Australians have had the opportunity to vote on the issue of same-sex marriage in Australia via a postal survey since September 12. There’s a lot of information to take in and not all of the language is easy to understand. We’ve collated everything we know about the survey right here.
What are we voting on?
Australians will be asked to vote on whether or not they believe same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.
The postal survey will only ask a single question and that question can only be answered with a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’. The question that will be posed in the survey is:
Do you support a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry?
Who’s running the Australian Marriage Law survey?
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) will be conducting the postal survey. Yes, that is the same agency that couldn’t get the Census right but, hey, at least this time they’re using snail mail so it’s not like the servers can crash, right? There’s still no word on why the ABS got the nod instead of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).
Lifehacker asked the ABS why it is conducting the survey as opposed to the AEC and was told "Collecting statistical information is core business for the ABS."
It’s also the reason that we are now calling this a ‘postal survey’, rather than a ‘plebiscite’. This is definitely not a ‘referendum’.
What’s the difference between a referendum, a plebiscite and a postal survey?
A referendum is only undertaken when the Australian Constitution needs to be changed. It is compulsory for every Australian to vote in a referendum and the Government is bound by the result. As the Marriage Act (1961) and the Marriage Amendment Act (2004) are not part of the constitution, a referendum will not take place.
In regards to plebiscites, the AEC states: "Governments can hold plebiscites to test whether people either support or oppose a proposed action on an issue."
Essentially, a plebiscite is carried out like a referendum, but like Whose Line Is It Anyway? the results "don’t matter". More accurately, the results are non-binding and the Government is not legally required to enact the result. The last plebiscite that Australia held was on May 21 1977, when a question was added to the ballot paper of the 1977 referendum asking which tune we would prefer as our National Song.
The postal survey is essentially a plebiscite, but it is voluntary and occurs via post, rather than at a polling booth. However, owing to the fact this is not run by the AEC and is instead run by the ABS it is officially known as the ‘Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey.’ Other interchangeable terms I’ve seen are ‘postal plebiscite’, ‘postal vote’ and ‘same-sex marriage vote’ and ‘same-sex marriage postal survey’.
Why are we voting on same-sex marriage?
There’s an incredibly complex and detailed response to this question, but the short of it is that same-sex marriage was a huge issue at the 2016 election. Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition government stated that they would hold a compulsory attendance plebiscite on the issue of same-sex marriage if they were elected and so they brought the bill to Parliament but it was shot down by Labor, the Greens and various crossbenchers because of it’s expense, the fact that it was non-binding and how it would potentially affect the LGBTI community. After trying to get the bill through Parliament a second time, it was again knocked back and so the Coalition government decided to hold this ‘postal survey’, which means that legislation would not have to be passed for the plebiscite to occur.
That’s the history, but the reason the public are voting on it is because, like many developed nations, there has been a marked change in attitude towards same-sex marriage over the past decade and numerous calls to enact changes to the law that allow same-sex couples to be wed. Under the current legislation, the Marriage Amendment Act (2004), which made amendments to the original Marriage Act (1961), the law states that “marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”
Therefore, same-sex couples are legally unable to be wed in Australia.
When do I get my same-sex marriage survey?
You should start receiving same sex marriage survey forms from Tuesday, September 12 onward.
Some reports say that November 7 is the final day to post your vote but this is not true. The ABS will not accept surveys received at the address after 6pm on this date. If you post your vote on this date, it’s very unlikely that it will reach the ABS on time unless Australia Post is using Game of Thrones-level methods of transportation.
Thus, you are STRONGLY ENCOURAGED to return forms by October 27.
Provided you get your forms on September 12, you have 48 days to answer and post your vote back before October 27.
If you are yet to receive your form, you should check out our guide on what to do next.
What happens if I lose my same-sex marriage survey form?
If, for whatever reason, you lose or damage your form, you can request an additional form from the ABS up until 6pm on October 18. (Details on how to do this will be published on the ABS website when finalised.)
I want to vote. How do I vote?
You have to be 18 years or older, have lived at your current address for over a month and be an Australian citizen to enrol to vote in Australia. For the purposes of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, you MUST have been enrolled to vote by August 24. If you want to check your enrolment status, you can head to the Australian Electoral Commission website.
As long as you were on the Electoral Roll prior to midnight August 24, you will be able to participate in the survey – this includes people overseas, in remote or rural areas and those that need assistance because of disability. However, for the vast majority, there will be no polling stations and no democracy sausages.
