The Secret Ballot - Voting in Australia


Lower to middle secondary.


Students participate in classroom activities to develop an understanding of the secret ballot and the process of voting in Australia. Working in large and small groups they use the secret ballot and the stages in an election to identify, develop and vote on a school-based issue.


Three to four sessions plus an election.


'Australian Democracy Magazine' from the Australian Electoral Education Centre (available by ringing (02) 6271 4536), handout 'Stages in an Election', prepared ballot papers, pens, materials for posters.


1 Introductory Activity

Prepare ballot papers with the following information: 'What should be the legal age for drinking alcohol? Circle one: 16, 18, 21.'

Distribute the ballots at the beginning of class and tell the students to mark their secret ballot to record their opinions on the legal age for drinking. Have them fold the ballots and collect them in a box. Now ask the same question using a show of hands. Record the results on the board. Ask the students if they think this result will be different from the secret vote. Group the students into about three groups to count the ballots, distributing an equal number of ballots from the box. Record the results on the board. Discuss reasons for the results.

Tell the class that Australia was the first country in the world to introduce the secret ballot. It was introduced in 1856 in Victoria and South Australia and was used in all Commonwealth states and territories by 1924. This secret ballot was known in other countries as the 'Australian Ballot'. Lead a discussion to have students explain why the secret ballot became generally used. Tell the students that in addition to the secret ballot, the process of voting in Australia is designed to preserve privacy and fairness. Distribute copies of the 'Australian Democracy Magazine' or the hand-out 'Stages in an Election'. Have the students discuss these in groups and clarify any questions. Tell them they will use this procedure to vote on some issues in their classroom.

2 Identifying Issues

Ask the students to identify something they would like to change in the classroom or the school. (Alternatively, they may want to identify several of the election issues being debated in their local area.) Divide the class into five groups and assign each group the task of identifying one issue they would like to change. This issue will be the one they use for a class election.

3 Having a Class Election

Depending on the background information your students have about elections and on the time available, you may want to structure teaching activities around a class election. Detailed information is available from the Australian Electoral Commission on all aspects of the electoral process.

The 'Stages in an Election' hand-out below was adapted from the Australian Electoral Commission. It can be used to have students identify what has to happen first in the steps for an election. Work through these stages, interpreting each one in ways appropriate for the class (for example, the principal issues the writs, the teacher produces the electoral roll, students nominate candidates and prepare ballot papers, etc). Provide class time for debates about the issues among the candidates. On 'election day' follow the procedure for secret ballots and for scrutinising the votes.

4 Follow Up

Follow up the election by having students choose work groups to write about the campaign for the school newspaper, write essays on the secret ballot or use the 'Stages in an Election' as a timeline to write in the details for a current election. They can also record their ideas on compulsory voting by going to the activity on voting on this website. Where feasible, students may work out a plan to implement their changes.

Other Resources

The units 'Should the People Rule?' and 'Democratic Struggles' in the Discovering Democracy School Materials Project have lesson plans for students to investigate democracy as a system of government and to examine struggles for democratic reform.


Stages in an Election

1 Issuing the Writs

Writs are legal instructions. The Governor-General issues writs to the Electoral Commissioner to hold elections in the divisions for a House of Representatives election. Each State Governor issues a writ to the Australian Electoral Officer in each state for a Senate election.

2 The Electoral Roll

After the writs have been issued, citizens eligible to vote have seven days to get enrolled properly. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) updates the rolls and has them printed.

3 Nominations

Every candidate in an election must nominate. They must be Australian citizens and be qualified as electors. They have to complete an official nomination form and pay a deposit.

4 Producing Ballot Papers and Other Polling Material

Candidates' names for each division are put on the ballot paper in an order decided by a double random draw. The ballot papers are organised for printing by the AEC. Ballot boxes and voting screens also have to be made for the 9000 polling places around Australia.

5 Campaigning

Political parties and candidates begin active campaigning after the election is announced. Candidates talk about the policies and plans they have if they are elected. These policies are called a platform. They use TV, radio, newspapers, pamphlets and visits to promote their ideas.

6 Voting Arrangements

In Australia election day is always on a Saturday. Polling places for voting are open from 8.00 am to 6.00 pm. There are three groups of people who have special duties at polling places: party workers, polling officials and scrutineers.

Party workers give voters how-to-vote cards so they will know how to vote for a particular candidate. No one has to take these cards and party workers are not allowed inside the polling place. Polling officials are hired by the AEC and follow the electoral laws to protect each voter's privacy. They have to ask voters to identify themselves and where they live and ask them if they have already voted in this election. The polling officials mark the person's name on the official electoral roll, initial the ballot paper, then give it to the voter. The voter goes alone to a voting screen, marks the ballot in secret, then puts the ballot paper in the sealed ballot boxes. Scrutineers observe the election procedures but cannot tell anyone how to vote. Their job comes after the polls close when they watch how the votes are counted.

7 The Scrutiny

After the polls close, counting the votes begins. Scrutineers watch the count to make sure only formal votes are counted and counted properly. They cannot touch the ballot papers.

8 Counting the Votes

Votes are counted differently for the House of Representatives and for the Senate. In the House of Representatives, the candidate who wins majority support of an electorate wins. In the Senate elections, candidates must win a specific proportion of the electorate's votes to be elected. (For more details on counting the votes, see the Australian Democracy Magazine, February 1997).

9 Declaration of the Poll

After the winners have been determined, the elected candidates' names are announced. The Electoral Commissioner writes these names on the back of the original writs and gives them back to the Governor-General. Winners are officially announced and the membership of the new Parliament is decided.

(The content in this handout was adapted from the Australian Democracy Magazine, February 1997, published by the Australian Electoral Commission.