Elections and Voting

What Will I Learn

  • The following information and activities will help you understand the role of the individual in elections and voting
  • You will learn how elections are conducted

What Are Elections?

Political engagement and participation in elections is the cornerstone of Australian democracy.

As a representative democracy Australia holds open and free elections at all levels of government to choose members that will speak and make decisions on behalf of the people.  Voting for Australian citizens 18 years and over is compulsory and they must register to vote.


Federal: AEC https://www.aec.gov.au/enrol/ for Federal elections 

State and Local: NSW Electoral Commission https://www.elections.nsw.gov.au/Voters/Enrol-to-vote

Elections in NSW

Australia is a representative democracy. Citizens elect representatives to speak in parliament and make decisions on their behalf. Voting for a person who represents your views allows you to have a say in the laws and decisions made by the parliament.

In NSW Section 5 of the NSW Constitution Act 1902 allows the elected Parliament of New South Wales to make laws for the “peace, welfare and good government” of the State.

Usually at the end of a four year term, Parliament is prorogued by the Governor who issues the writs for a general election of the Legislative Assembly, all 93 members, and 21 members (half) of the Legislative Council.

What are the Writs?

In the electoral context, a writ is a document issued by the Governor and signed by the Premier, commanding the Electoral Commissioner to hold an election. It contains dates for the close of rolls, the last day for nominations by candidates, the polling day and the day the writs are to be returned. The writs for 93 electoral districts in the Legislative Assembly and one writ for the Legislative Council are issued by the Governor and received by the NSW Electoral Commissioner.

In NSW, the Parliament “expires” on the Friday before the first Saturday in March every four years and the writs must be issued within four days of that day. Candidates then nominate for election to the Legislative Assembly or the Legislative Council.

Who chooses the order of candidates on the ballot paper?

The Legislative Assembly

The election manager for each electorate conducts a draw of the names of candidates in order to determine the position of candidates on the ballot paper. 

The Legislative Council

Prior to an election, the NSW Electoral Commissioner will conduct a draw, determining the order in which groups and ungrouped candidates are shown length ways across the ballot paper. Each group can choose the order thei candidates appear vertically below the line.     

Election Day

Elections in NSW are conducted by the NSW Electoral Commission.

“We are legislated to conduct, regulate, and report on general elections and by-elections for the Parliament of New South Wales. We also provide electoral services to local governments”

NSW Electoral Commission

Election day is always held on a Saturday and polling booths are open from 8am to 6pm. 

In the lead up to the election throughout their campaigns candidates speak to voters. The Electoral Commission prepares electoral rolls, prints ballot papers for each electorate and for the Legislative Council, prepares polling places, and postal and pre-poll voting is conducted.

At polling stations, representatives of the various political parties and candidates hand out “How To Vote” cards. 

Voters queue and register against the electoral roll, responding to the three questions: 

  • “What is your name?” 
  • “What is your address?”
  • “Have you voted today?”

They receive the two ballot papers – one for the Legislative Assembly and one for the Legislative Council. On completing the papers in the voting booth, they are folded and placed into the allocated ballot boxes.

Did you know?

South Australia and Victoria were the first places to use the secret ballot in 1856. NSW introduced the secret ballot two years later in 1858

Voters choose their members via secret ballot in the booths provided.

Election night is an exciting event. Counting is conducted by the NSW Electoral Commission officials. First preference votes are counted after the polling booths close with results phoned-in to the tally room and are recorded on the tally board sometimes giving early indications of how the vote will go. 

Scrutineers for each of the candidates observe the count. 

When the results are known the Electoral Commissioner returns the writs to the Governor with all of the names of the candidates that have been elected to the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council. The Governor appoints as Premier the leader of the political party that has won the majority of seats in the Legislative Assembly. On the advice of the new Premier, the new Ministry is appointed. 

All of this must happen within 60 days of the writs originally being issued. Within seven days of the return of the writs the new Parliament must meet commencing its new four year term.

Political Parties

At the election political parties hope to win the majority in the Legislative Assembly (Lower House) so they can form government and put their policies into practice.

The three main parties in NSW are the Australian Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the Nationals. A Member of Parliament who does not belong to a political party is called an Independent

As a result of optional preferential proportional voting in the Upper House, there are more diverse political parties in the Legislative Council with minor parties also represented; The Greens, and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party to name a few.

