The last time Australians headed to the polls to vote in a referendum, Cher’s Believe was one of the biggest songs on the radio, the world was introduced to Jar Jar Binks for the first time and audiences were shocked to discover Bruce Willis was dead all along.
In 1999 there were two questions on Australians’ minds – was the world about to end with the Y2K bug, and should the constitution be amended to include a preamble and establish Australia as a republic.
The answer was a resounding no to both.
On Wednesday, Anthony Albanese announced that the Indigenous voice to parliament referendum would be held on 14 October, marking the first time in decades the country is heading to the polling booth to vote in a referendum. The process is similar to an election, but not exactly the same.
For those of us who have never voted in a referendum before – or for those who need a refresher – here is what you need to know about how to vote.
What will I be asked?
You will be asked just one question at this referendum.
The Parliament of Australia has agreed to propose adding a new chapter, Chapter IX – Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to the constitution. The chapter would include a new section 129, which would be as follows:
129 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice
In recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia:
(i) there shall be a body, to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
(ii) the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice may make representations to the Parliament and the Executive Government of the Commonwealth on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
(iii) the Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws with respect to matters relating to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice, including its composition, functions, powers and procedures.
The first referendum held in Australia in 1906 just had one question – it moved the date senators started their term from 1 January to 1 July. Since then, there have been many referendums with more than one question asked at once – a 1911 referendum on trade and commerce issues had two questions which were broken down into six by the time they reached the ballot paper.
John Howard famously introduced the question about a preamble to the constitution in the 1999 republican referendum, which was criticised by some as an attempt to distract from the republic question. The preamble question was rejected by more people than the republic.
What do I put on my ballot paper?
You will be asked, quite clearly, to write “yes” or “no” in response to the question. This is a well-established rule and has been in place for six referendums without controversy.
Can I use ticks and crosses?
The referendum legislation has “savings provisions” – just like an election, which makes allowances for people who have not followed exact instructions, but their intent is clear. Under the savings provisions, a tick may be acceptable because a tick always means yes. But a cross would not be, because some people use a cross to mean yes, and some use it to mean no – so the intention is unclear.
This is not new – it has been the rule since 1988 and six referendums have been run without problem in that time. The AEC also said that in the 1999 referendum, only 0.86% of votes were classed as informal, and only a portion of those related to ticks and crosses on the ballot.
The AEC can only do what the law and the savings provisions say – it cannot act outside those boundaries. To ensure your vote counts, just write “yes” or “no”.
Where can I vote?
This will feel pretty familiar, even if the ballot is different to what you would see at an election. Thousands of polling places will open around the country on 14 October and will be open between 8am and 6pm (local times). Those polling places will be very similar to where you vote on an election day and will be well signed in advance.
What if I am interstate?
Just like an election, you would have to visit a designated interstate voting centre on polling day, or you can request a postal ballot or pre-poll.
How do I vote early?
You can request a postal ballot, or pre-poll if you are outside your enrolled voting electorate, are more than 8km from a polling place, will be travelling on referendum day, are unable to get out of work, are ill, about to give birth or infirm or caring for someone who is, are in hospital, are in prison (with a sentence of less than three years), are a silent elector, have religious beliefs that mean you can’t go to your polling place, or fear for your safety.
Pre-polling centres will open two weeks before 14 October – so on 30 September.
Requests for postal votes will open soon. You may receive a postal vote application from a campaigner – this is legal, but it is not your vote and is only the application to receive a postal vote. You will be able to apply for a postal vote up until close of business on Wednesday 11 October.
Postal votes can be counted for 13 days after the referendum date. So if it is a very close referendum, you may not hear the result until all postals have been received.
Can I vote by phone?
There are very strict criteria to be eligible for phone voting. It is only open as an option for people who are blind or have low vision, or are Australians stationed in Antarctica. Everyone else has to make a postal vote, or find a pre-poll centre.
What if I am overseas?
If you are on any other continent other than Antarctica, you will have to apply for a postal vote, or vote at an overseas polling centre. Australian embassies, high commissions and consulates will be open for voting.