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The topic of voting is an interesting one in the context of South Australia, for South Australia has been responsible for effecting great changes in voting rights both in Australia and beyond its shores. Our story begins with the suffragists of the 19th century, with Mary Lee as the final mover in achieving women's suffrage, through to the efforts of Catherine Helen Spence to see 'effective voting' introduced across Australia, efforts continued from 1909 to 1979 by the Women's Non-Party Political Association, later known as The League of Women Voters of South Australia. In the broader context, how Australia votes is quite unusual, even among other democratic countries, according to Professor Dean Jaensch, noted South Australian political commentator.

'Effective voting' is another name for Proportional Representation, a method of distributing votes to return multiple candidates in each electorate, broadly as happens today in some Upper Houses of Australian Parliaments and the Lower House of the Tasmanian Parliament. Its purpose is to give a voice to large minorities and so make the Parliament more democratic by allowing a diversity of opinions to be heard. Its importance is recognised in its role in electing the Houses of Review, but its introduction in the lower houses where the power lies is staunchly resisted by the major political parties.

For Catherine Helen Spence, effective voting was the most important cause of her life, and she worked for it for the last 50 years of her life. For her the notion of 'effective voting' upholding democracy was more important than 'votes for women'. The state electorate of Spence is named for Catherine in recognition of her work for parliamentary democracy.

The issue of proportional representation is still relevant to democracy in South Australia today. It is part of the policy of the Australian Democrats, and is supported by the Electoral Reform Society. It was considered so important by Australian Democrat The Hon Sandra Kanck MLC that she gave a dissenting statement to a recommendation on the electoral process in the Final report of the Joint Committee on Women in Parliament. Statement on electoral reform by the Hon Sandra Kanck MLC

If you want current information on how the Australian Parliament is elected and how it works, visit the Parliamentary Education Office website or view the Australian Electoral Commission's guide Voting in Australia.

The first polling day in Australia to include women was in South Australia on 25 April 1896. A long account of the events of the day How the women voted appeared in the weekly newspaper The Observer on 2 May 1896, and included the names of the first female voters in eleven near-city electorates. Although the editorial tone seems patronising today, what comes through is a genuine feeling of appreciation of having women involved, and a sense of excitement and goodwill within the community as to the historic nature of the day. Typical of the writing is a charming line that 'the fair franchisists could not help having graces, but they gave themselves no airs'.


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This page last updated on Thursday 01 August 2019



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