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How does an election work? Part 1 – Writs and Pieces

  • Written byCampbell Rhodes
  • DateWed, 11 May 2016

It’s impossible to say when the first public, democratic election was held.

Certainly some officials in ancient Athens and Rome were chosen by election, and elections have also chosen rulers such as the Pope for centuries, albeit elections conducted by small groups of people.

The concept of an election as a formal process, with rules that must be followed and a result that must stand as legitimate, is as old as democracy itself. Indeed, without this process, democracy could not exist at all.

Australian elections are governed by the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which was first passed in 1902 and has been amended many times since. The states and territories have their own versions of this law for state and local elections, but in general the process works the same way across the country. What differs are funding arrangements, how candidates can campaign, and the systems used to choose Members of Parliament. In New South Wales, for instance, there are restrictions on the size and source of donations to parties and candidates, in the Australian Capital Territory canvassing for votes is illegal within 100 metres of a polling place, and some jurisdictions have proportional voting systems or optional preferencing.

In a lot of democracies around the world, the date of elections is fixed, and always happens at the same time unless something extraordinary happens. All the Australian states and territories now have terms of four years, with the election date fixed. The Commonwealth, however, has a three year term for the House of Representatives (an attempt to extend it to four in 1988 was unsuccessful) and a six-year term for the Senate. The length of terms is governed not by legislation but by the Constitution, which makes changing it much harder.

The term of a House of Representatives expires three years after it first meets, not three years after it was elected, so election dates vary. In addition, because the date is not fixed, it has generally been the practice for the Prime Minister to go to an election at a time he or she thinks is politically advantageous. There is no rule that says a Parliament can’t serve much less than a full term; early elections used to be quite common, sometimes after little more than a year. The last election held ahead of schedule was in 1998, and modern Prime Ministers tend to be resolute about parliament serving a full term.

Under the constitution, the Governor-General holds the power to dissolve the House of Representatives. When the Prime Minister requests an election, technically the Governor-General can refuse, although none ever have, at least not in Australia. Shortly after the dissolution is granted, the writs are issued. A ‘writ’ is a legal document, and in this case the document authorises an election to be held to choose a new Parliament. At the same time, usually, similar writs are issued for the election of half the senators from each state and all the senators from the Territories (who serve the same term as the House). Writs for senators are issued by each State Governor.

As soon the writs are signed by the Governor-General, the election is on. Members of the House of Representatives, technically, cease to be members. Senators stay Senators, because they serve a fixed term. The election period is usually around five or six weeks. The minimum time allowed by law between the issuing of the writs and polling day is 33 days, and the maximum time 68 days.

The Australian Electoral Commission has a great guide to how elections work and what the processes are.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this series to learn more about the rules governing election campaigns and what happens during the election period.


Campbell Rhodes is MoAD's Copyright and Research Coordinator.