Referendums: Getting the numbers: How a double majority works


Middle secondary

Curriculum links

Links to the Australian Curriculum


When politicians talk about 'getting the numbers' they are talking about how to win. What they mean is winning a majority of the votes. A majority is more than half the total number. Exactly half is not enough. You need at least one more.

To change Australia's Constitution, you need more than just a majority. To pass a referendum, the 'yes' vote has to get a double majority. This means two things have to happen:

1.   There has to be a national majority: 50 per cent, plus at least one, of the total votes across Australia has to be 'yes'. All the votes from all the States and Territories are included.

2.   There has to be a majority of States (this was introduced to protect the interests of the smaller states): 50 per cent, plus at least one, of the total votes from the six States has to be 'yes'. This means that at least four States have to vote 'yes'. Only States are included in this count, not Territories.

A Double Majority

This double majority rule makes it hard to win a referendum. Australia has held 42 referendums so far and only 8 have passed, but the double majority rule is not the only reason for this history. The Australian Electoral Commission website has detailed information about Australia's referendum history for more information.

Your referendum

Your class can try out the double majority system with a mock referendum. The example question used in Step 2 is not a constitutional issue and would not be decided by a referendum, but it will show how a double majority works. Here's how to do it:

Step 1: Choose eight groups of voters. You can use your own class plus seven other classes or two classes divided into four groups each (8 groups in all). Give each group the name of one of the six States and two Territories. (In a referendum, votes from the two Territories are counted in the national tally, but not in the State tally).

Step 2: Work out a question to ask in your referendum. For example, 'Do you think the compulsory age of schooling should be raised to eighteen?'

You could use the republic question, or another issue that is important in your school. (If you use the republic question be sure everyone has information about the issues first.) The question has to be written so that only a 'yes' or 'no' answer is possible.

Step 3: Prepare voting papers and vote:

  • Make a voting paper (a ballot) by writing the question and the words 'yes' and 'no' below it. Write the instruction for voters to tick either 'yes' or 'no'.

  • Make enough copies of the ballots so that every student receives one. Before distributing them, divide the ballots into eight groups and write the name of each State and Territory at the top of each group of ballot papers. Give out the ballots to students in their State or Territory groups.

  • Ask everyone (the voters) to mark the ballots by ticking 'yes' or 'no'. Collect the ballots keeping each group (or 'State/Territory) together.

Step 4: Counting the votes

  • Count the total number of votes for 'yes' and for 'no'. If there is a majority of 'no' votes the referendum has been lost.

  • If there is a majority of 'yes' votes, tally the votes for each of the six State groups. Remember this step does not apply to the Territory groups. If there is a majority of 'yes' votes in four, five or six of the 'states', the 'yes' vote has won. If not, the referendum is lost.

Step 5: Reporting the results

  • Report the results to the voters (electorate).
  • Have a discussion to explain why your referendum was won or lost.

Other information

Refer to the Fact Sheet about referendums and the Constitution.

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