Occam’s Razor: some reactions to the submissions to the JSCEM interim report 2014 and why we need an independent White Paper

By Stephen Lesslie (President, Electoral Reform Australia)

Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora [It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer] – William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347)

There is no perfect electoral system, but in reforming the Senate voting system we should keep Occam’s Razor in mind.

For those who think fourteenth century philosophy is a bit dated, the twentieth century KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle works just as well.

Background

In 1948, Doc Evatt – with disastrous consequences – refused to listen to a sensible suggestion from Dame Edith Lyons and other Tasmanians in the House of Representatives that it was unnecessary for voters to number every square on a Senate ballot paper. Had Evatt simply asked his Labor caucus colleagues to fill in a mock Senate ballot paper, he would have realised the dire implications of his requirement for voters to number every square.

The only other time Australians have had an opportunity to comment on Senate voting reform was in 1983 when Parliament again ignored sensible advice that their reforms would not work.

Although this lack of foresight became blindingly obvious in 1995 with the election of the A Better Future For Our Children candidate to the NSW Legislative Council, it has still taken nearly twenty years for the Parliament to realise that they got it wrong.

The 2014 interim report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) on the conduct of the 2013 election seems to indicate that the Parliament will get it wrong again. This time it will not be the fault – well, not fully – of the politicians because, judging by the submissions received by the JSCEM, most of the advice given by psephologists and lawyers is just plain wrong.

A copy of the interim report can be found at: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Electoral_Matters/2013_General_Election/Interim_Report

Apart from a general agreement that group voting tickets must go, there is almost no consensus as to how the problem can be solved. Many commentators cannot even give a single suggestion but come up with alternative suggestions within the same submission. Hardly helpful to a Parliamentary Committee looking for answers.

Even worse, none of the submissions cite any mathematical or academic study to support their recommendations which, much like Doc Evatt’s conclusions in 1948, appear to be based solely on folklore and guesswork.

To separate proportional representation facts from myths, the Government needs to commission a White Paper on the issue of Senate Reform. This committee should be chaired by a mathematician and not another lawyer. It would need to examine the necessity or otherwise of any form of forced preferencing, transfer values, and the method of counting a proportional representation ballot (Gregory, Meek, Wright, etc.).

To demonstrate why such an independent White Paper is needed, Electoral Reform Australia offers some comments on a number of the submissions to the JSCEM.

  • Malcolm Mackerras, psephologist (JSCEM submission No. 7)

Mackerras recommends a round number like 10, 15 [sic] or 20 preferences for a formal vote. He also wants to keep above-the-line voting. It is unclear whether or not he wants to keep group voting tickets.

No academic or mathematical study is cited to explain why 10, 15 or 20 preferences are needed.

  • Professor George Williams, Anthony Mason Professor of Law at the Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales (JSCEM submission No. 23)

Williams recommends:

Preferential voting above and below the line

Just as voters can express their preferences below the line, so too should they be able to do this above the line. Voter [sic] should be able to indicate a preference between the listed parties and any independent candidates.

I would prefer that voters be required to indicate the full extent of their preferences, just as they do in the House of Representatives, but would be open to considering an optional preferential voting model, like that used for the New South Wales upper house.

If optional preferential voting is allowed above the line, I imagine it should also be permitted below the line.

It is unclear whether Williams is advocating a single [1] below-the-line to be formal or the NSW Legislative Council requirement for a minimum of fifteen preferences.

If fully optional preferential voting is permitted below-the-line there is no need to include an above-the-line option. The black line across the ballot paper and the necessity for two sets of instructions is an unnecessary complication on the ballot paper. If Williams is advocating for a minimum of fifteen preferences, again no academic or mathematical study is cited to show how forcing voters to vote for multiple candidates will increase voter participation.

Williams also wants to impose a 4% threshold on parties before they can be elected. He fails to understand that the objection to the election of micro party candidates is not simply their small vote percentages but the manner in which their election win is achieved – i.e. through the manipulation of the system.

There is no deception involved if the Judean People’s Front openly swaps preferences with the People’s Front of Judea [apologies to Monty Python]. It is only if they also gain the support, through secret (and basically dishonest) preference swaps, from the Roman Alliance and the No Self Government for Judea that the election becomes corrupted.

