Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 16, 2019

From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting, by Judith Brett

Much to my astonishment, I was singing the praises of this book the other day, when it transpired that my friend did not know what a democracy sausage was.  So for the edification of those unfortunate citizens who do not enjoy the same privilege as we do here in Australia, an explanation is in order.

Because we are almost unique in the world in having compulsory voting, and because impecunious state schools are very often the place for polling booths all over the country, and because enterprising Parents and Friends associations can spot a good fundraiser when they see one, it has become routine practice for there to be a sausage sizzle so that voters can assuage their hunger pangs in a worthy cause.  Indeed on election day there is a dedicated website where you can even scout around for the best democracy sausage options.  They don’t all offer fried onions or chilli sauce, you know, and some of them have a cake stall as well!

Here is the link to Wikipedia and here are some pictures!  Yes, that’s a democracy sausage map: there are even democracy sausages overseas, the most famous of which is at Australia House in London.  (See the video here).

But how has this come about?  Indeed, how is it that we take compulsory voting so much for granted that it has taken Judith Brett’s lively new history to make me aware of just how amazing it is that we are the only English-speaking country that makes its citizens vote?

Australians shake their heads in bemused dismay at the electoral shambles we’ve witnessed in the UK and US.  Brexit just couldn’t happen here. Here, at least when people vote and their side doesn’t win, they can console ourselves with the knowledge that it’s a democratic result. Compulsory voting means a referendum ignored by a huge cohort of voters but swamped by zealots would carry no weight at all and there could not be the same kind of divisive fallout that is tearing Britain apart because so many people are distraught at the result.

And because voting is compulsory here, the process has been made easy for us.  Unlike the Brits, we only have to register to vote once which entitles us to vote in elections for all three levels of government, local, state and federal.  The bureaucrats keep the electoral rolls up-to-date; we don’t have to.  Plus, whereas in Britain you need time off work on a Thursday to vote, we vote on Saturdays, which suits a majority of working people.  Whereas in Britain you have to vote in your own electorate so too bad if you’re away from home, we can vote wherever we are in the country, and outside of it, because we have absentee voting and postal voting.  Yup, I’ll be in New Zealand for our next election, but I won’t miss out, because I can vote before I go!

Plus we have preferential voting.  First-past-the-post as in the UK means that a minority can win even though a majority who voted for a variety of other candidates might rather die in a ditch than elect that winning candidate.  Preferential voting means that we get a result that most people can tolerate (though I have to admit that the bunch of clowns in our current government are the exception that proves the rule).

Then there’s the shemozzle of US elections, that couldn’t happen here either.  Remember that strange thing with the Florida hanging chads in the 2000 GW Bush election?  In the US the determination of voting rights by individual states is combined with a highly decentralised system of electoral adminstration.

An observer of the 2004 presidential election estimated that there were in fact thirteen thousand elections, each run by independent quasi-sovereign counties and municipalities.  For the most part these elections are overseen by people who are themselves elected and have strong partisan allegiances.  There is thus plenty of scope for interfering with the process for partisan advantage: losing registration forms or postal votes, not providing enough postal votes, not providing enough polling booths in remote locations or in areas populated by the other side, malfunctioning voting machines, poorly designed ballot papers which challenge the less literate, and gerrymandering—electoral boundaries like pieces of jigsaw, with boundaries twisting and turning to take in certain areas and avoid others.  (p.78)

We have a professional bureaucracy running our elections, and our returning officers have permanent government positions.  The process is uniform all over the country, and the drawing of electoral boundaries is done by the bureaucracy too.  Until I looked it up at Wikipedia, I had no idea just how many controversial US elections there have been, and the list only addresses the presidential elections, not all the other ones! (And look at the other countries in company with them, how mortifying that must be!)

