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Confessions of a protest voter

By Tim O'Dwyer - posted Friday, 20 August 2010

Picture polling day outside your local school - the press of party workers, the clamour of signs and the obligatory bunting and umbrellas. Nothing unusual. Then, relaxing beneath a floral beach umbrella, an unshaved yobbo. Thongs, stubbies, footy shirt, towelling hat and this handwritten sign: HOW TO VOTE INFORMAL. Latham-esque, you might muse.

An informal vote may well describe some folks’ dress and demeanour on the day, but strictly speaking, it’s when you put into the ballot box a voting paper made invalid - either by mistake or in protest.

Election officials and scrutineers often tell of how creative informal voters can be. Pictures drawn, essays written and even stickers stuck. Some efforts are serious, others funny and many are downright rude. Few reflect Mark Latham’s unimaginative blank ballot paper suggestion.


Despite an old wives’ warning that it’s illegal to vote informal, the Commonwealth Electoral Act accepts there can be valid votes, informal votes and, of course, failures to vote.

Voting is compulsory, so anyone not voting without a valid excuse faces a $20 penalty.

Thank goodness for compulsory voting, say political parties and electoral commissions. Otherwise vaster fortunes would have to be spent enticing or cajoling voters. It’s a scary thought for pollies how many of us might not bother voting if we did not have to.

When I was at university in the ‘60s the nation was more polarised. Political policies seemed diametrically opposed. As a 21-year-old, baby-boomer-law-student I enrolled to vote, but in conscience could not vote for any party or candidate. So my first votes were informal protests.

At the 2007 federal election almost 6 per cent of House of Representatives votes were informal. How many were, like mine had been, informal protests?

Unfortunately, the major parties care less about these and more about valid protest votes in favour of minor parties or independents. This is obviously a real concern in marginal seats and the Senate where preferences are critical.


Over the past 40 years I’ve taken more to valid voting, although often I’ve not given my first preference to a major party. Like many other voters I’ve wanted to protest democratically - but validly. A pox on your policies, your wretched record and your choice of candidate, we say. So our first votes go to little Aussie battler-candidates.

Although some politically-correct commentators suggest people should vote validly for the candidate they like best - or dislike least, the Electoral Commission’s position is simple: voting is a right and a duty, electors should "make their vote count", informal votes are "wasted votes".

As a veteran protester, I say to fellow protest voters: cast your vote how you wish. Make an informal protest, if you want. And remember, you do have a civic right to vote for no one at all.

An Irish spin on an old adage is that no matter who you don’t vote for, a politician always gets elected. Protestors who vote formally (with deviously directed preferences), informally or who simply fail to vote, should be aware that someone on the House of Representatives ballot sheet will become your federal member. If you’re easily upset, don’t ask how many Senate candidates get guaranteed guernseys.

By the way, if you are serving a jail term of more than three years, (or have been convicted of treason or treachery) you are not entitled to enroll or vote. The same applies if you are “incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolling and voting”. The catch is that you must be “of unsound mind”. This is, I suspect, different from being bored witless by the current election campaign.

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About the Author

Tim O’Dwyer is a Queensland Solicitor. See Tim’s real estate writings at:

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