Reform that gives voters back control of their preferences will ensure that only parties and candidates with genuine community support are elected

  • Dr Kevin Bonham, Tasmanian psephologist (JSCEM submission 140)

Bonham recommends:

optional preferential above the line with semi-optional preferential below. I  would consider four for a half-Senate election and, say, eight for a double dissolution to be the ideal number of compulsory squares for a valid below the line vote.

As to why I don’t support fully optional preferential voting below the line, I believe that where major parties run especially strong candidates who have a cult-like popular appeal, they would be more likely to attract voters who just voted 1 for them and then stopped. This would disadvantage the party since those votes would not flow to other candidates in the party, and this would create a perverse disincentive to the party fielding such candidates. The situation in the Tasmanian House of Assembly with a required vote of 1-5 avoids this problem.

Surely it is the choice of the party whether or not to run ‘strong candidates who have a cult-like popular appeal’ – though it is hard to think of such a Senate candidate offhand.

The perceived problem of voters who vote one and then stop is very simply solved. Both the NSW Legislative Council and the ACT Legislative Assembly electoral systems have done so, simply by allowing the surplus to be carried by those votes that do have preferences – fewer votes transferring but each with a slightly higher transfer value.

The net result is a gain for the party, not a disincentive. Votes from party members breaking the ticket remain at full value, whether distributed or not, and votes stolen from other parties are either kept at full value or returned at the lesser transfer value if distributed. [A more complete explanation, with figures, can found in Electoral Reform Australia, Largest Remainder (Issue 20, September 2013).]

Because these votes become informal the Tasmanian House of Assembly requirement to vote 1-5 does not solve the problem but hides it.

Again, no academic or mathematical study is cited to show how forcing electors to vote for multiple candidates will increase voter participation.

  • Antony Green, ABC election analyst (JSCEM submission No. 180)

Green recommends:

  1. Retain the current ballot paper structure involving above and below the line voting.
  2. Abolish group ticket votes … .
  3. As in the current system a voter can vote with a single ’1′, but that vote would only apply to the candidates in the selected group.
  4. A voter can then vote ’2′, ’3′ etc for groups above the line indicating their preferences… .
  5. The minimum two candidates for a group can be retained, avoiding the complex ballot paper used in New South Wales.
  6. Ballot paper instructions should indicate a minimum number of preferences below the line. My suggestion is half the number of vacancies plus one.
  7. However, I would permit fully optional preferential voting below the line. Even a single ’1′ would be formal.
  8. Change the formulas to weight out exhausted preferences when distributing the preferences of candidates elected with more than a quota of votes.

The above package puts control of preferences back into the hands of voters…

While these are sensible suggestions, if fully optional preferential voting is permitted below-the-line then there is no point in having an above-the-line option.

Green clearly demonstrates in an appendix to his submission that voters will not utilise the above-the-line preferential voting option and that consequently many votes will exhaust.

Electoral Reform Australia fully supports this assertion. It is worth noting that the majority of voters in the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly elections, who do not have the above-the-line option, do continue preferencing beyond their initial party group.

There are some inconsistencies between Green’s submission and a recent entry on his blog, in which he states:

In my view, the minimum number of preferences at a half Senate election should be 4 not 6, at a double dissolution it should be 7 or 8 not 12. In the NSW LC you only need 15 preferences not 21. Half the number of vacancies plus one is a good minimum. [Antony Green, ‘How the Senate's new Electoral System Might Work - Lessons from NSW’ on Antony Green’s Election Blog (27 June 2014) <http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/2014/06/how-the-senates-new-electoral-system-might-work-lessons-from-nsw.html>.]

As with the other submissions, Green cites no academic or mathematical study to show how forcing electors to vote for multiple candidates will increase voter participation.

  • Electoral Reform Australia (JSCEM submission No.87)

Our submission recommended:

  • No group voting tickets
  • No above-the-line voting
  • As few candidates as practicable
  • Fully optional preferential voting (a single 1 to be formal)

Electoral Reform Australia has produced a number of articles in support of the proposition that fully optional preferential voting increases voter participation by reducing both the informal vote and the exhausted vote. [See Largest Remainder (Issue 17, February 2013), Largest Remainder (Issue 20, September 2013), Largest Remainder (Issue 21, February 2014).]

Conclusion

Electoral Reform Australia is tired of constantly hearing the mantras that voters must vote for ‘as many as there are to be elected’ or ‘half the vacancies plus one’ or ‘a round number like fifteen’ or ‘say, 4 or 6 or 8 or …’.

These are random selections. On what are they based? Where is the mathematics behind these choices?

