Unit 4: The Victorian electoral system Topic 5 THE SECRET BALLOT A WORLD FIRST Victoria – one of the world’s first modern democracies election. Si...

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Unit 4: The Victorian electoral system Topic



Victoria – one of the world’s first modern democracies

election. Since polling took place over several

Imagine attempting to vote in an election where

keep candidates up to date on their progress,

the vote is restricted to men of property and

and for losing candidates to stop people voting

where your name is written on the ballot paper so

for candidates that were ahead. Open voting also

that anyone can see how you voted.

made it easy for pressure to be applied to

Few people realise that Victoria can lay claim to having one of the world’s first truly democratic electoral systems – it was in Victoria that the secret ballot – the basic tool of democracy – was invented and first used.

weeks it was common practice for scrutineers to

traders, employees and tenants. There were reported cases of tenants being evicted because of how they voted. Hotels were often used as venues to receive nominations and as voting centres. Voting in the hotels took place accompanied by lots of drinking

Abusing the system

and riotous behaviour, and it is not surprising that

Elections in the first half of the nineteenth century

throughout the 1850s and 60s the majority of

were conducted using a practice adopted from

members elected to the Melbourne City

Britain known as ‘open voting’. This was a system




Council were either publicans or ex-publicans.

‘polling agents’ who presented a card to each elector with their roll number and a space for the candidate’s name to be printed by the elector. To cast a vote, electors wrote their own name and address on the ballot paper and placed it on a table face up in piles sorted by candidate. This led to widespread abuse of the system, where an atmosphere of violence and intimidation were often characteristics of an

Unit 4: The Victorian electoral system



5 The secret ballot

slatternly housewives, and cajoling partial fathers’.

Henry Chapman, a London-born barrister who

The secret ballot was widely copied and

had successfully defended the Eureka rebels,

became known throughout the democratic world

proposed the idea of the secret ballot, which was

as the ‘Victorian Ballot’. It was quickly adopted in

eventually enacted into law by the Victorian

South Australia (1858), Tasmania (1858), New

Parliament on 19 March 1856.

South Wales (1859), Queensland (1859), New

Although the Colonial Secretary opposed the secret ballot, labelling it ‘not only unconstitutional,

Zealand (1870), Britain (1872), Canada (1874) and in parts of the United States from 1888.

but un-British’, local opinion was in favour. It was

For an informative history of the introduction

widely held that the secret ballot would bring

of the secret ballot in Victoria, refer to ‘Making

fairness and order to the electoral process. One

Voting Secret’ by John Hirst. This publication has

commentator optimistically predicted that the

been sent to all Victorian government

secret ballot would ‘relieve candidates from the

secondary schools. It is also available on the

base artifice of kissing squalid children, flattering

VEC website at

1. Can you think of times at home, school or work where you have been involved in an open vote? 2. How is it different to a secret ballot? 3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each system? 4. When we vote for our parliamentary representative a secret ballot is used, but once in parliament all votes are open. Explain two reasons why this is so. 5. There are still some people that do not have the right to a secret ballot in Australia, a blind person being one example (a trusted friend or election official must fill out the ballot paper for them). How might this problem be overcome? Can you think of any other examples of people who don’t have access to a secret ballot?


Unit 4: The Victorian electoral system