So how has all this happened?  How did we end up with an exemplary system that we all subscribe to, even if we don’t always get the government we want?  Judith Brett traces it all back to the impetus on post-Federation nation-building and a predisposition towards uniformity in our arrangements.  There were smart decisions to choose best practice from amongst the different electoral systems in the states, and bureaucracy was regarded as a plus, not as a pejorative. There were heroes such as Catherine Helen Spence, (see my review of her autobiography;) Mary Lee (see my review of Denise George’s bio); and the South Australian public servant William Boothby; and the emerging Labor Party was determined to ensure that its voters were not disadvantaged by arrangements that didn’t suit working people.   None of this is dry history: it’s peppered with interesting facts such as this one, about the emergence of compulsory voting in the 1920s: Queensland had experimented, very successfully, with compulsory voting but elsewhere turnouts were dropping…

Other bad habits were forming.  The burden of supplying fleets of motorcars was becoming more onerous for candidates and party workers.  It was worst in the country.  Echoing Sydney Sampson in 1918, Albert Dunstan, the Country Party member for Eaglehawk, complained to the 1923 annual meeting of the Victorian Farmers’ Union that ‘a large proportion of people would not vote unless they were taken to the polls in motor cars.’ (p.134

What better way to experience the novelty of a ride in a motor car that you were unlikely ever to be able to afford, than to wangle a lift to the polling booth!

And my favourite: unlike compulsory voting which hasn’t been adopted elsewhere, the practicalities of the secret ballot were Australian innovations in the 1850s that overturned the shambolic, corrupt and sometimes violent electoral practices of public voting in the rest of the world.  Objections to the secret ballot included the complaint that it would take too long: three minutes per voter would mean only twenty men would be able to vote in an hour. That problem was solved by the simple provision of multiple voting stalls in an inner room.  And if you’ve ever wondered why we vote with pencils, you can thank South Australia!

South Australia made two innovations to speed things.  With the dipping pen, even men used to writing took up to five minutes to complete their vote, and many took much longer, so electors instead were provided with pencils. And votes no longer put a line through the names of rejected candidates, but instead put a cross next to their preferred candidate.  These reforms were later adopted for Commonwealth elections. (p.24)

(But don’t do that today: you must number your preferences!)

This is a really beaut book, and it’s another aspect of Australian history of which we can be justly proud.  It deserves to be read around the world—even though Judith Brett acknowledges that there are historical reasons why voting reform is unlikely ever to happen in places that have demonstrated that they badly need it!

That clever cover design is by W.H. Chong.

Image attributions:

Author: Judith Brett
Title: From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 2088 pages
ISBN: 9781925603842
Review copy courtesy of Text

Available direct from Text and good bookshops everywhere. And you can buy it as an eBook too.



  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. […] See:… […]


  3. It is a great cover isn’t it?

    Love your second paragraph Lisa, and also your discussion of our voting system. I must say one thing though and that is that we were snookered in the 2013 elections, when we were away. We left a day or two before postal voting, and it worked out that the absentee voting locations were all closed on the particular days we were in that place (ie Madrid and Lisboa.) So frustrating. Most of our Aussie tour companions had left a couple of days after we did – we left about 5 days before the tour – and got to postal vote before they left.

    Anyhow, this book sounds worthwhile.


    • Yes, the system isn’t foolproof, it falls down when there are snap elections and the rolls close before 18 year olds have had time to register, and in situations like yours too.
      But it’s pretty good!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love that UK polls are on a weekday: you don’t have to give up a weekend to vote and you don’t have to take time off work either as they are open from 8am to 10pm. You can also arrange a postal vote.


    • LOL Kim we don’t have to give up a weekend either: I used to be a polling booth official, graduating to OIC for a couple of elections before I gave it away, and at my booth, which was a busy one no one ever had to wait for more than half an hour, even with the rush at the opening and the closing times. For most of the day people were in and out in 10-15 minutes.

      Liked by 1 person

      • 10 to 15 minutes sounds like a long wait to me. I’m in and out of mine in about 3!


        • And most people are, straight in, straight out. But there are, of course, times when there’s more people than staff and they might have to wait a bit, and it does take a little longer if you have to vote absentee.