Electoral Reform Australia does not believe that such requirements increase voter participation.

We also acknowledge that our message is not getting through because these mantras have become universal ‘truths’ – the sorts of truths that can’t be challenged because they are ‘obvious’. Well, they are not obvious and they are not helpful to Australia’s democracy.

We call on the Government to bring down a White Paper on electoral reform chaired by a suitably qualified mathematician, to hold public hearings and to examine the mathematics behind the various claims of what voters MUST do.

Few intellectual tyrannies can be more recalcitrant than the truths that everybody knows and nearly no one can defend with any decent data (for who needs proof of anything so obvious). – Stephen J. Gould

JSCEM interim report on Inquiry into 2013 election – response from Electoral Reform Australia

Stephen Lesslie (President, Electoral Reform Australia) and Susan Gregory (Vice President, Electoral Reform Australia)

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (‘JSCEM’) brought down its interim report on the conduct of the 2013 federal election, with a focus on Senate elections, on 9 May 2014.1

What a disappointment it was!

Of the six recommendations, only one could be said to have any merit in addressing the issue of micro party candidates being elected with a very small percentage of the vote.

That was Recommendation 2, which stated:

The Committee recommends that sections 211, 211A and 216 and any other relevant sections of Parts XVI and XVIII of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 be repealed in order to effect the abolition of group and individual voting tickets.

The abolition of group voting tickets is a no-brainer. Group voting tickets are the root cause of micro parties being elected to the Senate and other legislative bodies. This has been obvious since 1995 when ‘A Better Future For Our Children’ won a seat in the New South Wales Legislative Council with only 1.24% of the primary vote.

All of the other recommendations are attempts to ensure that the stasiocratic nature of the electoral system is maintained. The major parties are more interested in making sure their favourite candidates are elected than in the prospect of electing the numbers they are entitled to under a genuine proportional representation system.

Paradoxically, because the proposed ‘reforms’ continue to distort the proportional nature of a genuine single transferable vote (STV) ballot, the major parties (i.e. the most popular parties) are also the main losers.

Recommendation 1

Recommendation 1 reads:

The Committee recommends that…sections relevant to Senate voting of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 be amended to allow for:

  • optional preferential above the line voting; and
  • partial’ optional preferential voting below the line with a minimum sequential number of preferences to be completed equal to the number of vacancies:
    • six for a half-Senate election;
    • twelve for a double dissolution; or
    • two for any territory Senate election.

This recommendation raises many questions, none of which can be answered satisfactorily.

Will two candidates constitute a group?

If just two candidates constitute a group then voters may need to vote for three groups below-the-line (six in a double dissolution) to ensure a formal vote. This creates a major inconsistency: you can vote for one group above-the-line and register a formal vote, but you may need to vote for up to three groups below-the-line.

If only two candidates constitute a group, most micro parties will continue to run their two candidates.

However, some groups, especially those who expect to reach the 4% threshold – or those with billionaire backers – may decide to run six candidates anyway. Having six candidates would make the party stand out on the ballot paper and make it easier for any potential below-the-line voter, as they would only need to number the six candidates in the one group to vote formally.

Therefore, the number of candidates on the ballot paper would in fact increase, and these votes are also the ones most likely to exhaust.

Will six candidates constitute a group?

If so, any group that wishes to stand for election will be forced to stand six candidates. Those groups that reach 4% will have their electoral deposits returned; those that don’t will lose $12,000.

While Electoral Reform Australia supports substantially increased electoral deposits, such deposits should be paid per candidate and legislated for openly, not by subterfuge.

With six candidates constituting a group, the number of groups nominating may reduce but the number of candidates will not. Worse, the ballot paper is now being filled with candidates who cannot (and may even not want to) be elected.

In a half Senate election to elect six candidates a party would need at least 80% of first preferences. No party has ever elected even four out of six Senators. To run vastly more than they would rationally expect to have elected is pure hubris.

It is insulting to the Australian electorate for voters to have to consider the merits of makeweight candidates. No one should stand for election unless they actually want to be elected and the electoral legislation should not force or encourage parties to run makeweight candidates.

Will twelve candidates constitute a group in a double dissolution?

Requiring twelve candidates to constitute a group in a double dissolution election would be approaching the farcical situation of NSW Legislative Council elections in which fifteen candidates are required to constitute a group. At the 2011 New South Wales election, 311 candidates stood for the 21 positions. Ninety percent of candidates were makeweights. Even Fred Nile would not honestly believe that the Christian Democratic Party could win fifteen seats, yet they ran twenty candidates.

