How do I vote in the federal election? Can I vote early? Can I do a postal vote? Your questions answered

Rate it or hate it, the federal election has been called for Saturday May 21 and that means it’s time to brush up on your #AusPol knowledge.

Is this your first time voting? Or has it been a while since you’ve thought about the difference between the upper house and the lower house? Maybe you want to vote early and avoid the crowds?

Whatever your situation, before you head to the polls, here’s everything you need to know about voting.

How do I enrol to vote?

You can enrol at the Australian Electoral Commission website.

All you need is a drivers license or an Australian passport number, but if you don’t have either, someone who is already enrolled can confirm your identity.

Can I vote early?

Yes.

You can go to an early polling center to vote early if you can’t make it to a polling booth on election day.

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) will release a list of early polling centers in the weeks after election date is announced.

Can I do a postal vote?

Yes.

You can ask the AEC for a postal vote if you can’t go to a polling place on the day or if you can’t make it to an early voting location.

Generic became voting ballot paper.
Postal voting is expected to become more common at this year’s election. (Supplied: Unsplash)

The 2019 Federal Election saw an increase in the number of people voting early and by post.

That was before COVID-19 made many local government elections trial full postal voting.

The AEC believes that the trend is set to continue this year.

How do I vote if I’m interstate or overseas?

If you’re going to be an interstate on May 21, you can go to an interstate voting center. The AEC will publish a list of those places before election day.

If you live overseas, you can register as an overseas voter. The AEC has a list of places around the world where postal votes will be accepted.

If you’ll be overseas and don’t think you’ll be able to vote, you can fill out an overseas notification form.

And if you happen to be working in, or in transit to or from, Antarctica on election day, there will be a telephone voting service you can use.

Do I have to vote?

Yes.

It is compulsory to enrol to vote in the election if you’re an Australian citizen over the age of 18.

If you’re not sure if you’re enrolled, you can check your enrolment status here.

But if you haven’t enrolled and try to now, the AEC won’t fine you for failing to enroll in the past.

How do I vote?

If you’re voting in person at a polling place, you’ll be given two ballot papers: one for the House of Representatives, and one for the Senate.

To vote in the House of Representatives, you’ll need to number each candidate on your ballot paper in order of preference.

You have to number every box, or your vote will not be counted.

A close-up shot of a voter's hand dropping a ballot paper into a purple ballot box at a polling booth.
When voting for the Lower House, you vote for your local member.(AAP: Richard Wainwright)

Voters in each of those 151 local areas elect one Member of Parliament (MP) to represent the community.

This ballot paper uses preferential voting: the candidate with the fewest first preference votes (number one votes) is struck out, and each first preference vote for that candidate is then given to the voter’s second preference.

This process continues until one candidate has a majority: 50 per cent + 1 vote.

What about voting in the Senate?

You’ve got two options for voting in the Senate: above or below the line.

If you just want to vote for a political party and let them choose who represents you, you’ll need to number at least six boxes above the line.

If you want to vote for your own candidates, you’ll need to number at least 12 boxes below the line for your vote to count.

A close-up image of a woman's hand putting a ballot paper into a Senate ballot box.
Because senators represent a whole state or territory, there are more names on the ballot.(ABC News: Giulio Saggin)

Because senators are elected to represent the whole of a state or territory, not local areas, there are more of them to choose from, so there are many names on that voting form.

Each state elects 12 senators, and the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory elect two each for a grand total of 76 Senators.

Unlike the House of Representatives, only half of the Senate is usually up for election at a time, so that means this year, states are likely to only be electing six spots.

Wait… why are there two houses again?

To change or make new laws, legislation needs to pass the House of Representatives (the lower house) and the Senate (the upper house).

It’s rare for one party to hold both houses, which means the Senate acts as a forum of review or scrutiny of any laws being proposed.

Twitter user @Br_Tr holds up mammoth ballot paper
The Senate ballot paper can be intimidatingly long.(Twitter: @ thegabs92)

The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition are usually the leaders of the two major parties in the lower house, which is made up of 151 electorates, or “seats”, each represented by a local member.

But the parties fill those two key roles, not the people. That means on election day, you just vote for your local member, not the leader of the country.

The Prime Minister will be the leader of the party with a majority of lower house seats – 76 or more.

What are how-to-vote cards?

How-to-vote cards are recommendations from political candidates on how they want you to vote in the upper and lower houses.

You’ll probably see people handing them out at the front of polling places on election day.

You don’t have to follow their recommendations, or even accept the cards when they’re offered to you.

But if you just want to vote for one party rather than figure out which candidate is which, they’re a guide to what the party thinks will get their candidates elected.

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