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.


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).]


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

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

  1. Stephen Lesslie

    Response by Electoral Reform Australia.

    Bonham writes:
    The reason for selecting such numbers [4 for a half senate and 8 for a double dissolution] is to strike a balance between (i) attempting to keep both the number of endorsed candidates and the informality rate down and (ii) maintaining a very high chance that a voter for a party below-the-line will preference all a party’s electable candidates rather than, in ignorance, stopping too early and costing their party’s last competitive candidate a vote.

    ERA Response:

    Fully optional preferential voting would allow parties to run groups of two. Requiring voters to vote for a minimum of four will require that parties run at least four candidates. Therefore fully optional voting must help reduce keeps the number of candidates.
    With the fixed order grouping currently in place, and highly likely to remain in place, for Senate elections a single No1 for the lead candidate will have the same value for the party as if the voter had voted 1-4 down the ticket. In Australian Capital Territory elections 99% of Labor and Liberal voters actually do vote for more than one candidate demonstrating that the fear that voters will stop at 1 is misplaced. Allowing this single No.1 must reduce the informal vote.
    Tasmanian House of Assembly elections with no above-the-line voting but a compulsory minimum of five preferences has an appallingly high informal vote (Braddon 5.39% and Lyons 5.76%)
    Despite Bonham’s claim, a single No.1 will not cost the party’s last competitive candidate a vote.

    Now for the special pleading:

    Bonham is worried about the problems posed to parties should they run strong candidates “who have a cult-like popular appeal” and elsewhere “say, a hugely popular candidate for a major party in a double dissolution…” He appears to be worried that a surplus might increase the continuing value of each of those votes to above one vote each.

    1. There have never been such candidates. Can anybody name one?
    2. Should there be such a candidate the party would place this candidate in a winning or winnable position.
    3. A full quota of votes must be just a single No. 1s before a “problem” begins to manifest itself. A party with two quotas will have to have half (50%) of their votes cast as a single No.1. Many factors mean that this just does not happen.
    4. Since this candidate is “a hugely popular candidate” they will, by definition, take more votes from opposition parties and this reduces any “problem”.
    5. The voting instructions on the ballot paper and the major parties’ and the AEC’s advertising campaigns will all encourage voters to express their preferences to the maximum.
    6. In ACT Legislative Assembly elections only about 1% of voters actually vote this way
    7. The last double dissolution was almost thirty years ago and there is unlikely to be another until Australia returns to some form of two party system.

    We move to the problem of exhausted votes:

    Bonham writes:

    Under the current Senate system, the issue of exhaust from minor party candidates who are excluded would not be a serious one, because above-the-line voting with a single party order means that the minor candidates for a party poll hardly any votes.

    ERA Response:

    We disagree.

    All candidates from minor parties are minor candidates.
    Antony Green has shown, in a very detailed appendix to his own submission, that voters will not use the option of optional preferential voting above-the-line (the NSW Legislative Council system) This means that regardless of the order of minor party candidates, cult-like or not, when they are excluded the majority of that party’s votes will exhaust, regardless of whether they are required to vote for 2, 4, 6 or 12. Naturally the more onerous the voting requirements the higher the informal vote.
    These votes exhaust because voters trained for thirty years to just vote 1 in the box above-the-line will do just that. Abolish the boxes above-the-line, the distracting big black line and the double set of instructions and voters will see that they are no longer voting for parties but for candidates and they will, as a great majority of ACT voters do, continue preferencing beyond their favoured group or party. The lower number of candidates in a group will also encourage this.
    We believe that the Robson rotation would be a great benefit for democratic expression, as it is in both Tasmania and the ACT, but acknowledge that such a reform is unlikely to take place and we are prepared to shelve such a recommendation until another day.


    As an encore Bonham has also made comments on an article on countback published in the December 2011 issue of the Largest Remainder.
    We recommended that instead of counting just the deceased or retiring members quota that the whole ballot be recounted as though the former member had never contested the ballot.

    Bonham writes:

    That is that in some circumstances, this solution can result in one of the other candidates who was elected at the original election losing their seat mid-term because someone else has died or retired.

    ERA Response:

    We would be surprised if an existing Member of Parliament could lose their seat in this manner but a simple amendment “that no member elected at the original count or at any subsequent recount can lose their seat by the application of this provision” would solve this hypothetical scenario.
    We dismiss the criticism of “being a cumbersome nuisance in manual counting” because as the votes are already pre-sorted from the original count the extra time taken is insignificant.

    Bonham also writes:

    There is also the possibility of this proposal electing a candidate from a different party to the one actually elected.

    ERA Response:

    This can happen anyway and did when Bob Brown replaced Norm Sanders.
    We believe that the current countback system is flawed because it does not take into account the personal vote of the other candidates and that the result can be manipulated by the decision of whether or not candidates choose to stand for the recount.


    We maintain that Occam’s razor applies. Any form of above-the-line voting is unnecessary and counterproductive. Forcing voters to vote for multiple candidates is undemocratic as well as being a solution in search of a problem.

    Stephen Lesslie
    Electoral Reform Australia


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