Logically, since there are twice the number to be elected in a double dissolution, a voter should only need to vote for half as many candidates to have the same likelihood of finding a successful candidate and therefore prevent their vote from exhausting.

(It is noted that a party would need at least 85% of the first preferences to elect twelve candidates.)

What are the disadvantages of forcing voters to number six candidates (twelve in a double dissolution)?

Firstly, if a voter wishes to vote below-the-line, their votes will be informal if they fail to number all six (or twelve) boxes required.

Secondly, a voter may vote for one group of six candidates and not number any further, thinking that their job is done. Such a vote would have exactly the same effect as if they had only voted [1] above-the-line. This applies whether the group has multiple quotas or no quotas. The vote would exhaust when all the candidates in the group were either elected or excluded, or a mixture of both.

Under fully optional preferential voting, what would happen if a voter voted below-the-line for only the lead candidate in a group?

The vote would have the same influence on the outcome of the ballot as if the voter had only put a [1] in the box above-the-line.

The vote would exhaust if all the candidates in the group were excluded and would help to elect the lead candidate if that candidate had over a quota or was subsequently elected on transfers from other candidates. Should the lead candidate be elected with over a quota, then subsequent candidates in the group would still benefit, because the surplus is larger and every vote that proceeded (as the great majority would) would have a slightly higher transfer value.

However, under the JSCEM’s recommendation, this vote would be informal and have no influence on the ballot.

Scrutineers regularly see votes that miss the above-the-line box and give a single [1] for the lead candidate in the group. These votes, currently considered to be informal, would count at full value under fully optional preferential voting.

Take the 2011 NSW Legislative Council election as an example. By count 18, seventeen candidates had been elected on the surpluses of their leaders’ quotas. Some votes did fail to be transferred because the sequential numbering was broken.2 For example, Mike Gallacher, the lead Liberal candidate, received 30 votes that did not have a valid second preference. However, not a single vote exhausted. This number of zero exhausted votes would not have risen even if 180,000 voters (nearly a quota) had given a single [1] to Mr. Gallacher.

There is no potential for these single [1] votes to be so high as to cause a problem. The ACT Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher, received 23,996 votes at the last ACT Legislative Assembly election. Only 124 of these were single [1] votes, despite the ACT allowing fully optional preferential voting.

In the NSW Legislative Council example, if 30 votes were allowed despite not having a valid [2], how many votes with a single [1] for Mike Gallacher were declared informal? And why?

Will voters actually use the optional preferential above-the-line voting option?

The NSW Legislative Council uses preferential voting above-the-line. At the 2011 election, a large majority of voters (82.2%) voted a single [1] above-the-line. A majority of voters for every group only gave a single [1] above-the-line.

As a result, 7.66% of all votes exhausted and the last four Legislative Councillors were elected without a quota. While this is not ideal, the low 4.55% quota in NSW mitigated against a complete unravelling of the proportional representation principle. A similar number of exhausted votes, coupled with the higher Senate quota of 14.3%, would see the sixth and final Senate seat as a lottery in every State.

Further, optional preferential voting above-the-line retains the current dual voting options on the Senate ballot paper with two sets of voter instructions, a row of party boxes above a large distracting black line and a further set of boxes below-the-line.

Optional preferential voting above-the-line will dramatically increase the number of exhausted votes.

At the 2012 ACT Legislative Assembly election with fully optional preferential voting and no above-the-line voting, when the last candidate in every group was excluded, a majority of votes continued preferencing and were able to be transferred.

Why did a majority of ACT voters continue giving preferences beyond their preferred group?

Apart from the Labor and Liberal parties, most groups did not run as many candidates as there were places to be filled. Voters, when they reached the end of their favoured group at [2] or [3], felt that they had not completed their voting task and found another group. It is worth noting that the group with the least number of votes transferring was the group that ran a full complement of candidates.

Of course, there weren’t two sets of instructions and a distracting big black line across the middle of the ballot paper.

Recommendation 3

The Committee recommends that the Government adequately resource the Australian Electoral Commission to undertake a comprehensive voter education campaign should the above recommendations be agreed.

The Australian Electoral Commission should certainly undertake a comprehensive voter education campaign but it should do this even if more sensible reforms are enacted.

If the ballot paper looks exactly like it has for the last thirty years, a voter education campaign will achieve very little.

