How Important Are Preferences In Australian Elections?

Australia’s preferential voting system is relatively unusual. Most countries use some form of first-past-the-post or proportional voting.

Preferential Voting

Australia uses the preferential system of voting in elections for the House of Representatives. This means that voters are required to number the candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference. It is not acceptable to vote using ticks and crosses.

To win, a candidate needs to secure an absolute majority, or 50% plus one, of valid votes cast. If a candidate does not secure an absolute majority of primary, or first preference votes, then the candidate with the least number of primary votes is eliminated and his/her votes reallocated in accordance with their second preferences.

This process continues until a candidate has secured 50% plus one of the total votes. Hence, a winning candidate’s majority may be comprised of primary and preference votes. The system ensures that the candidate who is most preferred or least disliked will win.

Preference Allocation and Deals

The preferential system means that all parties and candidates engage in a process of allocating preferences at elections. Candidates or parties may reach an agreement with other groups to exchange preferences, either in particular seats, or state or nation-wide.

Parties and candidates distribute how-to-vote cards to voters as they enter the polling booths. Historically, these how-to-vote-cards have been regarded as crucial in determining election results.

Click here for more information on how-to-vote cards.

Election Results

Historically, preferences have been of considerable importance in Federal and State elections:

  • The Liberal Party and the National Party exchange preferences with each other in order to keep the Labor Party out, particularly in rural and regional seats.
  • The Democratic Labor Party used its preferences to defeat Labor Party candidates following the Split of the 1950s. DLP preferences during the 1960s and early 1970s were crucial to the success of the coalition in federal elections.
  • Since the formation of the party in 1977, Australian Democrats preferences have been crucial in federal and state elections. The Democrats rarely allocate preferences to one particular party, preferring to issue a split ticket and allowing individual voters to choose their preferences.
  • As the vote for the major parties in elections has declined in recent years, preferences have become more important. It is now common for minor parties and independents to determine election outcomes via their preferences. This has been seen in relation to the Democrats, the Greens and One Nation.

At the 1998 Federal election, 99 of the 148 electorates in the House of Representatives required the distribution of preferences. In 7 of these seats (Bass, Blair, Hinkler, Kingston, McMillan, Parkes and Stirling), the candidate who led on primary votes lost after the distribution of preferences.

Senate Elections

The allocation of preferences is just as crucial in Senate elections. Unlike the House of Representatives, a proportional voting system is used in Senate elections. Each State operates as a single electorate, returning two (Territory), six (half-Senate), or twelve (double dissolution) members. Candidates need to reach a quota (14.3% in a normal half-Senate election) to win. The allocation of preferences is crucial in determining the result of the final place in each State.

Voters are able to cast valid votes by simply indicating which group of candidates they prefer. In the 1998 election, 94.9% of voters opted for the Group Voting Ticket method. The decision on preferences is thus effectively made by the political parties.

The parties are required to register their Group Voting Tickets with the Australian Electoral Commission which uses them when counting the Senate votes.

The allocation of preferences has become increasingly crucial in all States in recent years. The final position in many states has often been a two- or three-way contest between the major parties and minor parties such as the Australian Democrats and the Australian Greens.

Independents and other minor parties have also been significant in Senate outcomes. For example, the Democratic Labor Party won a Victorian seat Senate at the 2010 election, its first Senate victory since losing all its representatives at the 1974 election.

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