Proportional Representation Voting in Australia

Proportional Representation (PR) Voting is used in elections for the Australian Senate.

It aims to produce election results where winners gain seats in proportion to the votes they secure.

A variation of Proportional Representation, known as Hare-Clarke, is used in elections for the Tasmanian House of Assembly.

Proportional Voting:

  • is used in multi-member electorates. In the Senate, there are 8 electorates: the 6 States and the 2 Territories. The 6 States each return 12 members, whereas the Territories return 2 each.
  • requires winning candidates to secure a quota of the vote. The quota is calculated by dividing the total number of formal ballot papers by one more than the number of Senators to be elected, and adding “1” to the result (ignoring any remainder). In a normal half-Senate election of 6 Senators, the quota is 14.3% of the formal vote. In a double dissolution election of 12 Senators, the quota is 7.7% of the formal vote.

How Does Proportional Voting Work?

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

  1. voters are required to either number all the candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference, or to place the number “1” in the box “above the line”. Any vote cast above the line is deemed to be a fully-preferential vote in accordance with party tickets lodged with the Electoral Commission.
  2. because a Senate election of more than one candidate means that the political parties nominate groups of candidates, known as “lists” or “tickets”, it is not unusual for a Senate ballot paper to contain anywhere between 30 and 70 candidates. Hence, the informal vote in Senate elections has been historically quite high.
  3. In 1984, the system of Group Voting Tickets was introduced, whereby voters can cast a vote for a group of candidates by simply placing a “1” in the box “above the line”. The order of preferences is in accordance with a ticket registered by the respective parties or groups with the Australian Electoral Commission.
  4. the counting of first preference votes takes place first. Candidates who receive a quota, or more, of these first preference votes are elected immediately.
  5. any surplus votes of the elected candidates (that is, votes in excess of the quota they needed) are transferred to the candidates who were the second choice of voters. However, they are transferred as a reduced value. Because it is not possible to determine which votes actually elected the candidate and which votes are surplus all the elected candidate’s ballot papers are transferred at the reduced value.
  6. other candidates may be elected by this process of transferring surplus votes. If, however, all surplus votes from elected candidates are transferred and there are still some unfilled positions, normal distribution of preferences now takes place. Starting with the lowest scoring candidate, unelected candidates are excluded from the count and their ballot papers are distributed to the remaining candidates at full value. This process continues until all Senate positions are filled.

Advantages of the Proportional Voting System

  • It allows minor parties and independents to win seats in Parliament.
  • It ensures that no votes are wasted as they are in single-member electorates.
  • It is more representative of the wishes of the electorate, in that parties win seats in proportion to the percentage of the vote they receive.

Disadvantages of the Proportional Voting System

  • It is complicated, costly and time-consuming to administer and count.
  • By allowing minor parties and candidates to win seats, it promotes instability in Parliament. The balance of power can be held by a number of members elected by a small minority of the electorate.
  • Until the advent of the Group Voting Ticket system, it encouraged a high level of informal voting.

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