instruction by our polling officials when people are issued with their ballot paper,
  • on posters in polling places, and
  • on the ballot paper itself.

This is why the level of formal voting at previous referendums has been so high and why the AEC expects the vast, vast majority of voters to follow those instructions. 

The law

Like an election, the Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Act 1984 includes ‘savings provisions’ - the ability to count a vote where the instructions have not been followed but the voter’s intention is clear.

  • The AEC cannot ignore the law and cannot ignore savings provisions.

The law regarding formality in a referendum is long-standing and unchanged through many governments, Parliaments, and multiple referendums. Legal advice from the Australian Government Solicitor, provided on multiple occasions during the previous three decades, regarding the application of savings provisions to ‘ticks’ and ’crosses’ has been consistent – for decades. This is not new, nor a new AEC determination of any kind for the 2023 referendum. The law regarding savings provisions and the principle around a voter’s intent has been in place for at least 30 years and 6 referendum questions.

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.

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