How people elect parliaments
Some of the newly elected Australian Senators will need to brace themselves for a new form of abuse: being denounced as “unrepresentative ‘below-quota’ swill”, to paraphrase Paul Keating’s famous quote.
At present, on limited counting results, the media are estimating that both the Coalition and Labor will lose around three senate seats compared to the pre-election situation, and the Greens will lose one seat.
As many as 15 senate seats will be held by a diverse cross bench, with senators elected from at least half a dozen different minor parties, including two or more from almost every state.
Minor party candidates and Greens together won around 35% of the votes cast for senators at this election, smashing previous records.
The revised ballot paper design used for the first time provided for voters to fill in preferences themselves, rather than delegating their preference order to party pre-prepared tickets.
Importantly, voters could if they wished also cast a valid vote for only a small number of candidates or parties, rather than being forced to rank every individual candidate who nominated in their state or territory.
This change means that as the 2016 vote counting process advances, many ballot papers will be found to have no preferences marked for any of the candidates that are still in the race. These become the so-called ‘exhausted’ ballots.
In each state and territory’s senate vote count the quota needed to win a seat is fixed from the start of the count.
State voters elect 12 senators, and territory voters elect 2 senators. The quota to win a seat in the six states is set as 1/13th of the total formal vote, and in the territories it is 1/3rd of the formal vote.
Near the end of the count in each state what will happen is that at least one final winner – and possibly as many as three or four – will have accumulated a number of votes that is still below the quota, but they will nevertheless end up as the last candidates standing.
Put simply, when the dozens of original candidates have nearly all been eliminated so that only 13 candidates (in a state count) remain, the best-placed 12 win the seats. 8 to 10 of these will probably have secured the full target quota, and the others up to 12th place will win the final seats by default.
It is theoretically possible that all 12 successful senators in a state will get a quota of votes, but it is highly unlikely. In the territories, it is much more likely that both elected senators will get a full quota.
When the new Senate assembles, the late-placed candidates can expect to be denigrated as ‘below-quota’ winners.
The below-quota winners won’t necessarily all be minor party candidates – the last seats won by Labor or Coalition candidates could also easily be among this group.
The system is fair to all the parties and candidates, and is fully set out in advance in the electoral law.
So long as voters are allowed to only partly fill out their ballots, such results cannot be avoided.
The problem can be addressed – mostly – by adopting a counting rule that the quota is recalculated – adjusted downwards a little – after every single candidate elimination, to account for exhausted ballots that are slowly piling up during the count.
This alternative, known as the ‘floating quota’, is theoretically fairer as is does more to ensure that every ballot paper is equally influential on the election. It would guarantee that at least 11 of the 12 winners would have the same quota, but it would not entirely eliminate the phenomenon. With voluntary preferencing, nothing can rule out the possibility that the 12th elected candidate might still remain below the final quota.
Attempting to shift to the floating quota rule – which will not be used for this election, the current law is clear – would trigger political arguments. The alternative might just result in a different set of 12 winners to the plain counting rule, leading to endless partisan disputes.
In any case, tinkering with the counting rules to try to achieve absolutely equal influence of all Senate election votes is fairly pointless in the Australian context.
The eight divisions in which Australian voters elect senators – the six states and two territories – are so divergent in population size that the Senate electoral system involves massive malapportionment.
In this election it will take around 27,000 votes to elect a senator for Tasmania, and 35,000 votes to elect each Northern Territory senator. (The exact quotas will be determined in the next fortnight when all the votes are in.)
South Australian senators will need around 83,000 votes, and ACT senators around 90,000. For a Western Australian senator the target will be around 109,000 votes, in Queensland it will be near 217,000, in Victoria 275,000, and New South Wales senators will need about 355,000 votes.
This is voter inequality on an industrial scale.
The system for the election of Australian Senate is the second most unequal for voters used in all the world’s elected houses of parliament. Only the system for electing the United States Senate – the historical parent of the Australian Senate – involves more unequal voter influence.
The Australian Senate’s composition was a pre-federation constitutional compromise, and the odds of it ever being changed are very long.
Against the background of this level of voter inequality, tinkering with the counting rules to deal with the ‘below-quota’ issue seems pretty irrelevant.
Australians don’t have anything close to equal influence in electing senators, and no counting rule change made by Parliament will fix that.