Elections are a fundamental aspect of all democratic political systems. Elections are the means by which the people make decisions and select individuals to represent and lead them. Elections have been a feature of human history for centuries. They have been used for various purposes and taken different forms. Sports teams might hold an informal election to select a captain. A school class might conduct an election to select a class captain or representative. There are elections to select leaders and office-holders of community groups, committees, business boards and unions.
In democratic political systems, elections are the means by which government is chosen and formed. In Australia, general elections are held every three to four years to elect members of Federal Parliament, members of State and Territorial parliaments, and members of local government councils. Elections are also an important feature of political parties. Party members conduct elections to decide on pre-selection (that is, which person will stand as the party’s official candidate in a general election). Political parties also conduct elections to decide party leaders.
Elections can be conducted in various ways. In the most simple form, an election might just be a ‘show of hands’, a cry of ‘ayes’ and ‘nays’, or a discussion that reveals a consensus. The most common method used in general elections is the use of ballot papers on which voters record their choice of candidate. In recent years some countries and jurisdictions have used electronic voting, which has its advantages and its risks. Some important aspects of elections in Australia include:
Suffrage or franchise. These terms describe the right to vote. Liberal democratic systems generally have ‘universal suffrage’, where this right is extended to everyone (though there are usually a few exceptions, such as minors, the mentally unfit and those serving long-term prison sentences). In liberal democratic systems like ours, suffrage is considered a fundamental civil right.
Secret ballot. A secret ballot as a means of voting where the voter’s choice cannot be seen or known by another person. Historically, elections were often conducted ‘in the open’ and the votes of electors could be seen or heard. This allowed powerful or wealthy individuals to pressure, influence, bribe or intimidate voters. The secret ballot allows voters the freedom and secrecy to vote as they see fit. In Australia the secret ballot is protected with the use of voting booths and strict procedural rules, so that everyone may cast their vote privately and discretely. Australia was a pioneer in developing the secret ballot, which in some other parts of the world is known as the ‘Australian ballot’.
Compulsory voting. Australian electoral law requires all registered voters to attend a polling centre on election day and cast a vote. This is in contrast to other democratic political systems, such as the United States, where attendance and voting in elections is entirely optional. Compulsory voting is not widely used around the world and continues to attract a considerable amount of criticism in Australia. Critics of compulsory voting argue that the right not to vote is equally as important as the right to vote.
Electoral systems. Elections are largely shaped and defined by whatever electoral system is being used. An electoral system is a framework for running elections and for counting votes so that they produce a result. There are several different electoral systems in use around the world, and at least three of them are employed in Australian Federal, State and local government elections. Because they use different methods of vote allocation and counting, different electoral systems can produce varying results. There are advantages and disadvantages to each electoral system.
Preferential voting. Most Australian electoral systems use some form of preferential voting. This will be explored in detail elsewhere, however at its simplest preferential voting means that the voter selects all candidates in order of preference, rather than just one candidate. This ensures that the ‘most preferred’ candidate is elected.