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.
A fuller explanation of the model can be found at www.electoralreformaustralia.org under the heading ‘Who we are’.
Simplicio: Why is the current single member electoral system for the Australian Parliament so bad?
ERA: Put simply, the results of elections do not represent the considered views of the Australian electorate. Most voters are not represented in Parliament by the candidate, or even the party, to whom they gave their first preference. Many voters are represented by a party that they would never vote for, and minority views are often not represented at all.
An STV method of election, with electorates returning a minimum of nine candidates each, would ensure that every voter had the likelihood of being represented by the candidate of their choice, or at least by the party of their choice, and that the proportionality of the voters’ choice is respected in the composition of the Parliament. With electorates of at least nine members, any candidate that gains 10% or more of the vote is guaranteed election.
Simplicio: Members of Parliament representing single member electorates often say in their victory speech on election night that they will represent all their constituents not just the ones who voted for them.
ERA: Yes they do, and it is a generous response. It is also an attempt to make an inferior electoral system seem more palatable. It is also unrealistic. Let’s ignore obvious political issues such as a conservative member of Parliament who wants to ban trade unions, or the support for or against issues such as gay marriage, and consider an issue with no party political implications.
Consider two constituents: one wants to import queen bees to help develop immunity against the bee diseases ravaging the rest of the world. The other is totally opposed to the importation of bees because of the fear of introducing these very diseases. A single member of parliament cannot represent both these constituents and may well end up helping neither.
With STV, different members of parliament from the same electorate, and maybe even both from the same party, can each make separate representations to the Minister for Agriculture who can make the decision. Both constituents, even the loser, will know that their views were treated with respect.
Simplicio: With STV isn’t it most likely that the outcome of the election will be a hung parliament?
ERA: Hung – or perhaps a better expression is ‘balanced’ – parliaments do occur but if a party has strong support it can win an absolute majority. In recent years, both the Liberal Party and the Labor Party have won absolute majorities in the STV elected Tasmanian House of Assembly.
Hung parliaments are not limited to parliaments elected by proportional representation. The House of Representatives and every State and Territory parliament has had, in recent years, a government in which no party has had an absolute majority.
However, not all governments formed where no one party has an absolute majority are the same. Those elected by proportional representation are more likely to consist of a coalition of parties and, once the initial coalition arrangements are established, can be quite stable.
Those elected from single member seats are more likely to be minority governments constantly requiring the support, in matters of supply and no-confidence votes, of one or more independents. These Independents often represent seats traditionally held by the opposition party and unsavoury pork-barrelling deals may eventuate.
Simplicio: Most STV electoral systems have electorates returning three and five members. Why do you advocate for electorates of nine or more members?
ERA: With electorates only returning three, five and even seven members, minority views are unlikely to be represented in the result. A quota with a three member electorate is 25% and with a five member electorate the quota is 16.67%. Many three and five member electorates will also be in electoral stasis in which an electorate cannot realistically change its political composition, regardless of the swing occurring in a general election. Electoral stasis is the equivalent of a safe seat in a single member electoral system, a seat which can and will be ignored by political party strategists who will allocate resources to other more marginal electorates.
Simplicio: Why not just use a PR list system?
ERA: There are many reasons that list systems are inferior but generally they are inflexible with regards to individual choice for the voters. Anyway, list systems most likely fail the requirement under sections 7 and 24 of the Australian Constitution that members of the House of Representatives and the Senate be ‘directly chosen’ by Australian voters.
Simplicio: Isn’t STV with its quotas and transfer values too complicated for the average voter to understand?
ERA: The mechanics of modern motor vehicles and aeroplanes are complicated but, despite not having mechanical or aeronautical qualifications, people still drive cars and catch aeroplanes.
