You wouldn’t use a pencil to fill in a passport application form. You almost certainly wouldn’t sign a contract with one. So why do we still use pencils for the most important civic duty: voting?
That question has inspired one curious Australian, who submitted it to Curious Campaign.
Australians have been using pencils to vote since well before Hungarian László Bíró popularised the ballpoint pen in the 1930s.
As early as 1902, the Electoral Act required the provision of pencils in voting booths.
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“Polling booths shall have separate voting compartments, constructed so as to screen the voters from observation while they are marking their ballot papers, and each voting compartment shall be furnished with a pencil for the use of voters.”
That precise wording remains in the law to this day.
But while the act instructs the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) to provide pencils, it doesn’t instruct voters to use them.
“People can bring and use a pen if they wish to do so,” Electoral Commission spokesman Evan Ekin-Smith said.
Voters can also bring their own pencils. Some have taken this to colourful extremes, as the ABC’s Election Analyst Antony Green points out.
The pointy end of the pencil debate
Of course, none of this tells us why pencils are preferred over pens.
The Electoral Commission tells us it’s just easier.
“Quite simply, they are cheaper, can be used event after event and don’t dry out in tropical locations,” Evan Ekin-Smith said.
This makes sense when you consider the Electoral Commission stores its polling equipment between election days, and ballpoint pens tend to run dry after a few years in the cupboard.
But while they can be easily repaired with a sharpener, pencils leave marks that can be easily erased.
Several submissions into a joint parliamentary inquiry into the 2013 election expressed concerns that pencil marks could be altered to deliberately tamper with votes.
One correspondent wrote:
“Pencils are so archaic for marking ballots. There is potential for alterations on a wholesale scale by an unethical group.”
The Member for Fairfax, Clive Palmer, also criticised the use of pencils:
“A mark made with a pen can’t be rubbed out but a pencil can. And when you looked at some of the votes that were counted later in my election, there are a number of votes that didn’t have a ‘1’ that had been rubbed out, or erased, or the person just forgot to put them there. In Fairfax there were five different colours and five different types of ballot papers.”
In the end, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) found no evidence of tampering. But it also saw no reason that exclusive use of pencils should be required by law.
“Pencils may be better in a small number of exceptional circumstances, but in the Committee’s view, the operational norm should be for pens to be provided. Therefore, the Committee recommends the provision of pens should be the default option under the Electoral Act. If pencils are required to be provided, then the Electoral Commissioner can approve such use by exception.”
For now, the use of pencils rests in the hands of voters. The Electoral Commission can’t provide pens even if it wants to, until a future parliament decides to change the law.
By Nick Harmsen for www.abc.net.au