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Friday, 26 October, 2001, 12:43 GMT 13:43 UK
Voting compulsory for Australians

Australians are going to the polls in great numbers - nearly all the 12.6m registered to do so.

The average turn-out rate is usually more than 95%, which was only exceeded by the mock-elections of countries under communist rule.

Australia, like the former communist countries, has compulsory voting. It has been a legal obligation for all eligible voters to cast their votes since 1924 - and abstainers without a good reason can be fined up to $50 (Aus).

But Australians do not seem to be complaining about the harshness of the law, even though casting one's vote requires considerably more mental exercise than ticking the favourite candidate.

House of Representatives

Unlike the UK's first-past-the-post system, Australia has adopted preferential voting for its 148-seat House of Representatives - the lower house - in which each voter sets up an order of preference among the candidates, effectively casting several votes.

Voters in Australia
Voting not compulsory
In 1996, 217 Australians voted
The number registered to vote was 228
Initially, though, only the first votes are counted, and the winner is the candidate with an absolute majority.

If no-one has more than 50% of first votes, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated, and his/her ballot papers are redistributed according to the next preference.

And this goes on, until an absolute majority is established.

Mandates in the House of Representatives are for three years, but it is possible to call early elections. Polling day is always a Saturday.

Senate

If this looks daunting, voting for the senate, a system called quota-based proportional representation, is no less complex. Twelve senators are elected for each state, and two for each territory.

The Australian parliament building
The Australian parliament building - complex voting system
Candidates who reach a certain quota of the total first votes, about 14%, are guaranteed a seat. Any surplus votes are redistributed among the other candidates according to the next preference.

And that is not all. Elections for the Senate, where senators have six-year mandates, are staggered, so there is an election every three years, for about half of the seats.

Elections for the Senate take place at the same time as for the House of Representatives, but senators always serve their full term.


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