In fact, the mathematics involved in STV is quite simple and anyone with basic high school mathematics can follow the logic. But it is not necessary to even go to this length; voters have an instinctive understanding that all they need to do is vote  for the candidate they most want and  for their next preferred candidate and so on until they run out of candidates that they wish to support. When they do this they will get it right. What is complicated is the study required in single member electorates before the election to determine how to vote tactically to ensure that your vote has the most influence on the result.
Simplicio: What is tactical voting?
ERA: Tactical voting is when voters do not vote for their preferred candidate but choose another candidate in the hope that this may help their preferred candidate or hurt their least preferred candidate. It is not always successful and can in certain instances backfire.
With three candidates, (one good, one bad and one indifferent) all apparently polling equally it may be best, tactically, to actually vote for the bad candidate with the aim of forcing the indifferent candidate into third position. Preferences from this candidate may then help elect the preferred candidate. Now that’s complicated!
Simplicio: Some election commentators argue that we must vote for as many candidates as there are positions to be elected to ensure that votes do not exhaust. Is this true?
ERA: It is misleading. Votes only exhaust when the voter fails to find, either with their first preference or subsequent preferences, a winning candidate or the first runner-up.
In ACT and Tasmanian House of Assembly elections, both elections using STV, over 50% of voters find such a candidate with their first preference. These votes will never exhaust.
In ACT elections, where candidates are grouped in party blocks, the great majority of voters will instinctively vote for all the candidates within the group. Should any candidate within this group be elected then these votes will never exhaust.
Finally, observation of ACT elections demonstrates that a majority of voters who choose to support unpopular groups – those groups that do not reach a quota of votes – will again, without compulsion, find another group to support.
Compulsory preferencing is a solution in search of a problem.
Simplicio: OK. So voting for as many candidates as there are to be elected is not necessary. But is it a problem? And why do politicians and many political commentators keep insisting on it?
ERA: Yes, it is a problem!
Firstly, many voters who have actually found a winning candidate will needlessly and undemocratically have their vote declared informal just because they haven’t filled in enough squares.
Secondly, parties and groups will be forced, sometimes even by legislation, to stand more candidates than they need to, or even want to, just to avoid votes being counted as informal. This increases the number of candidates to ridiculous levels. Over 300 candidates run in NSW Legislative Council elections – remove the necessity to run at least fifteen candidates in a group and the number would be fewer than a hundred.
We will also have candidates running who don’t want to be elected. It is insulting to voters that they need to consider the merits of candidates who are not even serious.
And thirdly, if voters are forced to give preferences to candidates that they have no interest in, or even knowledge of, then we are introducing an unnecessary random element into the ballot. Many of these extra preferences will be meaningless ‘donkey votes’ where the voter has just filled up the required number from the left hand side of the ballot paper.
Why do politicians and many commentators insist on it? Good question. It’s mostly about informality versus exhaustion.
Nobody sees informal votes. They remain just one line item at the end of the count. There may be a quick comment about why voters can’t get it right, and then they are forgotten. Only good scrutineers can tell who they might have benefited.
Exhausted votes are much more obvious.
Election commentators need to explain why they are prepared to have votes declared informal that could and should have participated in the election result. Just for the record, with fully optional preferential voting both the exhausted vote and the informal votes go down .
Simplicio: What about strong candidates who have a cult-like popular appeal. Isn’t it possible that if too many voters just give a single preference that the transfer value will rise above 1 and that some votes will exhaust to the detriment of the party concerned?
ERA: Simplicio, you’ve been swotting up! Yes, it’s theoretically possible. Technically this is called loss by fraction. It is, of course, highly likely that if voters are so insistent on only voting for this cult-like figure they would vote informally if compelled to give further preferences. We also don’t believe this would be a problem for the party as any cult-like figure would, almost by definition, take votes from opposition candidates.
This is all hypothetical, as we can find no example in Australian parliamentary elections where, whilst there were still viable candidates within the party group, such an event occurred. Please let us know if you, or any of our readers, can find such an example.