Recommendations 4 and 5

Recommendation 4 reads:

The Committee recommends that…the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 be amended to provide for stronger requirements for party registration, including:

  • an increase in party membership requirements to a minimum 1500 unique members who are not relied upon for any other party in order for a federally registered party to field candidates nationally;
  • the provision to register a federal party, that can only run in a nominated state or territory, with a suitable lower membership number residing in that state or territory, as provided on a proportionate population or electorate number basis;
  • the provision of a compliant party constitution that sets out the party rules and membership process;
  • a membership verification process;
  • the conduct of compliance and membership audits each electoral cycle; and
  • restriction to unique registered officers for a federally registered party.

The Committee further recommends that the Government adequately resource the Australian Electoral Commission to undertake the above activities.

Recommendation 5 reads:

The Committee recommends that:

  • all new parties be required to meet the new party registration criteria; and
  • all currently registered parties be required to satisfy the new party registration criteria within twelve months of the legislation being enacted or the party shall be deregistered.

Recommendations 4 and 5 are just petty. While they will help to reduce the number of parties running in a Senate election, this could be achieved by sensible electoral reform and without the need to resort to draconian administrative procedures.

With genuine reform no party will last if it does not have community support and is unable to direct preferences.

If the voters are given the right to control their own preferences and electoral deposits are payable per candidate, not per party, then bogus parties will wither on the vine.

Recommendation 6

The Committee recommends that the Government determine the best mechanism to seek to require candidates to be resident in the state or territory in which they are seeking election.

We believe that since Australia is one country any citizen should be capable of standing for a federal election if nominated in any Australian jurisdiction. Let the voters determine if the candidate is suitable.

This recommendation, rather ludicrously, would stop a resident of Tweed Heads (NSW) from running in the neighbouring electorate of McPherson (QLD) but would allow a resident of Cooktown (sure, Queensland, but 2,000 kilometres away) to stand. Would a resident of Jervis Bay, an ACT enclave within NSW, only be allowed to stand for a seat in Canberra?

Will this recommendation prevent elected Members and Senators from moving to and living in Canberra?

What this recommendation aims to do could be achieved more easily and sensibly by requiring all House of Representatives candidates to be nominated by ten individual electors from the electorate in which they intend to run and by not allowing parties to mass nominate candidates for these seats.

Exhausted Votes

Exhausted votes are an inevitable part of any electoral system3 and are equivalent to the votes given to a losing candidate in a single member electorate.

Unlike informal votes, they are not to be feared: they are merely votes that failed to find a winning candidate. Had the electorate as a whole voted differently, they may have counted; informal votes never count. Should the JSCEM recommendations be implemented there will be substantial numbers of these exhausted votes – Electoral Reform Australia’s recommendations would see fewer of them.

Electoral Reform Australia recommends that the method of counting an STV ballot be changed to the Meek Method. The Meek Method allows the ballot to be recounted as though each exhausted vote had not participated in the ballot, meaning that at the conclusion of the count every candidate is elected with a quota.

Conclusion

If the JSCEM recommendations are designed to ensure that the candidates elected to the Senate are elected democratically and in accordance with proportional representation principles, then they have failed.

To achieve a genuine democratic and proportional electoral system, Parliament has to trust the voters. Voters should be allowed to choose freely their own candidates without any artificial devices such as above-the-line voting and group voting tickets.

Fully optional preferential voting is essential and paradoxically will reduce both the number of exhausted votes and the number of informal votes. Electoral Reform Australia challenges anyone who disputes this to produce the research paper or mathematical study that demonstrates otherwise.

The JSCEM has done the least that it could do. What a shame.

2 NSW allows a vote to be formal if there is a unique [1] and at least fifteen numbers, even if they are not sequential.

3 See Largest Remainder (No. 22) May 2014

Annual General Meeting

Our Annual General Meeting was held at 74 Thompson Street, Drummoyne on Wednesday 28 May 2014.

Click here to read the President’s Report.

Thanks to the outgoing committee, and welcome to the new committee:

President: Stephen Lesslie
Vice President: Susan Gregory
Vice President: Mark Rodowicz
Secretary/Treasurer: Patrick Lesslie
Committee member: John Baglin
Committee member: John Alexander
Committee member: Peter Palethorpe
Committee member: Alan Kennedy
Returning Officer: Marian Lesslie

Anyone is welcome to attend our meetings. For details, email info@electoralreformaustralia.org.