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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 all 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.

The system of preferential voting (sometimes called the “alternative vote” system) ensures that a candidate needs more than just a plurality of votes to win. A winning candidate must secure an absolute majority of all votes cast, either through number “1” (primary) votes, or a combination of primary and preference votes.

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.

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, especially in Victoria.
  • Since the formation of the party in 1977, Australian Democrats preferences were crucial in federal and state elections. The Democrats rarely allocated preferences to one particular party, preferring to issue a split ticket and allowing individual voters to choose their preferences.
  • Since the 1990s, the preferences of the Australian Greens and other parties have been crucial, especially in electing Labor members of parliament. It is now common for minor parties and independents to determine election outcomes via their preferences.

At the 1998 Federal election, 99 (66.89%) of the 148 electorates in the House of Representatives returned results in which no candidate won an absolute majority of primary votes. The distribution of preferences was required in all these seats. In 7 of the seats (Bass, Blair, Hinkler, Kingston, McMillan, Parkes and Stirling), the candidate who led on primary votes lost after the distribution of preferences.

At the 2013 Federal election, 97 (64.66%) of the 150 electorates in the House of Representatives, required the distribution of preferences. Of these 97, the leader on primary votes was defeated after preferences in 15 seats. The ALP benefited in 12 of these, whilst the other three were won by third parties or independents. The seats were: Fairfax, Griffith, Kennedy, Lilley, Moreton (Qld – 5); Bendigo, Bruce, Chisholm, Indi, Jaga Jaga, McEwen, Melbourne Ports (Vic – 7); Kingsford Smith, Parramatta, Richmond (NSW – 3).

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.

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.

Between 1984 and 2016, the parties were required to register their Group Voting Tickets with the Australian Electoral Commission, which used them when counting the Senate votes.

Voters were able to cast valid votes by simply indicating which group of candidates they preferred by voting in a single box above the line. Every vote cast above the line was then treated as a vote in accordance with the tickets lodged with the AEC. The main intention of this method was to reduce the informal vote, which had reached 10% in Senate elections.

In the 1984 election, 85.7% of voters opted for the Group Voting Ticket method. By 2013, 96.49% of voters cast a vote above the line. The decision on preferences was thus effectively made by the political parties.

In 2013, the ability of micro-parties to engage in complex preference agreements using group voting tickets in the Senate led to the election of a number of minor and micro-party senators. In 2016, the Turnbull government legislated to abolish group voting tickets, whilst optional preferential voting was introduced for above and below-the-line voting. Preferences will continue to be important but preference allocation has been taken out of the hands of political parties. Unless voters choose to number preferences on their ballot papers, their votes will exhaust.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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