The Federal Election – 1910/2010

It was the 2010 Australian federal election that finally motivated me to create this blog, something I have wanted to do for several months.  During the day of the election I was reading newspaper accounts of the federal election held 100 years ago in 1910.  I have been in the habit of writing e-mails to my supervisor with odd snippets from my research and wrote one about the 1910 Federal election.  During one of my breaks I checked the latest post of one of my favourite blogs, The Resident Judge of Port Phillip.  The 2010 election had inspired the Resident Judge to share some stories from the New South Wales election of 1843.  Well I just had to share, so I posted some comments about 1910 on her site.  The Resident Judge asked if I was researching this for my blog.  I started to write another comment with excuses for the fact that I did not have a blog, when I thought, this is it.  I have got to stop being a ‘gunna’ (going to do it) and commit words to web.  So here ’tis…

In 2010 the polling booth staff and counters are largely anonymous, not so in 1910.  Not only were they named in the newspapers in 1910, but polling staff were assessed on their performance in counting the votes.  Mr. H. L. Archdall, returning officer for Rockhampton, had been ‘so complete’ in his organisation that the count was finished in ‘almost record time’.  “Mr. Archall certainly deserved credit for his smart performance’ said Rockhampton’s The Daily Record (14/4/1910, p. 6).  Pity the hapless presiding officer in Fortitude Valley.  The Brisbane Courier (14/4/1910, p. 5) said that the counting of the Valley votes were finalised at the Home Office, ‘Mr. Thornhill Weedon, the returning-officer being somewhat slow.’

This has made me ponder the organisation that goes behind elections in Australia.  If you are also curious, check out the Australian Electoral Commission website.  They explain how votes are counted here.  Unfortunately the only time we get to hear about the administration of elections is when something goes wrong, like it seems to have in the seat of McEwan on Saturday.  Yet the impression I have is that 99% of the time the Australian Electoral Commission does a good job of organising elections in Australia.

My favourite observation about the election comes from Brisbane’s The Telegraph newspaper, (14/4/1910 p. 2):

Men walked down to the booth, and passed in and came out again with a kind of feeling that some duty, irksome and unpleasant, had been performed.  The casual spectator might have wondered why such a lack of interest was shown, why men wore such a bored appearance, and why women went in to the booths just as if they wanted to have the “thing done and over,” as one lady expressively suggested.

Aaaagh… the pain, the tedium. Voting was voluntary in 1910, unlike the compulsory voting system we have today.  Despite the impression given by The Telegrah that people felt voting was an unenjoyable chore, 61.15% of Queensland voters participated in the 1910 which was a distinct improvement on the 45.92% who turned out for the 1906 Federal election (Australian Politics and Elections Database).  Perhaps the ‘boredom’ was induced by the sheer number of elections that Queenslanders participated in between 1906 and 1910.  In the space of five years there were 2 Federal elections, 2 Federal referendums, 1 state referendum and… 3 state elections!

In 2010 the NSW senate ballot paper listed 84 names.  It was over a metre wide.  This may have appeared unduly long, but at least we only had two ballot papers to fill in.  Wednesday 13th April, 1910 was not just an election, it was a proliferation of polling.  Australians had four federal ballot papers to complete – House of Representatives, Senate and two Federal referendums. On top of this, Queenslanders had a state referendum on the same day.  Not only did Queenslanders have to go to two different polling booths to participate in the state and federal ballots, the voting system for the federal ballots was different to the state ballot.  The state referendum required voters to cross out the option they did not agree with, the federal ballots required a cross next to the option they wanted to vote for – a factor that probably contributed to the high informal vote of 5.52%.

Southport polling booth

Voters lined up on election day at a Southport polling booth, ca 1910. Courtesy of the Gold Coast Libraries,

The photo above shows the queues that people had to contend with on election day in some places.  The voters took longer than usual to complete the four federal ballot papers resulting in queues at polling booths.  At one polling place at times two people shared the same ‘recess’ while recording their votes (The Brisbane Courier, 14/4/1910, p. 5).

What may seem to us a routine activity, has changed over the years, the result of accumulated learning from past experience as well as changes in culture and technology.  My close reading of the 1910 ballot has led me to think more carefully about our current electoral processes.  I watched the count on Saturday night and was buoyed by the commentary.  It is encouraging to see that many people are also thinking about our electoral system after our extraordinary election.  The examination and discussion about the fundamentals underpinning our parliament in the last few days can only strengthen our democratic system.


  • The Brisbane Courier and many other old Australian papers can be found on the National Library of Australia’s, Australian Newspapers website.  This is a gold mine for historians.  One major newspaper for each capital city is included.  It is good to see that some regional newspapers such as the Cairns Post are now being digitised.
  • The Daily Record and many other Queensland newspapers can be found on microfilm at the State Library of Queensland.
  • Australian Politics and Election Database is hosted by the University of Western Australia.  This is a great resource for all of those who are interested in facts about elections and referendums.
  • Gold Coast Libraries This site has a good number of photos available online.

Addendum at a later date:

You may also be interested in comments by ABC TV’s election guru, Antony Green, on the role of the tally room in Australian elections both now and in the past.

4 thoughts on “The Federal Election – 1910/2010

  1. I didn’t realise that voting was optional early on. When did it become compulsory? No wonder people were confused with two different systems of recording your vote (crossing out vs placing a cross against the name). I find it strange when I read about the American elections that there are so many different modes of recording your vote.
    I think it’s rather quaint that we still have pencils to record our vote- I’m not really sure why. Expense?
    I noticed that there were more people queuing outside our booth that ever before- a result of medium density development in the area perhaps? The whole system runs fairly smoothly, I think- McEwan notwithstanding


    • Compulsory voting started in Queensland in 1915 and federally in 1924. Deakin is cited as the person who advocated the idea first. In Queensland it was the conservative premier, Digby Denham, who introduced it in a bid to thwart the effectiveness of the Labor Party in getting its supporters to the poll. However in the subsequent election, Labour were voted in. Source: Tim Evans, ‘Compulsory Voting in Australia’ 2006, available on the Australian Electoral Commission website.

      Re pencils: I think this is a case of “if it aint broke, then don’t fix it”- though I am sure that pencil leads do break during elections. And yes, pencils are cheap. As a joke I searched the Australian Electoral Commission site for ‘pencils’. To my surprise a number of pages came up. Apparently s.206 of the Electoral Act requires the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to supply pencils, however a voter may use a pen if they choose! I can’t say I am too bothered whether I use a pencil or pen. My pragmatic thesis is supported by the AEC’s comment that ‘pencils are practical’. On another page the AEC said they would use about 100,000 pencils in the 2010 election. (They also use about 140km of string – in case you were wondering!) There is more on the AEC site about pencils for anyone interested in researching the use of pencils in elections. I wonder who gets the contract to supply the pencils?


  2. Pingback: Sausages and Australian Elections | Stumbling Through the Past

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