Chapter 3: Who can vote

The Commonwealth franchise

In federal elections, the vast majority of Australian citizens who are 18 years and over have the franchise. So do most British subjects who are not Australian citizens but who were on the electoral roll on 25 January 1984. The exceptions are those otherwise eligible who:

  • are of unsound mind;
  • are serving prison sentences of three years or more;
  • have been convicted of treason and not pardoned;
  • are not specially registered as ‘itinerant voters’ and have not have not lived at an address for one month; and
  • are living overseas long term and with no intention of returning to Australia.

At the 2016 Federal Election 15,676,659 people were enrolled and 14,406,706 voted in the House of Representatives election – a turnout of 91%.

The 'franchise' means the right to vote.

To vote in local, state, territory or federal elections in Australia, people must be registered on the relevant electoral roll. The different jurisdictions in Australia’s federation – the states, territories and Commonwealth – can each grant the franchise to different types of people and can maintain their own electoral rolls.

There is a high degree of consensus as to who should have the franchise in Australia. While there has been some recent debate around prisoners’ voting rights and lowering the voting age, the states, territories and Commonwealth basically give the same types of people the right to vote. This was not always the case.

State and territories

New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and the Northern Territory grant the franchise to the same people within their borders as the Commonwealth does for federal elections. Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland differ from the Commonwealth by granting the franchise in state elections to a slightly wider group of British subjects.

Local government councils

The franchise for residents in a local government council area is usually the same as for the state in which the council exists. In states like New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, the local government franchise also includes people who do not live in the council area but who own or rent property or have a business in the area. This franchise is based on paying rates to the council.

History of the franchise in Australia

These variations and the current restrictions on the franchise in Australia are quite small compared with the past. The story of the franchise in Australia over the last 160 years has mostly been one of expansion. Property, gender and race based restrictions on the right to vote have all been progressively eliminated and age restrictions slightly relaxed.

The colonial period

The first parliamentary elections in the Australian colonies had a very restricted franchise. The elected members of the New South Wales Legislative Council established by the 1842 Australian Constitutions Act (No. 1) were voted in by men who owned freehold property worth £200 or more or who paid annual household rent of at least £20.

The South Australian House of Assembly (the colony’s lower house) was established in 1856 with a franchise of all male British subjects 21 years and over, regardless of property. New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland quickly followed suit for their lower houses, while Western Australia and Tasmania did so late in the nineteenth century.

The South Australian colony acted first on female suffrage, granting women the vote on the same terms as men in 1894. By 1908, all the other colonies and states had followed suit.

The Australian Constitution

The right of any particular person to vote is not guaranteed in the Australian Constitution. While the Constitution provides that the parliament must be ‘directly chosen by the people’, it does not explicitly say who the people are, nor provide details as to how they might make their choice. These are matters that are left to parliament to determine.

As a transitional document, section 41 of the Constitution did guarantee the right to vote in the first elections for the Commonwealth Parliament of those already enfranchised in the former Australian colonies. This provision meant that women from South Australia and Western Australia were eligible to vote in the first Commonwealth Parliament elections, as were male Aboriginal voters in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, and all Aboriginal voters in South Australia.

Race, citizenship and the vote

The Constitution also gave the Commonwealth Parliament power to make laws about who should be able to vote in future federal elections. While the new parliament’s Franchise Act 1902 excluded Aboriginal people and non-British people from the franchise, the White Australia Policy extended to the right to vote at Commonwealth level.

The government grudgingly allowed individual Aboriginal people and non-British people who were eligible to vote in 1901 under section 41 to remain on the Commonwealth electoral roll. The Government took the restrictive view that no new voters could be added to the roll under the provisions of section 41. This position altered little for the next 50 years.

In 1949, the Commonwealth Parliament passed an act to affirm the right of Aboriginal people enfranchised in states to vote in federal elections. In 1962, the Commonwealth Parliament legislated a full Aboriginal franchise in federal elections. Western Australia enfranchised Aboriginal people in the same year, and Queensland followed in 1965.

The Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 opened up the possibility of a right to vote based on Australian citizenship. With the relaxation of the White Australia Policy, increasing numbers of immigrants from outside the British Empire were able to vote by acquiring Australian citizenship.