How do political parties become part of an election?

For a political party to be registered and contest an election in NSW they must have registered with NSW Electoral Commission at least 12 months before the election and their registration must include the names of at least 750 members (all registered NSW voters) and pay a registration fee of $2,000.

Electing a Member of the Legislative Assembly

NSW is divided into 93 electorates. Each has a Member of Parliament representing it in the Legislative Assembly. The boundaries of each state electorate are determined by a distribution process, set out in the NSW Constitution. When a member is elected in the Legislative Assembly to an electorate they represent on average 50,000 voters

A redistribution will take place when there are more than a quarter of the electoral districts that do not have an equal number (of voters), and after every second election. 

The Legislative Assembly Ballot Paper


The Legislative Assembly, also known as the Lower House, uses optional preferential voting. The voter places the number “1” in the square next to the candidate who is the voter’s first choice. 

In NSW the voter has the option of allocating preferences. These are placed in the squares next to the candidates. The order does not matter provided consecutive numbers have been used. 

Those ballot papers that have only one preference are ‘exhausted’ after the single vote is counted. 

Those with two votes are exhausted after the second vote is counted, distributed and so on. 

Those ballot papers which are set aside as exhausted are no longer in the count. This reduces the number of votes remaining in the count and the number of votes needed to be elected. 

The distribution process is repeated, eliminating candidates one at a time until a candidate has more than half the number of the votes left in the count i.e. until a candidate reaches over 50% of the vote or 50% plus 1.

How are preferences decided?

The voter is fully responsible for their preferences and how they are allocated. Political parties hand-out leaflets on how to fill out ballot papers at elections however these are only suggestions.

Electing a Member of the Legislative Council

The Legislative Council consists of 42 members who represent the whole of NSW in the Parliament. Members are elected on a proportional basis. Candidates are presented in a state-wide ballot. Members of the Legislative Council serve a term of eight years which consists of two four-year terms of the Legislative Assembly (section 22B of the Constitution Act 1902,). 

Members of the Legislative Council (the Upper House) are elected through an optional preferential proportional representation voting system. Parties or individuals are elected according to the proportion of the total vote they receive.

How to Vote

Sample ballot paper supplied by the NSW Electoral Commission


Electors may vote for members of the Legislative Council in one of two ways:

Vote above the line: The voter has the choice of group voting (usually for a particular party). This is done above the line. The voter places the number “1” in one of the squares to indicate the political party selected as the first choice.  Independents are also listed above the line. The political party candidates are shown below the line in the order which the party has selected them.

Alternatively voters can choose to vote for more than one group above the line. You may record the number “1” in the square next to the name of the group of their first choice. Then vote “2” for your second preference and so forth for as many choices as you wish to make. 


Vote below the line: The voter has the choice of individual voting (for individual candidates) by placing the numbers “1” to “15” in the squares opposite the names of fifteen candidates in order of preference. The voter can add more candidates ensuring consecutive numbers are used in the squares opposite candidates’ names.

The  21 candidates up for election require a “quota” of votes with typically 4.55% of the total valid primary votes being sufficient for a candidate to gain a seat in the Legislative Council.

Achieving a final result is complex, as surplus votes (i.e. those a candidate receives above the quota of 4.55%) are redistributed to other candidates using a formula, and this process continues until all 21 members of the Legislative Council have been elected.

If fewer than 21 candidates receive a quota, a process of transferring preferences from the candidates with the least primary votes begins until all vacancies are filled. The process is conducted by the NSW Electoral Commission’s computerised system.


Surplus Vote

For example, if you imagine that your vote is like a jug of juice. If the candidate who was your first preference already has the required quota (4.55%) your vote will spill over to help your second preference who may end up with the required quota in the final count.


Acts to remember

The Parliamentary Electorates and Elections Act 1912 contains information about how elections are conducted in NSW.  Read it here

The Constitution Act 1902 (NSW) provides for when elections are to be held in NSW – fourth Saturday in March every four years. NSW has had fixed election terms since 1995.  Read it here.

Electoral Act 2017 (NSW) Part 7 sets out particular duties of the Electoral Commissioner throughout the electoral process. Read it here.

Electoral Funding Act 2018 (NSW) new category of unlawful political donation over $100 in cash. Read it here.



Elections and Voting Quiz

Related Topics