House of Representatives Factsheet No. 8

Revised June 1996

At elections for the House of Representatives the people of each electoral division (also called an electorate or a constituency) choose a person to represent them in the House. In choosing their representatives the voters, or electors, indirectly choose the nation's government, because the government is formed from the political party or alliance of parties (coalition) which has a majority of the Members of the House of Representatives.

When are elections held?

Under Australia's Constitution each House of Representatives may last no more than three years from the first meeting of the House after an election, but may be dissolved sooner. General elections are then held to elect all Members of the House of Representatives. If a seat in the House becomes vacant between general elections, for example, if a Member resigns or dies, a by-election is held to elect a new Member to represent that electorate until the next general election.

Who can stand for election?

Candidates for election must be Australian citizens and be eligible to vote. The following are not eligible to become Members of the House of Representatives: Senators; Members of State Parliaments; public servants; officers of the Electoral Commission; citizens of, or persons holding allegiance to, a foreign power; undischarged bankrupts or persons convicted of certain offences.

Candidates must be nominated by at least six electors of the electorate to be contested or by a political party. On nomination candidates pay a deposit of $250. This is returned if the candidate receives at least four per cent of the (first preference) votes cast in the electorate.

Who votes?

Australian citizens who are 18 years of age or older are eligible to enrol as voters. There are some exceptions, for example, persons of 'an unsound mind' or those serving sentences for serious crimes. All persons eligible to enrol must do so and voting is compulsory for all persons enrolled. Those who do not vote may be fined.

Who conducts the election?

The Australian Electoral Commission, a statutory authority headed by the Electoral Commissioner, is responsible for the administration of all Commonwealth electoral matters including, for example, the conduct of elections, the maintenance of up-to-date lists of electors (electoral rolls) and the redistribution of electorates. An election takes place in response to a writ (formal order) from the Governor-General (or the Speaker in the case of a by-election) commanding the Electoral Commissioner to conduct an election. For a general election a separate writ is issued for each State and Territory.


The ballot paper for each electoral division lists candidates' names and shows the parties they represent (if they represent no party, candidates are listed as 'independent'). Candidates are listed in a random order, determined by drawing lots.

The system of voting used in elections for the House of Representatives is preferential, that is, voters have to rank all candidates in order of preference: they may not just vote for one candidate. Voters are directed to mark their vote on the ballot paper by placing numbers in the squares opposite the names of the candidates so as to indicate their order of preference, for example, if there are three candidates, by writing the numbers 1, 2 and 3 in the appropriate squares. Ballot papers which are incorrectly filled out (informal) are not valid and are not included in the count.

Preferential voting is designed to produce the election of the candidate who is most representative of the wishes of an electorate. To be successful a candidate must be supported by the majority (that is, more than half) of voters. This system is considered fairer than a non-preferential (first-past-the-post) system under which the candidate with the most votes is elected, even though he or she may have support from only a minority of voters.

Counting the votes

In the first stage of the count the first preference votes are counted. If no candidate then has a majority, the candidates with the fewest votes are progressively eliminated and the votes received by them distributed (that is, allotted to other candidates according to the preferences of the voters) until only two candidates remain, for example:

    First preference votes counted

        candidate          A       B       C

        votes             45      30      25

    C's second preferences distributed,
     two possibilities are shown 

        candidate                A      B              A     B

        1st preference votes    45     30             45    30

        2nd preference votes    10     15     or       4    21
                               ---    ---            ---   ---
        total votes             55     45             49    51

                                A elected            B elected
In this example the candidate with the fewest votes (C) is excluded and his or her votes shared between candidates A and B according to whether the voters had ranked A or B as their second choice. Note that this could result in either A or B being elected, depending on the distribution of preferences.

The result, declaration of the poll and return of the writs

The result of each election is announced (declared) as soon as possible after counting has been completed in the division. Following a general election, when the results for all divisions have been declared the Electoral Commissioner certifies on each writ the name of the successful candidate for each division and returns the writs to the Governor-General, who in turn forwards them to the Clerk of the House of Representatives.

The validity of an election may be challenged by a petition addressed to the Court of Disputed Returns (the High Court acting in a special capacity).

Disclosure of income and expenditure, public funding

All candidates are required to make returns to the Electoral Commission detailing any donations they have received for electoral purposes and electoral expenditure they have incurred or authorised. Political parties also have to fill in an annual return showing all their receipts and all their expenditure at the end of each financial year. Disclosure laws also apply to other people involved in the electoral process. This information is publicly available.

Candidates who receive at least 4% of the (first preference) vote are reimbursed for electoral expenses by a specified amount for each such vote they receive. Election funding is paid either to a registered political party on behalf of each endorsed candidate or is paid direct to a candidate who is not endorsed by a registered party. This amount (which was 157.594 cents for the election held on 2 March 1996) is indexed for inflation.

Electoral divisions

Australia is currently (38th Parliament) divided into 148 electoral divisions, each represented by one Member. Under the Constitution each original State is guaranteed at least five Members, but all States except Tasmania now have more, the numbers depending on their population. States may gain or lose Members as a consequence of population movements. Because of Australia's uneven distribution of population, electoral divisions differ greatly in area, ranging from 26 sq. km. (Wentworth, NSW) to over 2.2 million sq. km. (Kalgoorlie, WA). At the election in March 1996, there was an average of approximately 78,751 electors per electorate.

Electoral boundaries are reviewed regularly and, if necessary, adjusted (redistributed) to reflect population changes. The aim of redistribution is to ensure that electoral divisions within each State or Territory contain approximately an equal number of electors. The representation of the States and Territories is as follows:

     New South Wales                            50
     Victoria                                   37
     Queensland                                 26
     Western Australia                          14
     South Australia                            12
     Tasmania                                    5
     Australian Capital Territory                3
     Northern Territory                          1

When is the next general election?

As the first meeting of the 38th Parliament was on 30 April 1996, the latest date for the next election is Saturday, 3 July 1999. However, it is usual for general elections for the House of Representatives to be held at the same time as elections for half the Senate. As the results of the next half-Senate election have to be available before 1 July 1999, in practice the latest date for the next half-Senate election will be early May 1999.

Timetable for general elections

STAGE                  LIMITATION          CONSTITUTIONAL or
                                           STATUTORY PROVISION

Dissolution          Not later than           Constitution, 
                     3 years from the           ss. 5, 28
                     first meeting of 
                     the House

Issue of             Within 10 days           Constitution
writs                of dissolution             s. 32;
(at 6 p.m.)                                   Commonwealth
                                                Electoral Act
                                                ss. 151, 152

Close of             7 days after             Commonwealth
electoral            issue of writ              Electoral Act
rolls                                           s. 155

Nominations          Not less than            Commonwealth
close                11 days nor more           Electoral Act
(at 12 noon)         than 28 days after         s. 156
                     date of writ

Date of              Not less than            Commonwealth
polling              30 days from               Electoral Act
(a Saturday)         date of nomination         ss. 157, 158

Return of            Not more than            Commonwealth
writs                100 days after             Electoral Act
                     issue                      s. 159

Meeting of           Not later than           Constitution
new                  30 days after the          s. 5
Parliament           day appointed for
                     return of writs

Suggestions for further reading

House of Representatives Practice, 2nd edn. A.G.P.S., Canberra, 1989. pp 122143.

Australian Electoral Commission. Commonwealth Electoral Procedures. AGPS, Canberra, 1992.

Last updated: 25 June 1996