On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Australia’s angry cry for reform

image - Australian Parliament

The Australian federal election of September 2013 has left an echo of critical commentary about voting systems.

It was a significant election. The national government changed, a brand new party won 5% of the vote, and a record 7 senators not from the established parties were elected – 6 of them from newly established micro-parties.

A record of over 3 million people dealt with their decision by voting early. But the result is also the lowest level of participation in an election since 1922 (around 87.8% of the enrolled population, and there are suspicions that even the enrolment level itself is historically falling).

Most of the population of the large states of New South Wales and Victoria had to contend with a metre-long ‘tablecloth’ ballot paper to elect their senators. But the Senate ballot papers came in for criticism for reasons more technical than just their length. With at least three of the six states electing, or nearly electing, candidates with less than 1% of the first preference votes, it may well be that the population have finally had enough of the voting option where they delegate their vote to a political party’s  ‘Group Voting Ticket’.

This option, also known as ‘voting above the line’, was added in 1984 when the government of the day wasn’t willing to relax the compulsory preferencing rule but wanted to reduce an embarrassing level of informal voting.

The Group Voting Ticket option looks like a convenience, and it’s true that all the votes – normal ones and ticket ones – are still counted together in one normal counting process.

Its also very clear that independent or micro-party senators who are elected through transfer flows, such as Victoria’s Senator-elect Ricky Muir, eventually earn the same level of support – literally, the support of same number of voters – as each of the other Senators elected in their state.  The whole purpose of the Senate voting system is to allow us to combine in any way we choose to identify our preferred representatives. Some Senators are elected by a build-up of support from diverse sub-groups of us whose initial choices aren’t common or popular, but coalesce on a compromise that we prefer to all other options. Other Senators are elected when we vote in solid blocks where each voter agrees in supporting a popular party. Both types of representative eventually achieve the same voter support, and are equally legitimate.

But it’s hard to be happy about the recent Senate results, for two reasons. Firstly, the highly automated flow of preferences between multiple micro-parties (and technically also the excess votes of large parties) is quite unnatural; everyone knows that voters wouldn’t actually have cast such an astonishingly uniform set of votes in a plain voting system. The critical turning points in the vote counting process bear no meaningful relation to voter opinion, as electoral expert Antony Green explains.

This means that to many of us, the results feel somehow wrong, and just the fact that many of us have this reaction undermines Parliament’s legitimacy. An election should ideally result in the whole population being able to agree that the results were a sensible reflection of our various political opinions.

The second problem with GVT voting is the fact that it makes the preferences on the tickets (which the parties must officially submit about two weeks before the polling day) into a tradeable commodity, leading to perverse agreements between party strategists. These agreements artificially create voting coalitions which would never occur in the community naturally, and which the supporters of each separate party might in fact be entirely opposed to. That’s not a genuine choice by us to elect our representatives, and we know it.

The clamour for fixing all this has been, by the normal standards of public interest in voting systems, loud and highly consistent. Published articles in the mainstream media (for example comments by Antony Green, Professor of Political Science Brian Costar, and former Senators Bob Brown and Amanda Vanstone) have attracted many hundreds of comments in just a few hours. Virtually no-one is making even a weak case to keep above-the-line voting, and other issues are being raised as well.

So it’s reasonable to expect that in the year or so ahead, the national Parliament – the very people just elected under these rules – will come under pressure to reform the voting laws. That’s to be welcomed, and hopefully many Australians will engage in the well-established committee process which Parliament runs between each election to review the system.

But given the unique self-interest of legislators in controlling the rules by which they themselves come to office, we will need to be vigilant that the results are not actually ‘reforms’ which only entrench the very people who benefit from the current problems. (The need for vigilance is true in regard to elected parties of every size – the large as well as the small.)

As we enter this debate, what are the principles which we should actually base solutions on? If instead of partisan self-interest and tactical advantages, rules should be written in the interests of we the voters, what are those interests? And what do we as voters appear to really want?

I think there are at least four basic things which we want, and which we can tell when we are being denied.

First, we want a direct relationship with the candidates. Every device for political parties to take control of our votes, determine where our preference goes, or have our influence as voters in any way taken from us, or delegated to them, attracts our suspicion.

Most European, Latin American and developing world countries have installed systems where votes are really cast for parties, often with limited or no ability for voters to decide which individuals represent them in Parliament. Australians and other people who are used to a direct relationship with politicians, and the accountability it brings, are very wary of this sort of thing. Above-the-line voting and in particular the way it’s working at the moment arouses these deep suspicions.

The Australian Constitution clearly states that our political representatives are to be “directly chosen by the people”, so why has party control even crept into our elections?

Secondly, we want choice. We want lots of it. We may grizzle about the size of tablecloth ballot papers, but no-one really makes an argument that we should be denied the right to choose from any candidate who wishes to present a political option to us.

It’s not really about the interests of those who want to nominate themselves, it’s about our interests in having choice. We all know instinctively that choice empowers the buyer; that in any ‘Coles-and-Woolies’ syndrome, where choice is limited, there is a progressive loss of responsiveness to us, the customers.

Most of us will largely agree that political parties with extreme views and tiny followings shouldn’t clutter up the parliament, but we want it to be us that makes the decision to reject them, not some rule written by those currently on the inside of the system.

Choice is also important for history. We know that political parties come and go over time, and change their nature during their life. That this is so serves us well, by ensuring that politicians respond to our changing interests and opinions. Having the choice to admit new parties onto the scene, place pressure on them, and maybe one day dump them, is a force which empowers us.

Thirdly, we instinctively insist that our votes should all be equally influential. If a voting system makes some voters more powerful in getting people elected than others, we know it’s wrong. We know now, for instance, that voters who live in marginal seats are much more influential than those that are not. No-one seriously argues that this is an appropriate result.

It’s a strange fact, then, that many of the world’s voting systems – including Australia’s – do not guarantee equality at all. This is a big topic, and a lot of what goes on this blog will deal with it.

Fourthly, we generally like to see as many people as possible get some form of effective representation in Parliament. All of us want to be able to point to a representative who is accountable to us, and whom we support at least to some level, in the Parliament. Being ‘represented’ by politicians we oppose doesn’t work.

I think most of us understand and accept that getting 100% of us happily ‘represented’ in this sense is pretty much impossible, but that we would still agree that the higher the result the better.

At any given time, the 150 members of Australia’s national House of Representatives, even with public participation in elections at around 90% of enrolments (sustained in part by compulsory voting) actually directly represent only around 40% of us.

Our Senators represent more of us – it varies but results of 75-80% are typical.

These four principles don’t speak to party interests or tactical advantage, they speak about us, the voters, the customers, and the ways we understand and react to what happens in elections. If these principles are followed, the system will help drive responsiveness and quality in our politicians and in the conduct of our public business.

Our current voting systems get some of these principles right, but fail on others.

If we’re about to go through a debate on changing our voting systems, surely it’s essential that we start from principles about what we want, and work from that to find the best voting rules. At the same time, we should be on our guard against proposals which fail these principles – which might well be about to arise from the self-interest of established politicians and parties.

These issues are very much what this Blog, and the other information on this OnElections website, will be concerned with.

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This entry was posted on September 26, 2013 by in Australia, Election results, Single transferable vote (STV) and tagged , , .

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