Australia’s Soldiers and the Vote – An Election Special

Australia’s Soldiers and the Vote – An Election Special

By Nicholas Egan

Australian soldiers about to cast their votes in London, 1940.

With the 2022 Federal election not far away, it is the perfect time to explore the history of how Australians have interacted with elections while in service. Throughout the 20th century history of Australia, our soldiers, sailors, airmen and nurses have fought to defend our democratic beliefs and practices. As part of this duty, they have also been called upon and even required, to cast their ballots while serving overseas. Australian voting practices have evolved dramatically in the 121 years since federation and the process used by our service men and women during the wars was, in many ways, even more alien to the processes we are familiar with today. As the decades passed, our Defence Force and electoral management bodies have come up with some rather interesting innovations to meet the challenges of allowing those in dangerous environments a safe and secure vote. Some of these innovations were so successful that they influenced electoral practices more widely, others not so much.

In this article, we will go through the experience of Australians voting while serving in successive wars starting with the First World War through to current engagements, focusing on how these votes were recorded. we will also briefly explore some of the activities that those serving in our armed forces have undertaken to support or observe elections and referendums in other countries.

The idea of special voting provisions for soldiers away at war began in the American Civil War when, prior to the 1864 Presidential election, 19 of the Northern States passed special legislation to allow soldiers to vote either by mail or in polling booths set up in the field.[i] Although postal voting had been suggested by South Australian election administrator William Boothby a few years earlier in 1858, this was the first demonstration of this concept.[ii]

An 1864 sketch by William Waud of Pennsylvania soldiers voting.

By the time the Great War (World War One) began, Australia had already gone far in the development of its electoral system. Having pioneered innovations in the 1850’s including the secret ballot and universal manhood suffrage, Australia was also amongst the first countries in the world to extend the vote and the right to stand for election to women in 1902. Although voting was not yet compulsory during the Great War, members of the AIF were called upon to vote in a number of elections and these events enjoyed a higher than average turnout for the time.[iii] As well as state elections and the 1917 federal election, soldiers were also called upon to vote in a series of conscription referenda. There was also the 1914 Double Dissolution election which was held at the very beginning of the conflict on 5 September before any special arrangements had been made. To read more about that election click HERE.

AIF soldiers on leave from the front voting on the Conscription Referendum at Horseferry Road, London.
AWM H16653

A queue of 21st Battalion soldiers waiting their turn to vote in the 1917 Australian Commonwealth election. At the head of the queue an unidentified private has his name recorded prior to being issued with a ballot paper.
AWM A00755

The second federal electoral event of the war was the first conscription referendum. In 1916, in order to gain approval for his plan to introduce overseas conscription, Prime Minister Billy Hughes organized a referendum to be held on the 28 October. After intense campaigning the result was a narrow majority against conscription. Throughout the campaign, it was assumed the overwhelming majority of soldiers would back conscription but in the end, only just over 55% of the AIF voted for conscription, not enough to overcome the No vote of the civilian population.[iv]

Men of the 44th Battalion recording their votes on the Referendum at the unit polling booth at Neuve Eglise, Belgium.
AWM E01605

After the 1916 conscription referendum was the May 1917 Federal Election. In order to help the collection of votes from those serving in the Australian Imperial Force in Europe and the Middle east, prior to the election the Federal Parliament passed the Commonwealth Electoral (War-time) Act 1917. A number of interesting innovations were adopted in this legislation to make the process simpler. For example, rather than issuing everyone with ballot papers for their respective electorates as well as for the Senate, serving voters were issued with a universal generic ballot paper which simply allowed them to choose either the “Ministerialist” (Government) or “Opposition” Candidates.[v]

It is interesting to speculate on how this form of ballot paper may have confused the voting soldiers. By 1917, many of the service men and women had been away from Australia for years and surely would have had limited knowledge on the political drama of the last few years. Billy Hughes had been sworn in as Prime Minister as leader of the Labor Party in 1915 before leaving Labor in November 1916 and continuing as Prime Minister, at first as leader of the “National Labor Party” supported by the “Commonwealth Liberal Party” before merging with that party to form the “Nationalist Party” in February 1917. After counting had completed, Hughes’ Nationalist Party won in a landslide, securing 53 of the 75 House of Representatives seats and all of the Senate seats on offer.[vi]

A House of Representatives Ballot Paper issued to AIF voters at the 1917 Federal Election.
The Commonwealth Electoral (War-time) Act 1917 (Cth)