  5. As a working class lass in Glasgow it was a day off school and the excitement of motor cars coming and going was a show not to be missed. How easily entertained we were in those days. We also did our fair share of booing the Tories which was I guess very Glaswegian at that time. I am most appreciative of our compulsory voting system along with those progressive working conditions brought about mostly from left wing unions. Sadly disappearing since the floodgates of neoliberalism opened. This is an important book and excellent review Lisa.


    • Ah, I think I did read somewhere that in some places there’s a public holiday for the election – was that why you got a day off school?


  6. Must read this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I use my profession as an excuse to vote early (for a long time I was a conscientious objector to voting in national elections, but that’s an argument for another day – the turning point was John Howard and concentration camps for non-white refugees). Like you I glory in our democratic history but for the life of me I can’t see how it came about. Self government was gifted to us by the British, we had a rush of labour blood at the turn of the century but otherwise we’ve been ruled by the nouveau riche for the nouveau riche and seeing as that’s what we all aspire to we don’t care.


    • Ah well then, this book is for you. It explains how by accident and design it all came about!


  8. Sounds absolutely fascinating!! Rather sad our library doesn’t have it


    • Give it time… it’s only just been released so maybe in a month or two you’ll be able to get it:)


  9. Australians just never lose an opportunity to have a barbeque, right? I love the concept of the democracy sausage.

    Voting is compulsory in Belgium too and I think it should be in France as well.
    We have the same kind of system as you: you register at the city hall, in the town you have your permanent residence. You can vote via proxy if you’re not present.
    We always vote on Sundays because lots of people don’t work that day.

    I’m always horrified by the amateurism of the US system. There are too many opportunities to cheat and the world would have been very different if Al Gore had won the 2000 election, as he probably should have.


    • LOL in France it would be a baguette democratique, n’est-ce pas?
      The book does mention that there are a small number of places in the world that have compulsory voting, but Australia is the only English-speaking one.
      BTW It’s French Film Festival time here again, and on Saturday we saw the French film One Nation, One King (Un peuple et son roi). It’s not a great film, but it does show that the decision to guillotine Louis XVI was made democratically by vote at the French National Convention. That was a piece of history that had always escaped me before!


      • No. A merguez. Despite all the latent racism against people who have origins in North Africa, we love merguez and couscous.

        I recently read a review on Ali’s blog about a “leftist” vision of the French Revolution and was very surprised to see that this unusual vision was actually close to what we learn in school. I discovered the British (monarchist) take on the event and I was really surprised, by what her post and the comments revealed. I never suspected that.


        • What, was it a disapproving attitude?


          • Yes, something like that. As if it had been gratuitous violence.

            It’s on Kaggsy’s blog, btw. Very eye opening for me.


            • What’s the name of the book?


              • Vive la Révolution A Stand up history of the French Revolution by Mark Steel


                • I’ll check it out…


                • Update: Ah yes, I did read it at the time.


  10. I have this book on my reading list. Thanks for sharing your wonderful review.


    • Hi Jennifer, thanks! It’s a great book:)


  11. […] Source: From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting, by Judith Brett | ANZ … […]


  12. I didn’t know you could get a democracy sausage in London!

    I think we largely take our excellent system for granted… or rather don’t think about it until we witness the ridiculousness of Brexit and US politics. You have to wonder how different things would be if other countries did have compulsory voting.


    • Apparently so, Kate:)
      I agree, we do tend to take things for granted, and often to assume that everyone else does things the same way…

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Also, our primary school introduced the bacon and egg roll for early voters last election, and it was a great $$$ success.


  14. Fascinating stuff. As you mentioned, we are in such a mess here in the United States. I really like the idea of preferential voting. It would go a long way to improving our system here.

    I love sausages and those look so good! I would also take some of those from you folks :)


    • One of the things that makes us lucky is that these things were sorted out so long ago. I have no doubt that if they tried to do anything now it would all just disintegrate into arguments.
      For the US, I imagine it would be like gun law reform to prevent those terrible school massacres. Everybody knows it’s needed, but no one can agree on how it can be done.


  15. […] From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage, which I have not read (but Lisa at ANZLitLovers has) as a way of reassuring ourselves that we can be better than the government and politics that we […]


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