But I’ve never posted a letter before?
That's okay. I hadn't for a long time before the survey arrived! In your mailbox you will receive both a survey form and a reply-paid envelope, which means that you do not have to purchase stamps to be able to post it – you just need to put your completed survey form in the envelope, seal it and drop it in an Australia Post box.
Where can I find an Australia Post box?
You can use this tool on the Australia Post website to locate Post Offices and Post Boxes near your area.
What happens if I turned 18 after August 24 but before the poll close on November 7?
Unfortunately, the AEC has stated that you will not be eligible to vote in the postal survey. This is because August 24 is the date that the AEC gave the Electoral Roll details to the ABS to conduct the survey and they are legally only allowed to hand over the details of those who are enrolled.
Those who have pre-enrolled at 17 years old and turn 18 after August 24 are only ‘provisionally’ enrolled on the Electoral Roll until they turn 18 and the AEC is not legally allowed to hand over these details to the ABS. If you turned 18 on August 24 you were still eligible to participate in the postal survey, as long as you enrolled before midnight.
I’m eligible to vote but I am not able to receive mail during the survey. How do I vote?
The ABS expects that the majority of Australians will be able to participate in the survey using the postal service. However, they are implementing special strategies for those that are unable to complete the survey form via post.
The ABS has an extensive section on their website that details the various services that will be in place for those that need assistance voting. There are a number of different ways in which they will implement the special strategies to enable participation.
In short, the ABS will set up locations in every capital city and some rural and remote locations where the survey response form can be picked up. The ABS website will detail the locations and times for picking up forms on their website when that information becomes available.
A paperless method will also be offered to those overseas, those that experience blindness or disability and those in remote locations. From the ABS: "Eligible Australians in these categories will be able to request a Secure Access Code from the ABS through the Information Line or the ABS website from 25 September to 20 October 2017." This access code will allow you to respond to the survey question either via telephony, an online form or through a call centre.
I’m physically unable to write my response on the form. How do I vote?
Those who cannot access or independently respond to the survey form can use a ‘trusted person’ to assist in completing the form in their place. The procedure for this is for the trusted person to complete the form and sent it back to the ABS via post. There are no safeguards in place for verifying that the trusted person has ensured the response is truthful.
For any further information you can contact the ABS Information Line on 1800 572 113. It is open seven days a week, 8am to 8pm (local time).
I am an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Person living remotely. How do I vote?
The ABS have stated that they are “working with the Australian Electoral Commission, State / Territory Electoral Commissions, Commonwealth Departments, Australia Post and State / Territory Government officials to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have the opportunity to participate in the survey.”
To ensure this is the case, they will mail out survey forms to a variety of locations, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, PO boxes or any nominated mailing addresses such as shelters, hotels or workers camps. Importantly, these locations will be prioritised in the initial survey form dispatch so that they are able to be received and returned in time.
In addition, all of the strategies previously listed – picking up the forms, using paperless forms or using a trusted person to complete the form – will be available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The ABS have also committed to producing translated materials in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages which will be available on the “ABS website, pick up locations and distributed through existing networks. Information messages and advertising will be communicated in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander media.”
I’m currently homeless and don’t have a postal address. How do I vote?
Similar to remote or rural voters, if you are currently experiencing homelessness, you will have access to form pickup centres, the ability to use a trusted person to fill out your form for you or can contact the ABS Information Line on 1800 572 113, to complete the survey form directly via the automated phone service, online or via a call centre.
The ABS has also stated that they’ll be working with Homeless Service Providers to ensure that the survey information is relayed to them in regards to how they can participate.
Does my vote still count if I draw a dick on the response form?
Interestingly, Alice Workman at BuzzFeed News asked this question of the ABS and was met with a resounding ‘Yes’. You can draw a dick or whale or unicorn or anything you want on your ballot paper, as long as there is a clearly legible mark in the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ box. The form becomes invalid if there is no clearly legible mark in either box.
The ABS have clearly stated that "The survey envelope is designated to be for the survey response only and is not a channel for correspondence, complaints or other communication. Any extraneous material inserted in the envelope with the survey form will be destroyed and, due to processing machinery or possible contamination, may result in the survey form also being destroyed and therefore not processed."
Therefore, if you place anything else in the envelope, there is a chance that your vote will be marked as invalid.
I don’t want to vote. Do I have to vote?
You don’t have to vote and, unlike an election or a referendum, you will not be fined if you do not participate. If you do not want to vote, the ABS recommends you tear your survey form into two or more pieces and dispose of it.