Having lost one referendum on conscription, after being re-elected, the Hughes government tried again to get a referendum of conscription to pass in December 1917. Again, the result was a narrow loss with 53.79% of the population voting against the idea.[vii]

Prior to the Great War, the concept of postal voting was one of the great contentious issues between Australian political parties, those on the right of politics argued that it was necessary to allow those living in the vast interior of the continent, where there were generally fewer polling booths to easily cast their vote. The Labor Party, however, argued that the process was open to fraud, and cited scenarios of husbands voting for their wives, doctors voting for their patients and bosses voting for their employees to support their case. As government flipped back and forth between the two sides in the pre-war era, postal voting kept getting legalised under conservative governments and abolished under Labor governments. In 1918, after the use and importance of postal voting had been demonstrated with the soldiers votes in the referendums and elections, Prime Minister Hughes, who had begun his term at the head of a Labor government but was now the leader of the Nationalist Party once again made postal voting legal for the general public if they met certain requirements. It has remained an important component of the Australian electoral system ever since.[viii]

Another consequence of the Great War was the extension of voting rights to everyone who signed up in the armed forces regardless of age. At the time, the voting age for civilians was 21. This process was repeated in the Second World War, Korean War and the Vietnam War[ix] until a universal voting age of 18 was set in 1973.[x]

An Australian nurse voting from London, 1916
The Illustrated War News, October 26 1916, p.29

There were also elections held during the Second World War including federal elections in 1940 and 1943. In the period between the wars, there had been a number of important developments in the Australian electoral system. Primarily that voting had become compulsory for all Australian citizens in 1924[xi] and that the voting system was changed in 1918 from the traditional “First Past the Post” system to the current “Preferential Voting” system.[xii] In 1940, a new Commonwealth Electoral (War-Time) Act was passed that waived the compulsory voting requirements for those serving overseas but, due to the more complex voting system introduced since the Great War, voters had to be issued with ballot papers for their individual electorates.[xiii] In the 1940 election, a hung Parliament was elected with the Robert Menzies Coalition government holding on to power by a thread. The 1943 election, however produced a landslide for the John Curtain led Labor party.[xiv]

Voting taking place in the 1943 Federal Election from Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea.
AWM OG0039

Major (Maj) D C R McCallum of Newmarket, Brisbane, Qld, Returning Officer for the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) at the Commonwealth Elections held at the end of April 1951, checks the ballot sheets and counts the votes. Assisting is Captain C E Astley of Moonee Ponds, Vic.

In the Vietnam War, soldiers were again called upon to cast their votes while overseas. During the war, there were a number of federal elections as well as the 1967 constitutional referendum on indigenous rights. By this time, “declaration voting” procedures similar to modern practices were in place and as a result, no special legislation was required to facilitate the voting of those serving in Vietnam. A “declaration vote” is any vote where the voter, rather than being crossed off the electoral roll at the time that they are issued ballot papers, signs a “declaration” of who they are and that they are eligible to vote. The details on these votes are then checked against the roll at a later date. Ordinarily declaration votes are classified as postal votes, absent votes, when someone votes in person outside their electorate and provisional votes, which are cast by voters whose details cannot be verified on the day.[xv] For the collection of these votes, certain military officers were appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer as Assistant Returning Officers.[xvi]

2790521 Signaller Edward Burns Fraser, 21, of Northmead, NSW; 37759 Sergeant. John Gunst, of Coolaroo, Vic and 216758 2nd Lieutenant Peter Sidney Emery, of Ryde NSW examining a list of candidates for the 1969 election from Nui Dat, South Vietnam.
AWM P04667.520

Sapper John Best of Launceston, Tasmania, a soldier of 17th Construction Squadron voting in the 1970 Senate election from Nui Dat, South Vietnam.
AWM FAI/70/0784/VN

In the conflicts since the Vietnam War, Australian Service men and women have continued to cast their ballots from dangerous situations around the world. These include those in East Timor during the 1999 Republic Constitutional Referendum up to the most recent elections from those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the current Electoral Act, those serving in or employed by the Australian Defence Force have the general right to apply for a postal vote. There was however, in 2007 a trial of ADF personnel serving in remote parts of Iraq and Afghanistan who voted using computers connected to the Defence Restricted Network (DRN), a “private internet” not connected to the wider network. In all, 1,511 votes were cast using this method. After polling day, these votes were printed and counted by hand.[xvii] This trial did not continue in subsequent elections. Scott Morrison, who was the deputy chair of the Electoral Matters Committee at the time, cited the costs of these electronic votes, an average of $2,597 versus $8.36 for the rest of the population.[xviii]