As part of a wide-ranging review of Commonwealth electoral procedures in 1983, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 was amended to make Australian citizenship the primary basis for the franchise from 26 January 1984. The legacy of past discrimination will not disappear until the last of the British subjects currently enrolled die or take up Australian citizenship. Nonetheless, the 1983 amendments provide for a future franchise based solely on adult Australian citizenship.

In recognition of an increasingly interconnected world and that fact that many Australian citizens choose to move and work overseas at some period of their lives, many have suggested that expatriates be given the same voting rights as resident Australians. Currently, an Australian living overseas can only maintain his or her franchise if he or she expresses an intention to return to Australia within six years of leaving. The argument behind extending this franchise indefinitely is that Australian citizens should have the right to vote in Australian elections as citizenship is a more important tie to a country than residency. A number of countries have adopted this arrangement. The United States allows its citizens to vote indefinitely once they have moved abroad and United Kingdom citizens maintain their franchise for parliamentary and local elections for up to 15 years.

Residency and the vote

The inverse proposition is that residency is a more important consideration than citizenship in determining whether someone should have the right to vote. After all, those who pay taxes should have the right to representation. Currently, those who reside in Australia permanently (with the exception of some British subjects – see above) do not have the right to vote – no matter how long they have lived in the country, whether they own property, pay taxes or have families. A more liberal franchise has existed in New Zealand since 1975, including all permanent residents provided that they had at least one year’s continuous residence.

Age and the vote

‘Adult’ mostly meant people aged 21 and over for the first 130 years of voting in Australia. Military service was the exception. In World War I, some states granted members of the armed services the vote. In World War II, the Commonwealth and some states did the same.

Military service may have had some impact on lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 years in the early 1970s. At the time, Australian men under 21 were being conscripted for military service in Vietnam. In 1966, the Commonwealth had lowered the voting age to 18 for members of the services in Vietnam and Malaysia. The stronger impulse for the general age lowering, however, was the recognition that by 18 people were mature enough to vote. The change was uncontroversial when first made by the Western Australian Parliament in 1970. All other states and the Commonwealth followed by 1973. Since 1983, 17 year olds have been able to enrol; however, they cannot vote until they turn 18.

Nonetheless, the voting age remains a live issue. Youth groups and the Australian Greens support lowering the age to 16 or 17, to bring it into line with other government-regulated activities (such as work) and as a measure to increase youth participation and engagement in politics. Others remain sceptical. In 2013, a study conducted by Professor Ian McAllister of the Australian National University found that even if the voting age was lowered, participation would not necessarily increase as voting intention was lowest amongst those in the youngest age group (18-23).

Upper houses, property and the vote

The Australian Constitution ensured that the right to vote for the Senate was granted to the same people as could vote for the House of Representatives. Some state upper houses were either appointed or kept a restricted franchise well into the last half of the twentieth century. The South Australian Legislative Council was elected on a property-based franchise until 1973. The New South Wales Legislative Council was appointed until 1978. Since the 1970s, all the houses of Australian parliaments have been elected on the basis of a full adult franchise.

Prisoners and the vote

In 2007, the High Court in Roach v Electoral Commissioner [2007] HCA 43 struck down federal government legislation that prohibited all prisoners from voting regardless of the crime that they had committed or the length of their imprisonment. The Court held that while it was legitimate to exclude long-term prisoners on the basis that they had broken their contract with society, the disenfranchisement of short-term prisoners was arbitrary and not a proportionate measure of criminal culpability.

The issue of prisoner voting remains politically contentious and many changes have been made to both state and federal laws. Issues of rehabilitation and civil rights need to be balanced against responsibilities to society. After the decision in Roach, the minimum sentence at which prisoners may be disenfranchised at the federal level is three years. Some states have a different threshold, for example, prisoners are excluded from voting in Victorian elections if they are serving sentences of more than five years, whereas there is no prisoner disenfranchisement in the Australian Capital Territory or South Australia.

Questions for discussion

  • Should the franchise be extended to Australians younger than 18? Say to those 16 years and older?
  • This is an era of increased cooperation between Australia and its regional neighbours like New Zealand. Should the franchise be extended to New Zealand citizens (or other citizens from the Asia-Pacific region) who live in Australia?
  • Some political theorists argue that democracy means that all people affected by political decisions should have a say in those decisions. Should all people living in Australia for any reasonable length of time, regardless of their citizenship, be given the right to vote?