On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Senate ballot rule changes get angry response

Australia’s national politics is about to go through the rare event of focusing on the specifics of voting rules.

In the aftermath of the 2013 elections a number of dramatic outcomes drew public attention to the rules defining the ballot papers by which Australians elect their national senators.

The Australian Senate is a curious elected body by world standards. The chamber has the second most malapportioned electoral basis in the world, due to the federation-era decision to allocate the same number of senators to the people of each state, despite markedly differing state populations.

Only the United States Senate – for the same reason – is more unfairly representative of its people.

On the other hand, within each Australian state senators are elected by perhaps the fairest voting system in use in the world, the single-transferable-vote method of quota-based proportional representation.

Within each state, every Australian senator is elected by the same number of voters.

Unfortunately this voting quality has been distorted by legislation adopted in 1983 that redesigned Senate election ballot papers, allowing political parties to control how the votes were allocated.

Under the current system an option known as above-the-line voting means that around two-thirds of all senators are assured of their seats as soon as the major parties pre-select them for nomination.

The procedure has the added defect that it encourages large and small political parties alike to enter into pre-election deals about how each party directs the preferences to flow on their group voting tickets – the technical device through which parties use the above-the-line option.

image - Aust Senate ballot papers (APH)

Australian Senate ballot papers; voters can vote for one party’s ‘group voting ticket’ above-the-line, or else they must number preference rankings for every individual candidate below-the-line

Australia’s Constitution at face value guarantees its citizens that each individual politician will be “directly elected”. The ticket voting option survived a legal challenge when it was introduced because the ballot papers continue to present a below-the-line option to vote for individual candidates. But the law invalidates the ballot of any voter who fails to mark a preference number for every single candidate – an onerous task that only around 5% of voters are prepared to undertake.

For several elections party-to-party deals have seen strange results occurring when the sixth senate seat is determined in many states. This has been especially visible in the state of Victoria, where energetic preference dealing by the Labor Party has twice in the past two decades malfunctioned to elect a right-wing micro-party senator.

Worse still, preference deal practices have expanded into a professional activity over the past few elections, driven by the steady increase in the number of Australians who are voting for candidates and parties other than Australia’s two major parties, the Coalition and Labor.

In 2013 the practice of ‘preference whispering’, involving deliberate preference-trading between multiple micro-parties, blossomed into a result which elected at least two senators, and affected the results in most of the states.

These preference deals bore no resemblance to any pattern of preferences that voters would have deliberately chosen between the numerous political parties involved, which promoted very different values and policies.

Parliament’s standing committee on electoral matters looked into the whole business after the last election. In a joint recommendation, the inquiry proposed abolishing the group voting ticket system and sharply limiting the rule about invalidating votes filled in below-the-line.

In the past week, word has emerged that the Coalition Government is ready to put before Parliament some form of amendments to the electoral law.

The former multi-party agreement on the reforms appears to have partly broken down.

Every party and group in the current Parliament is now estimating the impact of the changes on their future electoral prospects. Each party’s estimation of its own interests depends on the bandwidth of voter support they expect.

Micro parties which can only anticipate around 1% support are angry opponents of reform. Australia’s leading psephologist Antony Green has argued that such parties should be forced to attempt to develop community support and increase their vote, rather than relying on the group voting ticket system to give them an undemocratic path to power.

The Greens – which can reliably expect a vote share ranging from 10%-15%, or 0.8 to 1.2 quotas – are in the happier position of not needing the device of voting tickets to win almost all their seats. Despite recent accusations of self-interest on the issue, the party has a pretty credible history of fair representation policies going back many years.

Australia’s most successful independent (now minor party) senator Nick Xenophon from South Australia, who regularly polls above 20% of his states’ vote (and actually beat the Labor party into second place in 2013) supports the changes. Xenophon’s running mate was clearly denied the second South Australian seat in 2013 solely because of the group voting ticket device.

The Labor Party, which in recent years has polled between 25% and 40% in Senate elections, is split on the issue. MP for Brand (WA) Gary Grey, a member of the committee that examined the issue in 2014, has been making the case for fair ballot paper rules. Leading Labor senators have been arguing that the change might advantage their Coalition opponents, and therefore should be rejected.

Finally the governing Coalition, which has been winning Senate poll results typically in the range 40%-45%, and is therefore a reliable winner of 3 out of 6 Senate seats in most states, has nothing to lose and is clearly supportive of the change. They can point to at least two states where an additional Coalition senator might possibly have been elected in 2013 but for the current rules.

The Labor-Coalition position difference in large part turns on the fact that on the ‘left’ side of politics Labor faces a strong, successful minor party in the Greens, competitive for a Senate seat in every state. By contrast, there is no substantial right-wing party challenging for Coalition votes; their competitor for such votes is typically a mixed bag of micro parties and independent candidates. It therefore suits the Coalition better, at least at this point in history, to dispose of the possibility of preference whispering.

All these short-term political calculations cloud the underlying issue of what voters are actually choosing when they vote in elections, and the representation they are entitled to get.

Both the rules in dispute – the group voting ticket device and the invalidation of votes caused by ‘compulsory preferencing’ in below-the-line voting – are unfair to voters and distort their choices.

Many Australians are debating the value of having micro-party and independent candidates serve in the Senate. To people not seeing the issue through partisan lenses, the balance is one between the virtue of having some independent perspectives on legislation and political debates, versus the potential for unpredictable decisions and electing individuals of political values which slant the Senate majority away from the electorate’s center of political gravity.

The issue is attracting an unusual degree of attention for the dry topic of ballot paper design and voting rules. News websites are filling up with angry comments from voters who want to see diversity in the Senate, and see the proposed rule changes as removing the only opportunity for minor candidates to have a chance of election.

Most Australians value the electoral system’s opportunity for independent intrusion. Even supporters of major parties often agree that such potential keeps the governing parties on their toes.

Perhaps the way to strike that balance lies in Antony Green’s point mentioned earlier, that candidates of every political scale should be equally obliged to win voter support through their campaign performance and policies, and to get elected on fair rules, not through technical devices.

The legislative changes are expected to be presented to Parliament in March. [Update: the Government presented an amending Bill to Parliament on Monday 22 February.]

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This entry was posted on February 20, 2016 by in Australia, Current issues, Single transferable vote (STV).
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