For example, at the last ACT election Katy Gallagher, perhaps not a cult-like figure but certainly very popular, received 23,996 votes (over 2 quotas) but only 124 were single s. Before Gallagher’s votes could even start to ‘exhaust’, 11,442 of her supporters would have to have only given a single preference.
For completeness, occasionally in ACT elections when the last candidate from a party is elected, all other candidates from the group having either been elected or excluded, it can happen that votes do ‘exhaust’ in this manner. This is reasonable, perhaps even honourable, as these voters who have chosen representatives from their side of politics, now allow the voters from the other side of politics to choose their own candidates.
Simplicio: With electorates returning 9 to12 or more members, won’t the number of candidates be too many to make an informed choice?
ERA: No. You only need to choose one candidate to have a formal vote. It is a popular misconception that a voter will first elect one candidate, then another, then a third and so on until they have elected six for the Senate or twelve in a local council or twenty one for the NSW Legislative Council.
But the Single Transferable Vote is just that: it is a single vote that is sometimes transferred. If your first choice is elected with too many votes, or doesn’t receive enough votes to be elected, then that vote may be transferred to another preferred candidate and may help to get them over the line.
In the last ACT Legislative Assembly election only two candidates out of the seventeen elected candidates were elected with over a quota of first preference votes; most elected candidates received a solid first preference vote which was then topped up as other candidates, from within their own group and from other unsuccessful groups, were excluded.
In other words, in an electorate where candidates are rotated within party groups, the first preference of most voters never moves.
Simplicio: So I only need to vote for one candidate?
ERA: Yes, but we would not recommend that. If you only voted for a cabinet minister or an opposition front bencher you would probably have your vote counted at full value. But if you only voted for your neighbour who had just decided, on a whim, to stand for parliament then you would more than likely just waste your vote.
We live in a democracy and you cannot always accurately predict the outcome of an election. When voting, you should give second and subsequent preferences to further candidates just in case your preferred candidate is either too popular or not popular enough. Just to be on the safe side you should vote for as many candidates as you feel deserve your support.
Think of second and subsequent preferences as contingency votes – available should your preferred candidate either have too many votes or not enough.
Of course, if it is compulsory to give second and subsequent preferences many voters will end up voting informally. Current House of Representatives elections clearly show that the more preferences required, the greater the percentage of informal votes.
Simplicio: What if I don’t know any of the candidates?
ERA: Most voters do not know the name of their Member of Parliament and you will be no different from the majority of voters in the current single member electorates. You will vote, as you do now, on purely political grounds. Find the party that you are philosophically attracted to and vote for them.
In this case, you should vote for all the candidates within the group and that will guarantee that your vote will end up supporting a viable candidate within your favoured party. There would be no reason for you not to give further preferences to other political parties again according to your own political philosophy.
You are the engine that makes the rotation of candidates work. Your vote, along with others who vote similarly, ensures that all the candidates within the group receive substantial percentage of the party’s overall support. This then spreads the party vote and keeps the candidates of the more popular parties in the count longer. These candidates are then able to collect preferences from weaker less popular parties.
Simplicio: Won’t geographically large electorates be impossible for members to service?
ERA: No. Why should it? We think it would be easier. There will still be the same ratio of voters to Members of Parliament. Each MP will still have an electorate office. Voters will continue to do what they do now: phone, email or even write to their representatives.
The major party representatives will divide up the work between themselves and voters will tend to only approach members that they actually voted for.
Minor party candidates may have to cover a large area, as minor party Senators and Legislative Councillors do now, but they won’t complain as without these multi-member electorates they would not even have been elected.
Simplicio: These large electorates will not have any community of interest.
ERA: You are right; it is not possible to have ‘community of interest’ in these electorates. But what is it anyway? In political terms, the greatest indicator of ‘community of interest’ is voting intention. In single member electorates it is merely a device used to shore up electoral support and to create ‘safe’ seats.
When politicians and political parties make representations about ‘community of interest’ concerns to redistribution commissioners, what they are saying is ‘this particular community would not vote for me therefore I am not interested in it – put it in another electorate’.
