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The Importance Of How-To-Vote Cards

A visitor to this website recently asked about the importance of how-to-vote cards:

I do not fully understand the allocation of preferences, particularly how party A can guarantee that its preferences will be allocated to party B. We are talking about a more concrete arrangement than the publication of “how to vote cards” aren’t we?

The answer to this question is “no”. How-to-vote cards are the beginning and the end of the matter.

Political parties can advise voters how to allocate their preferences. They do this by issuing how-to-vote cards during an election. They cannot compel voters to follow them.

A How-To-Vote card is a paper card issued to voters by representatives of candidates as the voter enters a polling booth to cast a vote. Voters are not obliged to take any notice of them but most voters follow them.

Political parties and candidates know that their vote suffers if they do not distribute how-to-vote cards.

How-To-Vote cards have to be registered with the relevant State or Federal Electoral Commission. The card must be authorised by someone from the political party, usually the Campaign Director, State Secretary of the party, or similar person.

The image below is an example of a how-to-vote card issued at the 2001 Queensland state election earlier this year:


Because Queensland has a system of optional preferential voting, the card simply advises voters in the Cook electorate to vote “1” for the Labor candidate. In a federal election, the how-to-vote card would also recommend an order of preference for the other candidates.

Decisions about preference allocation are made by the political parties, sometimes after negotiation and agreement with other parties, but there is no way of enforcing these agreements other than by issuing how-to-vote cards.

In Australia, most voters are used to following how-to-vote cards. Deals and agreements between political parties over the allocation of preferences rely on the knowledge that most voters follow how-to-vote cards. There will always be a “leakage” of preferences, but this is rarely very high.

There are cases where voters rejected how-to-vote card preferences, usually because of local issues, concern about the quality of the candidate, or qualms over a preference deal. However, in most cases, voters will copy the how-to-vote card of their choice.

The preferences of the Democratic Labor Party during the 1950s-70s were very tight, often over 90%, delivering DLP votes to the Liberals. This was crucial to the success of the Liberal Party, especially in Victoria.

In more recent times, ALP and Liberal voters tend to follow their how-to-vote cards fairly closely.

The Australian Democrats usually issue a split ticket, but these tend to split between 50-60% the ALP’s way. The Democrats often issue a how-to-vote card that is printed on both sides of the paper, one side showing preferences to the ALP and the other showing preferences to the Liberals.

Overall, how-to-vote cards tend to work for the major parties. Voters for minor candidates are not necessarily so easy to predict. All parties know that it is important to have polling booths staffed on election day so that every voter receives a copy of the how-to-vote card.

There have been cases where the ALP has assisted the Democrats with people to hand out cards simply because of the need to get second preferences. A book published recently about B.A. Santamaria and the DLP shows that the Liberal Party assisted the DLP with how-to-vote cards during the 1950s-70s.

Recently, the Democrats have called for distribution of how-to-vote cards at polling booths to be banned. They want each polling booth to display registered how-to-vote information. Despite what they might say about democratic values, the only reason they want this is because they have trouble staffing each polling booth on election day. Whereas the ALP and the Liberal Party will have members and supporters working in 2-hour shifts handing out cards, the Democrats often have only one or two people working all day.

In Queensland, federal National Party members like De-Anne Kelly are keen to do preference deals with One Nation because they know that adverse decisions on preference allocations can harm their chances of holding their seats. One Nation is threatening to put all sitting members last on their tickets, like they did in Western Australia last month. Kelly and the Nationals know that this has the potential to destroy them because most voters will follow the how-to-vote recommendation.

In the Queensland state election, preferences were not quite so important this year because the ALP increased its primary vote to around the 48.5% mark. This meant that in many seats it only needed a handful of preferences to get to 50%. In those seats where the major party primary vote was much less than this, the result was generally predictable because of the faithfulness shown by voters in following how-to-vote cards.

Interestingly, in Western Australia, the ALP won the State election not because of One Nation preferences, but because they got most of the preferences from the Democrats and Greens. This was not well-reported by the media at the time.

An article by Alan Ramsey in the Sydney Morning Herald says that the ALP won the Ryan by-election because it got 64% of preferences from minor candidates. Democrat and Green preferences went solidly to the ALP, but also a large proporton of the independent candidates as well.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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