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Senate voting reform: keep it simple, or too many people’s votes won’t be counted

Senate elections can give parties other than Labor, Liberal and National a chance of winning a seat. AAP/Lukas Coch

Senate voting reform: keep it simple, or too many people’s votes won’t be counted

Senate elections can give parties other than Labor, Liberal and National a chance of winning a seat. AAP/Lukas Coch

The Turnbull government has unveiled sweeping changes to how Australians vote for their senators ahead of this year’s federal election.

If passed, the government’s proposal would allow voters to cast at least six preferences above the black line on their Senate ballot paper, rather than requiring voters to fill in all boxes below the line. It would abolish controversial “group voting tickets”.

The Senate voting system is already very complicated. It is by no means certain that voters understand the intricate details of how the transferable vote system, which is at the heart of how the Senate is elected, works.

This is evident in the slightly mischievous claims about candidates such as Ricky Muir winning Senate seats with paltry primary votes. Muir’s share of the primary vote in 2013 was not great, but it was quite a lot more than that won by the second-placed Liberal and Labor candidates on their respective party tickets.

Evolution of the Senate voting system

Since its introduction in time for the 1949 election, one of the outward signs of the Senate voting system’s complexity was the regularity with which rates of informal voting reached or even exceeded 10%.

Reflecting on the 1974 double-dissolution election, Colin Hughes – later chief electoral commissioner – reported on the relationship between the high informal vote and the number of candidates on the ballot paper, the lack of any party identifier with those candidates, and the requirement that voters cast a numerically ordered preference for each of those candidates.

Hughes also noted that scrutineers had reported to him that the vast majority of informal votes cast in NSW in particular had been voters who had given their primary vote to the Labor candidate. Had those votes counted, he argued, Labor would have won an additional seat – an outcome that might have avoided the onset of the 1975 constitutional crisis.

Labor reformed the Senate voting system in 1983 when it returned to government. Party identifiers were now included on ballot papers.

Voters could also now cast a single preference above a thick black line. In so doing, the ballot would be assumed to correspond with the allocation of preferences as determined by that party as lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission – known as group voting tickets.

More than 90% of Australians now vote this way in the Senate. The informal vote has dramatically declined from an average of nearly 10% to being regularly less than 3%.

But these achievements have been overwhelmed by the controversies the group voting ticket system has also been responsible for. These controversies have arisen over the representational outcomes that have occurred since the system was introduced. These in turn have always been precipitated by the fate of political parties other than Labor, Liberal and National.

Group voting tickets have given all political parties’ organisational wings the chance to participate in the wheeling and dealing of preference allocations. These deals have had real impact. Part of the reason the Australian Democrats declined as a presence in the Senate was due to Labor placing it behind other parties – such as the Greens – in its group voting ticket.

In 1984, Labor was able to cruel Peter Garrett’s first attempt at a parliamentary career when it preferenced against Garrett’s Nuclear Disarmament Party. In 1998, all the major parties preferenced against Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

In 2004, Labor in Victoria preferred Family First to the Greens. This helped Family First’s Steve Fielding secure a Senate seat despite gaining less than 2% of the primary vote.

What’s happened recently?

In 2013, while the Liberal and National parties enjoyed a strong swing in the House of Representatives and were on track to secure a large majority, they did not fare quite so well in the upper house.

The biggest swing in the Senate vote was to the raft of tickets and candidates other than the main parties – a group dubbed the “microparties”. But this vote was spread out over multiple parties; few won a primary vote of more than 2%. Most won less than 1%.

In a lower house contest, such a paltry vote would not translate into winning seats. The Senate electoral system, however, is a proportional system that utilises the transferable vote. This means a ballot may be counted for its primary value, then for its “surplus” value, and then for its value as a preference.

Thus, Senate elections can give parties other than Labor, Liberal and National a chance of winning a seat.

What might change mean?

The presence of parties like the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party in the Senate following the 2013 election appears to have been the last straw for critics of the group voting ticket system.

Change – justified on the grounds that there is something not quite right about such extensive microparty representation and so something needs to be done to curb it – was negotiated by the Coalition, independent senator Nick Xenophon and the Greens.

This signals that the Greens now see themselves as part of the mainstream party system. It appears to assume that Green candidates will still get elected even if the flow of Labor surplus guaranteed under the present system – provided Labor chooses to preference the Greens – will be denied under the proposed changes.

If the government’s changes are passed, a leap in the informal voting rate will occur. Research into informal voting by the Australian Electoral Commission notes the relationship between rising rates of informal voting and complexities in a voting system. The system will thus go back to disenfranchising voters (most likely from lower socioeconomic backgrounds) in ways that it did prior to the Hawke government’s 1983 reforms.

There are better ways to mitigate the power of the party secretariats in the preference wheeling-and-dealing process. In Victoria’s upper house, voters can still vote for a group voting ticket or they can give as few as five preferences below the black line.

This doesn’t completely do away with the group voting ticket. But it does try to give voters a viable option to go their own way by reducing the complexity of voting below the line.

Victoria enfranchises voters by simplifying the system. It is a good principle. It ought to be applied to the federal sphere as well.