Senate Voting

What hubris and arrogance has been displayed by four NSW Senate teams. The Liberal/National joint ticket, the Labor Party, The Greens, and the Christian Democratic Party (Fred Nile Group) (CDP) are each standing twelve candidates for the Senate. The Greens are also standing twelve Senate candidates in Victoria and Queensland.

Political party operatives like Labor Senator Sam Dastyari, Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, and Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos must be aware that a quota for election in a double dissolution is just over 7.69% of the formal vote. To get all twelve of their candidates elected, these parties would need to receive 92.25% (12 x 7.69%) of the formal vote.

Surely they are aware that this election is being held in Australia, not North Korea!

(Naturally, we don’t expect the CDP to understand this as they clearly have no understanding of voting mechanics: remember they ran nine candidates for a single vacancy in the 2009 Bradfield by-election.)

Running twelve candidates insults the voters, especially the party’s own supporters, by bloating the size of the ballot paper and forcing voters to consider the merits of candidates who have no realistic chance of being elected.

Worse, by standing twelve candidates, these parties give the impression to their supporters that if they vote for all twelve candidates then they will maximise the value of their vote and will help elect the twelve Senators required.

Further, it encourages voters, who may vote either above or below the line, to stop numbering preferences after they have filled out the twelve squares. Should any of these parties have spare votes over the last full quota, then these votes will exhaust.

A basic principle of the single transferable vote (STV) is that further preferences can never hurt the chances of candidates who have been given an earlier preference.

Why don’t these parties trust their supporters to make informed decisions and encourage them to continue giving preferences in the hope and expectation that these further preferences will help elect candidates who are more likely to be sympathetic to their party’s legislative program?

An examination of the 2013 NSW Senate election results, using a double dissolution quota of 7.69%, demonstrates the potential increase in exhausted votes.

Party Vote Quotas Wasted quotas (% of formal vote)
34.2% 4.45 0.45 (3.46%)
Labor 31.6% 4.11 0.11 (0.85%)
Greens 7.79% 1.01 0.01 (0.08%)
CDP 1.66% 0.22 0.22 (1.69%)

Twelve preferences is the silliest of all numbers to recommend; it is either too many or not enough.

With the Liberal/National joint ticket above, it is too many. With 4.46 quotas, this vote will stop at the fifth candidate and preferences six to twelve will never be considered. Even if the Liberal/National joint ticket gains another half a quota, or 3.8% of the vote, these extra preferences will never be counted.

Should there be a 2% swing against the Government, twelve is not enough. Under this scenario, a vote of 32.2% gives the joint ticket 4.19 quotas, or 1.43% more than is needed to elect four candidates. However, since the twelve recommended preferences are all Liberal or National candidates, this extra 1.43% will exhaust.

Similar results can be demonstrated for both Labor and The Greens – either too many preferences or not enough.

The CDP is slightly different. Their vote is too small to get a candidate elected, so any CDP voter who only votes for the twelve listed candidates will waste their vote. Doesn’t the CDP want their supporters to have an influence on the ballot?

The big unknown in this Senate election is just how many voters will simply do what they have done for the last thirty years and just give a single [1] above the line. The actions of these four NSW groups will encourage this voter behaviour.

The average voter, unlike party operatives, is not expected to understand the intricacies of Senate voting procedures and at this election there will undoubtedly be an excessive number of Senate votes that will exhaust.

The responsibility for this must rest with the Parliament which failed to abolish above the line voting. This would have given the ballot paper a completely different look and this simple format change would have forced voters to consider their vote differently. Forty groups and 150 candidates are not a sign of a healthy democracy.

Our fear is that, as a consequence of the expected large number of exhausted votes, the next Government will take the easy option of increasing the formality requirements for voting, further eroding the rights of citizens to be able to express their democratic right to choose candidates to the extent that they deem necessary.

The real solution is to do the opposite – give the voters greater rights to express their own preferences by abolishing above the line voting and by accepting fully optional preferential voting.

After this election, the Government will need to commission a select committee to investigate further electoral reform. The committee should be chaired by an independent mathematician. The rushed Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) hearings in 2016 and the poor recommendations delivered demonstrates that electoral reform should not be left in the hands of self-interested politicians.

This select committee should recommend, among other things:

  • The implementation of the ACT Legislative Assembly procedure which allows votes that have no continuing preference to be retained by the candidate at full value; any surplus is carried by those votes that do give further preferences.
  • The Meek method of counting an STV ballot should be used. Under Meek, as candidates are excluded and votes exhaust the quota is reduced and the ballot recounted. Candidates who already have a quota are able to release more of their surplus to other candidates. Every candidate is elected with a quota.
  • A substantial increase in the electoral deposit, which would should apply to candidates not parties. Voters should not be required to consider the merits of candidates who cannot be (and in many cases do not want to be) elected.

Genuine Senate electoral reform will help reduce the size and complexity of Senate ballot papers by reducing the number of bogus parties and discouraging single issue lobby groups from running as political parties.

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