Australia to go and vote

2010-08-20 11:42

Sydney - From the dusty Outback to beachside booths and frozen Antarctic polling stations, millions of Australians will vote on Saturday in an election costing some $90m and employing 70 000 staff.

Some 14 088 260 registered voters are expected to file through schools, churches, surf life-saving clubs and community centres temporarily converted into voting stations after polls open at 08:00 (22:00 GMT on Friday).

Voting is compulsory in the vast island continent, making a national election a logistical operation requiring some 7 700 polling places, 43 million ballot papers and at least 100 000 pencils.

Thousands have already cast their vote for the centre-left Labour Party of Prime Minister Julia Gillard or her right-leaning Liberal Party opponent Tony Abbott - including soldiers serving in Afghanistan and East Timor.

The leaders spent their final campaign week attempting to shore up support in the marginal seats of Sydney and Queensland, but Australia House in London is again expected to be the polling station where the most votes are cast.

Remote spots

"It took 16 000 votes at the last election and Hong Kong took 10 000 out of about 70 000 votes issued across all overseas diplomatic missions," Australian Electoral Commission spokesperson Phil Diak said.

In Australia's enormous Outback, officials have travelled over some 1.2 million square kilometres by aircraft and four-wheel drive to reach remote Aboriginal communities, cattle stations and mines.

These votes, collected in the two weeks before the August 21 poll, come from some 400 isolated and far-flung places including the fringes of the Kakadu National Park while thousands more from remote spots have sent postal votes.

Residents of the tiny South Australian desert town of Innamincka have already voted, sending their choices in by post with the weekly mail plane rather than trek 226km to the nearest booth on Saturday.

"If we didn't have postal vote, there would be no voting," said Michelle Hoffman, manager of the Innamincka Hotel.

Electoral officials make special provisions for scientists and other Australians working in Antarctica, with Tasmania's operations manager Greg Richardson ensuring the 49 citizens working in the cold conditions can vote.

Voting papers - which can stretch to almost a metre long in some states - are emailed to a nominated returning officer and then printed out in pieces and taped or stapled together to match the printed forms.


"Obviously, printing the New South Wales ballot paper - I think it's got 84 candidates on it - it's a fairly big sucker," Richardson said.

The returning officer then collects the papers and reads the results out to an official in Australia the day after the election - and must also report any other mark or comment on the paper.

The official transcribes the votes onto a voting paper and is also tasked with replicating any other words written on the paper - even if an obscenity is noted.

"It is supposed to be a representation of what they've done. People feel the need to do that occasionally," Richardson said.

Despite the logistical difficulties, Australians overwhelmingly turn out to vote, with turnout reaching 94.76% of those enrolled in the November 2007 election in which Labour's Kevin Rudd ended 11 years of Liberal Party rule.

Those who fail to vote are fined A$20 ($17.80).