Electoral boundaries

In federal elections for the Senate, the electorates are defined by the state and territory boundaries. Elections for upper houses in New South Wales and South Australia and for the single house of the ACT Legislative Assembly use their state or territory boundaries to define a single electorate.

For all other elections in Australia, including elections for the House of Representatives, boundaries have to be specifically drawn to group voters into different electorates. The 2010 federal election required boundaries to be drawn for 150 House of Representatives electorates.

The laws concerning drawing electoral boundaries are important and controversial because those boundaries can effect who wins elections.

Hot Tip: Distribution and redistribution

The process of drawing electoral boundaries for the first time is called a ‘distribution’. After electoral boundaries have been drawn once, they can be adjusted in what is called a ‘redistribution’.

Who draws the lines?

In Australia, committees of public officials draw and redraw electoral boundaries. These committees are established by law to be independent of the government of the day, the parliament, political parties and other groups who might have an interest in drawing up electorates to suit their political purposes.

At the Commonwealth level, the Australian Electoral Commission oversees the process of electorate drawing and appoints redistribution committees for each state and territory. Each committee consists of the Electoral Commissioner, the senior electoral officer in the state or territory, the state or territory Surveyor-General and the state or territory Auditor-General. Similar committees draw up the boundaries for state and territory elections.

At various points, the process of drawing electoral boundaries involves publicity and public consultation. For House of Representatives electorates, the redistribution committees invite suggestions from the public before they begin to redraw boundaries and consider objections after they have released a draft set of proposed boundaries. Political parties make submissions to the committees to try to persuade them to draw boundaries in ways that will favour their candidates. The final decision on electoral boundaries, however, stays with the committee.

Having an independent body to draw electoral boundaries may seem an obvious way to avoid or reduce the manipulation of boundaries by governments and political parties. It is not a universal practice, however, even among western democracies. In the United States, for example, the state legislatures (the equivalents of Australian state parliaments) draw the electoral boundaries for state and national elections. This means that American redistribution processes involve much more party politics than they do in Australia. The Democratic and Republican parties have both used their majorities in state legislatures to draw up boundaries that favour their own candidates over opponents.