Like most people, I knew there was an Australian Electoral Commission, but had no idea how it worked. I had a vague idea that it set electoral boundaries and ran elections but not much more. I did some research and thought I would share it.
As most people know, the Federation occurred in 1900. Part of the Constitution and Legislation included the running of elections. Initially, it was managed by the Department of Home Affairs. In 1916 it was transferred to the Department of Home and Territories where it remained until 1928. In 1928 it went back to Home Affairs where it remained until 1932. It was proving difficult to find a home for the management of electoral matters.
In 1932 responsibility was given to the Department of the Interior and it remained there until 1972. Finally, in 1973 an act was passed to take it out of the responsibility of a Government Department and create an independent authority to manage elections. This was formulated in the Australian Electoral Office Act (1973). Finally, the control of elections was passed to a statuary authority.
- Maintaining electoral rolls
- Ensuring compliance with voting obligations
- Setting electoral boundaries
- Registering political parties
- Monitoring political parties
- Undertaking elections
- Funding political parties
Maintaining Electoral Rolls
Each state or territory has its own Electoral Commission or Office. Voters need to register with the AEC and details are passed on to state authorities. While the AEC is responsible for federal elections, and state electoral authorities have responsibility for state elections, the AEC is the coordinating body.
Ensuring compliance with voting obligations
Everyone is required to vote unless they have a valid reason. After the election the AEC contacts those who have not voted and issues a fine unless that person has a valid reason. “I forgot” is not a valid reason. Valid reasons may include being overseas, being ill, having religious objections or being in prison.
Setting electoral boundaries
The AEC sets electoral boundaries based on information provided by statisticians as to population spreads. There is a complicated process to be undertaken before an electoral boundary can be changed.
A redistribution committee is appointed for the state or territory in which a redistribution has commenced. The committee consists of the Electoral Commissioner, the Australian Electoral Officer for that state or territory, the Surveyor General and the Auditor General for the state or territory.
Changes are based on the current enrollment quota which is the number of people currently in the electorate and the projected enrollment quota. This is the expected number of people in the electorate in 3 1/2 years’ time. If there is a difference of 3.5% then a redistribution is considered.
After a series of public consultations a proposal is put forward. This goes through another round of review by both the public and political parties. Once this is completed the new or revised electorate is finalised. The name of the electorate is also determined by the AEC as part of this process
Registering political parties
It was only in the 1980s that political parties had to be registered. Registration has to take place before a party can field a candidate or receive public funding the party must have less than six words, not be obscene, and not resemble the name of another unrelated party. Each state has its own requirements for registration they relate to the number of people who need to be enrolled in the party before registration. For example in the ACT it is 100 but NSW requires 750 members. There is also a fee payable for registration
Monitoring political parties
The electoral office is responsible for monitoring the activities of political parties. They are required to ensure that political parties comply with all relevant electoral legislation. Amongst other things this includes ensuring candidates are eligible to stand, monitoring political donations and ensuring the advertising complies with legislation.
Of course, the AEC is responsible for undertaking elections. They manage the voting process from setting up ballot papers, ensuring voting stations are available and setting them up, recruiting staff, counting votes and declaring a winner in each electorate.
Funding political parties
Since 1984 the AEC has been responsible for funding political parties. The reason for this is to reduce the influence private funding of political parties may have on public policy. After each election the AAC distribute a set amount of money to each political party based on the number of votes received. For example after the 2013 election, political parties and candidates receive $58 million in election funding. The Liberal Party received $24 million as part of the Coalition total of $27 million while the Labor Party received $21 million. The Australian Greens received $5.5 million and Palmer United Party $2.3 million. In 2016 almost $63 million was distributed.
As with any body who has control over an election there is always the question of how independent can that body be. The committee is under the control of the joint standing committee which is a multi-party political body. On electoral matters they are responsible for the appointment off AEC members. There are strict criteria around the appointment of the AEC. For example it must include a retired judge and the Commonwealth Statistician. Accountability is taken very seriously. As an example the head of the AEC was forced to stand down after 1,500 votes went missing in WA after an election.
The Australian system is held up as a model by many countries. In particular the US system of money and gerrymandering has created a distorted government where money is more important than policy. Where the goal is to rig the electorates to benefit your own party. Where each state and each electoral body (of which there are thousands) determine how the election is run in their juriistiction. The AEC may not be perfect, but it is much, much better than what anyone else has come up with.