Preferential Voting in Australia

The system of preferential voting is a notable feature of the Australian political system.

Most similar political systems employ the Simple Majority (First-Past-The-Post) system or some form of proportional representation.

Preferential voting is employed in elections for the House of Representatives and all State lower houses in Australia, apart from the Tasmanian House of Assembly and the A.C.T. Legislative Assembly.

Preferential voting:

  • is generally used in single-member electorates in lower houses
  • requires the winning candidate to secure either an absolute majority (50%+1) of the primary vote or an absolute majority after the distribution of preferences

The main elements of the operation of preferential voting are as follows:

  1. voters are required to place the number “1” against the candidate of their choice, known as their first preference.
  2. voters are then required to place the numbers “2”, “3”, etc., against the other candidates listed on the ballot paper in order of preference.
  3. the counting of first preference votes, also known as the primary vote, takes place first. If no candidate secures an absolute majority – 50% plus 1 – of primary votes, then the candidate with the least number of votes is “eliminated” from the count.
  4. the ballot papers of the eliminated candidate are examined and re-allocated amongst the remaining candidates according to the number “2”, or second preference votes.
  5. if no candidate has yet secured an absolute majority of the vote, then the next candidate with the least number of primary votes is eliminated. This preference allocation continues until there is a candidate with an absolute majority. Where a second preference is expressed for a candidate who has already been eliminated, the voter’s third or subsequent preferences are used.

Following the full allocation of preferences, it is possible to derive a two-party-preferred figure, where the votes are divided between the two main candidates in the election. In Australia, this is usually between the Labor and non-Labor candidates, although recent elections have seen a small number of seats dividing between Labor-Greens and Coalition-Independents.

The distribution of preferences takes place in every electoral division in federal elections so that national two-party-preferred figures can be calculated.

Advantages of the Preferential System

  1. It ensures that only a candidate with the support of an absolute majority of the electorate can win, eliminating the possibility of minority winners. Put another way, the winning candidate is the most preferred or least disliked candidate.
  2. It ensures that voters can support minor parties and independent candidates, knowing that their preferences may be used to decide the winner. Thus, votes for minor parties and independents are not wasted.
  3. It allows parties of like-minded philosophies or policies to exchange preferences in order to assist each other to win.
  4. It promotes a strong two-party system, ensuring stability in the parliamentary process.

Disadvantages of the Preferential System

  1. It is more complicated to administer and count.
  2. It can produce a higher level of informal voting.
  3. It promotes a two-party system to the detriment of minor parties and independents.
  4. Voters are forced to express a preference for candidates they may not wish to support in any way. (The use of optional preferential voting, as used in New South Wales and Queensland State elections, is a solution to this problem.)

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