How does the Senate voting system work?

The record large Senate ballot papers have probably already annoyed many early voters. Their great length – over a metre in NSW and Victoria – will soon annoy many more voters. However, the real annoyance will come if new senators with very little popular support get elected.

Australian SenateThe reason why this might happen is a distortion of the Proportional Representation system, where, by voting ‘above the line’, it is the party – not the voter – that decides the preferences.

In this election, more than ever before, large numbers of parties that we have never heard of are on the ballot paper. Preference deal strategies might even lead to some of them getting elected.

Back in 2004, Labor and Australian Democrat preferences in Victoria went to Family First ahead of the Greens. Almost no Labor or Democrat voters knew this when they voted above the line, but this led to Family First’s Steve Fielding’s election to the Senate.

This can happens because the above the line option – where the preferences are decided by the party you vote for, not by you the voter – was introduced for Senate polls in 1983. These preferences are listed in the Group Voting Tickets.

You can find out what the party you plan to vote for is doing with its preferences by looking at the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) website or by checking the Group Voting Tickets at the polling booth. However, most people don’t look at them, and even those that want to might find it confusing, given that – in Victoria, for instance – there are 39 different parties and one group of independents on the ballot paper.

The reason for the explosion in the number of parties – something that will continue if there is no reform – is that the smaller parties can make deals with each other. With a very tiny percentage of first preference votes, it is possible that one of them can get elected to the Senate by picking up the preferences of voters that are not aware of where their preferences are going.

This is how it might happen in Victoria. Suppose the results in the Senate in Victoria was something like this:

  • Lib/Nat 37%
  • ALP 37%
  • Green 10%
  • Others 16%

The Senate voting works on a quota system, and with six senators to be elected, the quota is around 14.3%. By these figures, the Liberal/National Coalition and Labor safely win two quotas – and two senators – each. After their two quotas (28.6%) are used up, they have a surplus of 8.4%.

What happens next is that the candidate with the least number of votes is excluded and then next least and so on. Let’s say that there are 25 microparties’ all with an average of 0.4% of the first preference vote, which totals to 10% overall. And let’s say that some of the minor parties like the Palmer United Party, the Sex Party and Family First get around 2% each.

Now we know that many of these microparties have done deals with each other – and by the exchange of these preferences, one of them – maybe the Rise Up Australia, or Smokers Rights, or No Carbon Tax, – might manage, after all the tiny parties’ preferences are distributed, to get around 6% of the vote after preferences.

These parties can then pick up the preferences of the more serious minor parties, like the Palmer United Party or Family First or the Sex Party, and that might bring them up to around 9% of the vote. They would then be in front of the surplus of the major parties. Quite understandably, the Coalition have preferenced some of these microparties in front of the Greens and Labor.

There are methods voters can implement to stop this, beginning with checking the group voting ticket for your state. This will show you where your preferences will go. Alternatively you can vote below the line, 1 to 97 in Victoria. As a safety mechanism you can put a 1 above the line in the box belonging to the party of your choice, and that will be counted only if you make a mistake below the line.

In the long term, we need to change the rules of elections. This should be done by first abolishing above the line voting and the Group Voting Tickets. In its place, Partial Optional Preferential voting below the line should be introduced. Voters then only have to vote for as many candidates as there are positions to be filled for your vote to be formal.

Partial Optional Preferential already occurs in Tasmanian lower house elections, and is an option in the Victorian upper house. Full preferential voting dates only from 1934. And finally, the requirement for formality should be relaxed so that any sequential numbers above the minimum would be counted even if an error is made.

The effect of this would be that it was no longer worthwhile for the microparties to set up and deal in preferences. We would see an immediate reduction in the number of parties – maybe from 40 down to about 10 in Victoria – and those that are standing would all be genuine candidates.

First published on The Conversation on 5 September 2013. 

Dr Stephen Morey is an ARC Future Fellow at the Centre for Research on Linguistic Diversity.

Image credit: Alex E. Proimos


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