Address to the AGM of the Victorian-Tasmanian Branch

The following is an edited version of the address given to the Annual General Meeting of the Victoria-Tasmanian Branch of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia by Stephen Lesslie, President of Electoral Reform Australia.

Mr President,

We, Electoral Reform Australia, are looking for three things in any reform of an electoral system. They are:

  1. The complete abolition of any form of above the line voting.
  2. The rights of voters to have their vote counted.
  3. Equality for voters.

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Dialogue with Simplicio (with apologies to Galileo Galilei)

Simplicio, an Australian voter, is discussing with Electoral Reform Australia (ERA) its single transferable vote (STV) model for the Australian House of Representatives. This model advocates multi-member electorates of at least nine members to be elected without the use of above the line voting or associated group voting tickets. Candidates would be grouped in party columns and the candidates would be rotated within each group to ensure that each candidate had an equal chance of having the top position on the ballot paper. Fully optional preferential voting would apply and the vote would be counted using the Meek method of counting.

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There’s no interest like self interest.

It is very disappointing that Senator Nick Xenophon has regressed in his recommendations for Senate electoral reform. His latest suggestion – that the NSW Legislative Council model be adopted but that it also be compulsory for voters mark a minimum of three preferences – is ridiculous.

This proposal will increase the informal vote to levels unseen in Senate elections for over thirty years.

The Senate ballot paper will look identical to those of recent years but any voter who votes with a single [1] above the line, for the party of their choice, will vote informally. There are voters in their fifties who have only ever voted with a single [1] above the line and no amount of voter education will convince them that they will need to change how they vote.

Is this proposal just a device to force Green and other minor party voters to give second preferences to Senator Xenophon’s party? How many voters forced to give second and subsequent preferences will just randomly allocate these votes?

Not that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) recommendation that the NSW Legislative Council model be introduced is much better.

Certainly the informal vote will remain low but the level of exhausted votes will be very high. It would be naive to think that voters will take the opportunity to express further preferences by continuing to number groups above the line. The NSW Legislative Council experience is that a majority of preferences from every group will exhaust when the last candidate from the group is either elected or excluded.

Simplicity is still the best solution for Senate electoral reform.

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Legislative Assembly model should be adopted. One set of party groups, one set of instructions, no big distracting black line and, consequently, a much smaller and less intimidating ballot paper. Parties will run different numbers of candidates and this will break up the ballot paper and allow voters to more easily find the candidates that they wish to vote for.

The ballot paper should advise the voters how many candidates are to be elected, that they should vote using numbers starting from [1], and that they should vote for as many candidates as they wish in the order of their preference.

The more intelligent parties will not run a full slate of candidates but will trust that their supporters will, when they reach the end of the party list, realise that they can continue onto another party with similar policies. An examination of the votes in ACT Legislative Assembly elections will show that this is exactly what a majority of voters who support unsuccessful groups actually do.

This is instinctive voting behaviour. There is no separate party voting square implying that all that needs to be done is ‘put a [1] here’ and that the rest of the vote will be sorted.

Fully optional preferential voting must be permitted. When the ballot paper is presented in this format, it is very hard for voters to resist voting for all the candidates in the party group. In the 2012 ACT Legislative Assembly election, Katy Gallagher received 23,996 votes and only 124 of these were single [1] votes. These single [1] votes did not exhaust: they remained with the candidate and the surplus was carried by the votes that gave further preferences.

The vote will be easy to count. The vast majority of votes will still be for the lead candidate in every group and because the ballot paper will be smaller and less cluttered, the counter will find the vote more quickly.

Currently, because votes below the line take precedence over votes above the line, every ballot paper has to be checked for votes below the line. Assuming it took just one second to make this determination, then it would take 150 days for one electoral official working eight hours a day just to sort the NSW Senate vote.

The ballot paper in this format will give ownership back to the voter. Whose vote is it anyway?