Beyond members of the Australian Defence Force being involved in our own elections and referendums as voters and election officials while serving overseas, since the end of the Second World War, Australians have also been involved in helping other countries hold their own elections. Usually this has been conducted in vulnerable and newly established democracies. The first incidence of this was the occupying forces of Japan at the end of the war. The April 1946 election was the first held after the conflict had ended and was also the first in which Japanese women were allowed to vote. Australian members of the “British Commonwealth Occupying Force” such as Mary Monk and Joyce Crane of the Australian Army Medical Womens' Service (AAMWS), 130th Australian General Hospital served as election observers to make sure that the process ran correctly. Both had lived in Japan before the war and were evacuated in 1941. They returned in 1946 as interpreters.[xix]

NFX191410 Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) Mary Monk, and NFX191408 WO2 Joyce Crane, both of the Australian Army Medical Womens' Service (AAMWS), 130th Australian General Hospital working as Election Observers outside a polling booth at the 1946 Japanese Election.
AWM 126908

1946 'OFF DUTY WITH OUR OCCUPATION FORCES IN KURE...', The Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982), 11 May, p. 18.

Other elections in which Australian Service men and women have acted in either advisory or observer roles include Cambodia in 1993 and East Timor in 1999 and 2007, each time as part of United Nations task forces.[xx] ADF election observance, especially in the nations of the Pacific, also continues under projects run by the Australian Electoral Commission.[xxi]

A 2007 East Timor Presidential Election Ballot. In this election, Australian soldiers were tasked to preserve the integrity of the election process and maintain security.
AWM P05977.008

In conclusion, although Australian voting practices and procedures has changed dramatically since the beginning of the 20th century, the role and importance of our serving men and women overseas dispatching their votes to be counted, no matter where they are in the world has remained. In that time, they have voted in trenches, on generic ballot papers, in the field, in English hospitals, by post and even briefly, via computer. Our armed forces have also helped vulnerable and newly established democracies run free and fair elections through various security and observer roles.



[i]Meilan Solly, The Debate Over Mail-In Voting Dates Back to the Civil War, The Smithsonian Magazine, , 20 October 2020

[ii]Judith Brett, From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage – How Australia Got Compulsory Voting, The Text Publishing Company, 2019, p. 37

[iii]Voter turnout – previous events, Australian Electoral Commission, , 10 December 2019

[iv]Handbook of the 44th Parliament  "Part 5 - Referendums and Plebiscites - Plebiscite results", Parliamentary Library of Australia,;query=Id:%22handbook/newhandbook/2014-10-31/0050%22 , 2014

[v]The Commonwealth Electoral (War-time) Act 1917 (Cth)

[vi]Stephen Barber and Sue Johnson, Federal election results 1901–2014, Parliamentary Library of Australia, , 2014

[vii]Handbook of the 44th Parliament  "Part 5 - Referendums and Plebiscites - Plebiscite results", Parliamentary Library of Australia,;query=Id:%22handbook/newhandbook/2014-10-31/0050%22 , 2014

[viii]Judith Brett, From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage – How Australia Got Compulsory Voting, The Text Publishing Company, 2019, p. 127

[ix]Hot Topics: Voting and elections - Chapter 3: Who can vote, State Library of New South Wales, , 2019

[x]The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1973 (Cth)

[xi]The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1924 (Cth)

[xii]The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth)

[xiii]The Commonwealth Electoral (War-Time) Act 1940 (Cth)

[xiv]Stephen Barber and Sue Johnson, Federal election results 1901–2014, Parliamentary Library of Australia, , 2014

[xv]Glossary, Australian Electoral Commission, , 2022

[xvi]AWM P04667.520

[xvii]Internet Voting in Australian Election Systems, Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand, ,10 September 2013

[xviii]Dump ADF e-voting, committee recommends, ABC News, , 17 March 2009

[xix]Iwane Shibuya, Australian Participation in the Occupation of Japan 1945-1952, Murdoch University , 2015

[xx] Londey, Peter (2004). Other People's Wars: A History of Australian Peacekeeping. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin.

[xxi]Making It Count - Lessons from Australian electoral assistance 2006–16, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, , 2017