STV works on diversity, not uniformity. One of the reasons that we support large electorates which encompass both city and country voters is that these electorates mirror the diversity within each state as a whole and that spurious ‘community of interest’ concerns vanish. We believe that the community is the people of the State.
Simplicio: Won’t regional voters will be swamped by their city cousins?
ERA: Where multi-member electorates overlap both city and regional areas then the major parties will preselect both city and regional candidates for each electorate; it is a political imperative. But if regional voters actually believe that regional candidates will represent them better, then regional voters will specifically choose regional candidates; if their city cousins merely vote for the party, then regional candidates will receive a greater percentage of the vote than their actual numbers warrant. Rather than being swamped, they would gain representation.
Political representation is, however, more important than regional representation. A Labor voter from Cobar is more likely to want to be represented by a Labor member who lives in Katoomba than the National Party member who lives down the road, and vice versa. In a single member electorate this Labor voter from Cobar would, in reality, consider themselves unrepresented. With STV this Labor voter would be represented by a regional Labor member. Liberal voters in regional areas would also be represented by a Liberal Party Member and not just a National Party member.
It is worth noting that this swamping takes place anyway. Only a third of Federal electorates are rural electorates and most are safe electorates which can be and often are ignored.
Whilst talking of being swamped, consider that both major parties will also have to ensure that women, different ethnic groups, age groups, minorities, etc. are also preselected in order to maximise their vote and to adequately represent the community.
Simplicio: Is it fair that some candidates require a full quota to be elected while others are elected with the largest remainder?
ERA: We don’t think it’s fair. We would recommend that the Meek method of counting an STV ballot should be used. With Meek the quota is recalculated every time a vote exhausts and at the end of the count all winning candidates are elected with a quota.
New Zealand, a country with no previous experience with STV ballots, chose Meek when they introduced proportional representation for their local government elections. They simply looked around and then chose the best system available.
Simplicio: With these large electorates, won’t it take too long to count the ballot?
ERA: We believe that the right result is more important than a quick result. However, the time taken to determine the result in close elections is the time taken for postal ballots to be returned and this will not change. In fact the result in most electorates will generally be known on the night: perhaps not the actual candidates but certainly the party representation.
Simplicio: With the potential of ten or possibly more candidates per party, won’t it require millions of different ballot paper versions for the Robson rotation to work?
ERA: This rather pedantic argument is thrown into the mix by commentators who don’t really understand or appreciate STV. The Robson rotation works well for multi-member electorates of seven or fewer and particularly well in jurisdictions, such as the ACT, Tasmania and local government, where the candidates are known to the electorate.
In larger, more anonymous elections, such as for the Australian Senate, it is the rotation of candidates that is important, but not specifically the Robson rotation.
We would recommend that a simple rotation is sufficient. The parties could supply a list of candidates in an order of their choosing and then these candidates could be rotated so that each candidate has an equal share of the top position on the ballot paper.
Simplicio: What happens if the parties run too many candidates?
ERA: Probably nothing. ACT elections confirm that most voters will number all the candidates within a party group. As weaker candidates are excluded, votes will transfer to the stronger candidates.
In practice, parties will have polling data and the results of previous elections to guide them in deciding how many candidates are likely to be elected and, hoping for a good result, will run two or three more. They will not have to run as many as there are to be elected.
In a nine member electorate, a party that could win four or five seats might run seven candidates – the occasional voter who, deliberately or accidently, only votes for a single candidate will still have over a fifty percent chance of hitting a winning candidate. Clearly this is better than having this vote declared informal. Remember that all votes for winning candidates will count at full value.
Running too many candidates is certainly better than not running enough!
Simplicio: Why do you recommend an increase in electoral deposits?
ERA: Electoral deposits are not a fee: they are a deposit which is returned should the candidate receive 4% of first preferences. The choice of a candidate for election to Parliament, or even a local council, is an important responsibility for Australian citizens and voters should be able to choose from amongst genuine candidates.
