AEC ticks off Peter Dutton over ‘factually incorrect’ complaint

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The Australian Electoral Commission has rebuked Peter Dutton for making a “factually incorrect” complaint after the federal opposition leader complained that a tick on a Voice referendum ballot paper counting as a vote but a cross not counting would advantage the Yes camp.

On Thursday, Dutton called on the AEC to rethink counting ticks as a Yes vote but not counting crosses as a No vote on a referendum ballot paper – even though doing this has been standard practice for the commission in referendums for 30 years under so-called ‘savings provisions’.

The AEC has rebuked Peter Dutton for his comments around referendum ballot papers.Credit:

Voters are clearly instructed to write either Yes or No on their ballot papers but when they do not, the ‘savings provisions’ allow the commission to count a vote when a voter’s intention is clear.

Despite this, Dutton said that the AEC’s ruling gave the Yes campaign a clear advantage and called for the ruling to be re-thought or overturned, even suggesting that he would support legislation to make the change.

In a strongly worded statement issued on Friday, the AEC said Australians were rightly proud of their electoral system and that while there was a high level of scrutiny and commentary on the looming referendum, “sometimes this commentary is immediate and based on emotion rather than the reality of the law which the AEC must administer”.

“There has been intense commentary online and in mainstream media regarding what will and will not be a formal vote for the 2023 referendum; specifically around whether or not a ‘tick’ or a ‘cross’ will be able to be counted,” the commission said.

Sample ballot papers for Yes and No.Credit:

“Much of that commentary is factually incorrect and ignores the law surrounding ‘savings provisions’; the longstanding legal advice regarding the use of ticks and crosses, and the decades-long and multi-referendum history of the application of that law and advice.

“The AEC completely and utterly rejects the suggestions by some that by transparently following the established, public and known legislative requirements we are undermining the impartiality and fairness of the referendum.”

Given the AEC’s fierce commitment to non-partisanship and staying above the political fray, the flat out rejection of Dutton’s request in less than 24 hours is notable.

The commission enjoys a strong reputation internationally for being politically non-partisan, especially compared to commissions in countries like the United States, which are partisan and electoral malfeasance such as gerrymandering is a regular occurrence.

The AEC noted in the 1999 referendum, just 0.86 per cent of votes cast were informal and of those informal votes, only a few related to people using either a tick or a cross rather than writing Yes or No on their ballot paper.

Indigenous Australians Minister Linda Burney said on Friday the AEC was a trusted entity in this country and the way that they are conducting this referendum is absolutely no different to previous national votes.

“The important thing is that Australians know their way around ballot papers. And this is a referendum that requires Australian people to write either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in the space provided. And my encouragement is to write ‘Yes’,” she said.

“Quite frankly, the AEC should be congratulated for having more people, Aboriginal people on the roll than ever before in our history, and working closely and collaboratively with people that want to see this as a fair and equitable referendum.”

More to come

Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.

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