Why are we voting via post?
That’s a good question that no member of the Coalition has given a good answer to.
How much is the same-sex marriage survey going to cost?
It is estimated that the maximum cost will be $122 million.
When will we know the result of the postal survey?
The ABS have announced that they will release the result of the postal survey on November 15th.
You may have heard that the ABS will be publishing the results of the survey with a 'participation rate' by age and gender for each electoral division, state/territory and national. The ABS will obtain this information from the electoral roll. However, the answer to the central question of the survey will remain anonymous.
Will the ABS be collecting my personal information?
The ABS will be taking your information from the electoral roll, but your identity will not be linked to your response. While there will be a barcode assigned to you, the ABS states that this is ‘a single-use, anonymous code.’ Moreover, the ABS also states that ‘No person who sees or has any access to any completed forms will know both the name of eligible Australians and the related single-use code.’
The collection of information is governed by the Census and Statistics Act 1905 . In regards to privacy and secrecy there are two pertinent sections.
Section 13 (3) states "Information of a personal or domestic nature relating to a person shall not be disclosed in accordance with a determination in a manner that is likely to enable the identification of that person." As such, it is against the law for the postal survey to later enable the reveal of an individual's identity.
Section 19 of the Act relates to the secrecy of information and the penalties applied to those who divulge any of the collected information.
Within 60 days of publication of the postal survey results (January 14th, 2018), all completed survey material will be destroyed.
What happens if the survey returns a YES vote?
Nothing, officially. The result of the postal survey is non-binding and the Australian Government is not legally bound to make same-sex marriage legal. However, Senator Matthias Cormann stated that the Government will allow a private member’s bill to be introduced to Parliament and will facilitate a ‘free vote’ or ‘conscience vote’, where politicians will be allowed to vote based on personal preference rather than party lines, on whether same-sex marriage should be legalised. This is also backed by Malcolm Turnbull.
Do we know the contents of the proposed private member’s bill?
We don’t, but George Brandis said on ABC's Lateline on August 14th that the draft bill currently in question is Senator Dean Smith’s private member's bill.
What happens if the survey returns a NO vote?
Nothing, officially. If the results of the postal survey show that Australians do not support a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry, then there will not be any vote in Parliament.
Why should I vote if it’s not even legally binding?
While the postal survey cannot change the law like a referendum would, it appears this is the government’s way of gauging public support for the issue. There are problems with this, of course, and routinely, the Australian public have shown their support for same-sex marriage, but this is like giving that opinion a government stamp of approval.
If you’re voting ‘YES’ and believe same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, it will pave the way for a conscience vote in the Parliament that may give them that right. The government does not legally have to introduce a private member’s bill if the result of the postal survey shows that the majority of Australians voted ‘YES’, but the government has continually acknowledged that they will.
If you’re voting ‘NO’, and don’t believe same-sex couple should be allowed to marry, you will have your voice heard and be informing the Australian government that you believe marriage should remain between a man and a woman.
Will we even get to vote? I’ve heard that the legitimacy of a postal survey is being challenged in the High Court?
Yes, we definitely will. Two High Court challenges were heard on September 5 and September 6, in which two marriage equality advocacy groups argued against the legitimacy and legality of the postal survey.
On September 7, the full bench of the High Court ruled in favour of the Government, who were the defendants in the case.
Thus, from September 12, postal survey response forms began to be mailed out to all of those who were on the electoral roll before August 24. There can be no more appeals.
The Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey is supposed to begin on September 12 but prior to that the High Court of Australia will hear two challenges that are looking to stop the postal survey from taking place on the grounds that it is unlawful. This means that, come September 12, we may not be receiving postal survey forms at all. It’s all slightly confusing, so here's everything we know about the High Court challenges.
How are you voting?
Me? I don't believe that it should matter how I’m voting. I’m not a part of Australia’s LGBTI community. The vast majority of people that will discuss the postal survey and its implications are not members of the LGBTI community, and yet if the postal survey goes ahead, it will be them who get to make the decision on the rights of same-sex couples.
What I will suggest doing is ingesting as much information as you can and making an informed decision before you send your mail back later this year. And you definitely should send your mail back. Don't boycott the vote. You have a chance to be heard.
And be careful of the hyperbole and political posturing and remember the central question.
We are voting on whether or not we believe same-sex couple should be allowed to wed.
But if you really must know, I've created the video below: