In Australia, it is compulsory to vote in federal, state and local council elections and by-elections. In order to vote, you must enrol onto the official list of eligible voters, known as the electoral roll.
Find out the laws and penalties around not voting or enrolling to vote in Australia.
Federal Election Voting Laws and Requirements in Australia
The Electoral Act 1918 states that all Australian citizens over the age of 18 must be enrolled to vote. 16 and 17-year-olds can also enrol to vote, but cannot cast a ballot until they are 18.
British citizens who were enrolled to vote in Australia on or before 25 January 1984 are also eligible voters. You may only enrol if you have lived at your residential address for at least one month.
Voters can then cast four types of votes: Ordinary, pre-poll, provisional or absent. You can enrol or update your enrolment details at the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) website.
NSW Voting Laws
Eligible voters in New South Wales are required to vote in federal, state and local elections. NSW state and local elections use the same electoral roll as federal elections, meaning you don’t need to enrol separately to vote in NSW elections.
One difference between federal and NSW voting law is that citizens deemed to be of “unsound mind” are disqualified from voting in federal elections. This is not the case for NSW elections as of the passing of the Electoral Act 2017.
Compulsory voting exists in countries where citizens are mandated by law to vote in elections. Compulsory voting in federal elections has existed in Australia since 1912, and in 1924 the obligation was expanded to include women.
Penalties for Not Voting in Australia: What Happens If You Don’t Vote?
The penalties for not voting in Australia are outlined in section 245 of the Electoral Act 1918.
Following a federal election, the Electoral Commissioner will compile a list of people who failed to vote. Within three months, the AEC will issue a penalty notice to everyone on the list, unless it is believed the person:
- Is dead
- Was absent from Australia on polling day
- Was ineligible to vote
- Had a valid and sufficient reason for failing to vote
If you receive a penalty notice despite the fact that you did vote, you can inform the AEC of when and where you voted. You can also attempt to provide a valid and sufficient reason for not voting. If you aren’t interested in taking any further action, you can simply pay the $20 fine.
If none of these options are taken, you can be prosecuted and taken to court. At that point, the ultimate fine can rise to $222, plus court costs.
The Fine for Not Voting in NSW
Section 259 of the Electoral Act 2017 states that if you do not vote in a local or state election in NSW, you will receive an apparent failure to vote notice.
This notice can be responded to in the same ways as its federal equivalent. If you did vote, you can provide the details of your vote at the NSW Electoral Commission website. Alternatively, you can attempt to provide a valid and sufficient reason for failing to vote.
You can also choose to immediately pay the fine, which is $55 in NSW. If you do not reply to the notice within 28 days, the matter will be referred to Revenue NSW and an additional fee of $65 will apply.
Finally, you can apply to have the matter heard in court. A court may impose a fine of $110 for the offence of failing to vote, plus court costs.
The Penalty for Not Enrolling to Vote in NSW
While it is technically an offence for eligible voters to not enrol to vote, you generally will not be punished for the act of failing to enrol. Rather, it is the act of not voting that you will be penalised for.
If you fail to enrol to vote before election day in NSW state and local elections, you can still vote in the electorate, ward or council area you live in. When you arrive at the polling place, an election official will direct you as to how you can enrol on the day and complete a declaration vote.
Can I Get an Exemption from Voting?
In any given election, not every Australian citizen is required to vote.
Valid Reasons for Not Voting in Australia
The decision as to what constitutes a valid reason for not voting is initially decided by AEC employees known as Divisional Returning Officers (DRO). A DRO will analyse precedents set by the courts to come to their decision.
The High Court case Judd vs McKeon (1926) established that disinterest in voting for any listed candidates or political parties is not a legitimate reason for failing to vote. In Judd vs McKeon, the Court provided other potential examples of valid and sufficient reasons for not voting, while noting each case would be judged on its own merits.
Reasons suggested in the Court’s decision include physical obstruction, such as sickness, outside prevention, natural events or an accident. The Court also indicated diverting from a polling place to save life, prevent crime or assist in a disaster could be considered valid reasons.
The Electoral Act 1918 and Referendum Act 1984 both allow for religious duty to provide a valid and sufficient reason to abstain from voting.
Ineligibility to Vote
Australian citizens are considered ineligible to vote in federal elections if they are:
- Under 18 years of age
- Of unsound mind, and are incapable of understanding the nature and significance of enrolment and voting
- Serving a prison sentence of three years or longer
- Convicted of treason and not pardoned
Understanding the Voting Process
There are a range of ways to vote in Australian elections.
Ordinary votes are votes cast at a polling place within the electoral division in which the voter lives.
Pre-poll votes are votes cast at early voting centres or AEC divisional officers before election day. You are eligible to submit a pre-poll vote if you are unable to attend a polling place on election day for reasons including travel, illness, work, religious beliefs and more.
Postal voting is generally considered a form of pre-polling, although postal votes can be completed up until 6pm on election day.
Provisional votes are cast in instances when a voter’s name cannot be found on the certified list, when a voter’s name has already been marked off as having voted or if the voter is registered as a silent elector. Provisional votes are subsequently scrutinised by the AEC, and if found to be valid are counted in the election.
If you are outside your electorate on election day, you can head to any polling place within your state or territory and submit an absent vote.
Frequently Asked Questions About Failing to Vote in Australia
Do You Need ID to Vote in Australia?
It is not necessary to present a form of ID – such as a driver’s licence – to vote in Australian elections.
When is Voting in Australia?
In Australia, federal elections are usually held every three years. The exact timing of an election is decided when the Prime Minister requests that the Governor-General dissolve parliament. Federal elections in Australia are always held on a Saturday. Polls open at 8am and close at 6pm sharp.
If you arrive at a polling place with a short queue, you should be able to complete the process in around 10 minutes. Longer queues will naturally lengthen your wait time. Depending on where you live, you may have the option to shop around different polling places to vote more quickly.
Parliamentary terms vary between states. In NSW, they last for four years. Local government officials – known as councillors – also serve four-year terms in NSW.
Can I Vote in a Different Electorate?
Yes. If you are outside your local electorate during a federal election, you can go to any polling place within your state or territory and submit an absent vote.
Can I Vote Early?
If you are unable to attend a polling place on election day, you may be eligible to submit an early – or pre-poll – vote. Find out if you’re eligible for pre-polling at the AEC website.