Above-the-Line Voting – A Worked Example

You are a voter.

You decide to vote for the Australian Labor Party in the House of Representatives.

For your Senate vote, you decide to vote for the World Peace Party. You don’t know who they are and you don’t think they will be elected but you believe that by voting this way you may be able to send a message that world peace is important.

You have checked the Australia Electoral Commission (AEC) website on how to vote for the Senate. The website gives an example ballot paper with five groups A-E and two ungrouped candidates – a total of seventeen candidates. It also gives an explanation of the difference between voting above the line and voting below the line.

“No problem,” you think, “I can make a reasoned choice and I can vote for the required 90% of candidates below the line.”

You get your Senate ballot paper, but unlike the AEC example, there are 50 groups, not five, and 120 candidates, not seventeen.

“Hmm, this is more complicated: will I vote for at least 108 candidates, ensuring that I don’t make more than three mistakes, or will I vote above the line?”

Time is short and you have to take the kids to soccer, so you decide to vote above the line but wisely decide to check the registered group voting ticket (GVT) with the returning officer. It is only 12:30pm, so naturally you are the first person to check this information, and the returning officer has to dig around to find the booklet with the required information.

(The kids are starting to get bored.)

You look up the GVT of the World Peace Party. It is so confusing! There are two tickets and numbers go everywhere. There are no sequential series within party groups. You decide that you will support this group with an above-the-line vote provided they preference Labor ahead of the Liberal National coalition.

The tickets are:

Group A (Liberal National)
Ticket 1 Ticket 2
Candidate A 56 56
Candidate B 75 75
Candidate C 20 19

Group W (Labor)
Ticket 1 Ticket 2
Candidate A 27 27
Candidate B 18 18
Candidate C 74 74

What does it all mean?

You look at the tickets and see that Labor candidate A has a higher preference on both tickets than the Coalition candidates A and B. Labor candidate B beats all the coalition candidates. Labor candidate C has number 74, not good, but then you see that the coalition candidate B has number 75 so obviously the vote will stop at 74 before proceeding to 75.

“How long can I spend studying this? If I don’t go now, we will miss the start of the game.”

You vote 1 in the party box above the line for the World Peace Party, confident that if World Peace is excluded (and this seems likely as there were no World Peace Party supporters handing out how-to-vote cards outside), your preferences will go to Labor.
And you were wrong!

The World Peace Party was excluded and your vote went to the coalition’s candidate C on both tickets.

How did that happen?

It’s simple. The first two candidates (A and B) on both the Labor and Liberal National tickets were elected with quotas. When World Peace was excluded, the preferences flowed past Labor candidate B and stopped at the Liberal candidate C. The real subtlety was the meaningless 75 given to the second Liberal National candidate.

Is this example too subtle, too deceitful, to be real?

Check it out for yourself on the AEC website. These figures were taken from the Carers Alliance group voting ticket Senate election (NSW) 2007.

How can we deal with this deception? How can you vote for the group that you choose first and still be confident that your preferences will go where you want them too?

It is not good enough to make the patronising comment that some commentators make: “Vote below the line. I do!” How many of the 495,160 informal votes at the 2010 election were the result of voters trying to achieve a “protest” vote and sending their preferences to their favoured major party by voting below the line?

The voting system needs to trust the voters. The following changes need to be made:

  1. Abolish above-the-line voting and associated group voting tickets.
    Voters will find the party of their choice and vote for it. Those that choose to make a protest vote will be able to choose their own second and subsequent preferences. Micro parties cannot direct their preferences, cannot participate in the preference harvesting game, and will lose their electoral deposits. They may actually decide not to run in the first place, thus reducing the size and complexity of the ballot paper.
  2. Allow fully Optional Preferential Voting.
    Informal voting will be greatly reduced and include mostly those who choose not to participate in the election by either deliberately spoiling their ballot paper or merely leaving it blank. Any increase in exhausted votes is compensated for by the reduction in informal voting. ACT Legislative Assembly elections amply demonstrate that, even with fully optional preferential voting, the great majority of voters will vote for all the candidates in a group.
  3. Introduce the Robson Rotation.
    With the Robson rotation the order of candidates in a group is randomised. Every candidate will share equally the top and bottom positions. This spreads the votes of the more popular parties, helping to ensure that micro party candidates are not elected at the expense of more popular candidates or parties.

Consider the following worked example.

Sequential ballot order

Three (3) to be elected
Party A Quota Party B Quota Party C Quota
Allen 1.66 Brown 1.64 Clark 0.7
Davis 0 Edgar 0 Flynn 0
Total 1.66 1.64 0.7

Result: Elected are Allen, Brown and Clark. Clark was elected even though more than twice as many voters preferred either Party A or Party B. Clark needs less than half of Brown’s surplus to be elected.

Robson rotation ballot order

Three (3) to be elected
Party A Quota Party B Quota Party C Quota
Allen 0.85 Brown 0.81 Clark 0.1
Davis 0.81 Edgar 0.83 Flynn 0.6
Total 1.66 1.64 0.7

Result: Elected are Allen, Brown, and either Davis or Edgar. This occurs even if everyone of Flynn’s supporters then voted for Clark.

The Robson rotation will also reduce the size of the ballot paper because parties, not wanting to spread their vote too much, will voluntarily reduce the number of candidates they run to only one or two more than they can realistically expect to be elected.

Note that the power brokers of Party A and Party B still control who gets elected from their parties because of their control of advertising and publicity. However, with the Robson rotation, they could get both candidates elected. For example, an effective campaign of “Elect Dr Allen and her team” will vary the ratio of Party A’s supporters sufficiently to get the desired result. However, those parties that push for a complete dud run the risk of only getting one candidate elected.


Election to the Senate is not a game or a lottery to be won by the party with the clever name. A hundred joke candidates are not an indication of a thriving and healthy democracy.
We need to start trusting the Australian people and give them back their Senate vote.