No candidate should expect to be elected unless they have a public profile and a team of willing supporters. As a political party requires five hundred members to be registered, seeking a deposit that equates to $40 per member would not be unreasonable. Remember that the deposit is returned when the party receives 4% of the vote.
A substantial increase in electoral deposits will deter frivolous candidates, reducing the number of candidates contesting the election and therefore increasing the chances of genuine candidates being elected or at least having their electoral deposits returned.
No candidate should stand for election unless they want to be elected. Did you know that at the 2015 NSW Legislative Council election, three candidates did not even vote for themselves and received no votes at all!
Simplicio: What is plumping?
ERA: Plumping means voting for only one candidate, and partial plumping means restricting your preferences to the candidates of only one party.
Simplicio: Does plumping help my party?
ERA: No. Your second preference is not considered until the fate of your first preference has been definitely determined either as elected or excluded. This applies in the same way to subsequent preferences.
Remember, preferences are contingency votes available for use should your earlier choices have either too many votes or not enough. It is also impossible for your later preferences to harm the chances of candidates to whom you have given earlier preferences. Candidates and parties that recommend plumping do not understand the power that STV gives to the voter.
Simplicio: The ACT Electoral Commission says near the top of its ballot papers to ‘Number five boxes from 1 to 5 in the order of your choice’ and at the bottom of the ballot papers, ‘Remember, number at least five boxes from 1 to 5 in the order of your choice’. Since a single number  is recognised as a formal vote, is it possible that the voters are being lied to?
ERA: We do not believe that the ACT ballot paper directions are well worded. The intention is good but we believe that it is wrong to lie or at least intentionally mislead voters. Better wording should be used. For the five member electorates, our suggestion would be to replace:
Number five boxes from 1 to 5 in the order of your choice.
at the top of the paper with:
5 Members to be elected. Vote using numbers only.
and, at the bottom of the ballot paper, to replace:
Remember, number at least five boxes from 1 to 5 in the order of your choice.
Starting from , vote for as many candidates as you wish in the order of your preference.
This wording could be readily adapted for the six Senators to be elected in half senate elections.
Australians have almost a hundred years’ experience in voting with numbers with candidates listed in party groups. It is very difficult for voters to resist voting for all the candidates within their preferred party. The only hint that it is possible to vote beyond five is the two words ‘at least’ hidden in the directions at the bottom of the ballot paper. Our suggested voting directions would instead encourage voters to continue numbering beyond their preferred party or group.
Simplicio: How many candidates can I vote for?
ERA: You have only one vote, so strictly speaking the question should be: how many preferences may I express? The answer is that you may number as few or as many candidates as you like. As long as the number 1 is put opposite the name of one (and only one) candidate, your vote will be formal. However, if you want to, you may number every candidate on the ballot paper, no matter how many seats there are to be filled.
There is nothing to be lost by listing more; it is impossible for your later preferences to harm the chances of election of your earlier preferences.
On the other hand, it is better to express only your real preferences and not to ‘donkey vote’ where you have no knowledge of the candidates concerned.
Simplicio: Is my vote certain to help to elect somebody?
ERA: No. Every election must have a loser, otherwise the office is just an appointment. In a single member electorate, up to 50% of voters may not help to elect a candidate. These are wasted votes, and those voters are not represented by someone they voted for.
However, in an STV election, the more members to be elected, the fewer wasted votes. With nine members to be elected, the number of wasted votes is less than 10%. This means that less than 10% of the voters in the electorate will not be represented by a candidate they voted for.
Simplicio: Why is there such resistance to electoral reform?
ERA: Good question. Why do politicians not trust the voters with control of their own vote? Whose parliament is it anyway?
We would recommend that Occam’s razor should be the guiding principle. Keep it as simple as possible. Fully preferential voting, no above the line voting, and no group voting tickets.