On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Western Australian election shows weaknesses of Australian electoral laws

Counting has finished in the state election for Western Australia. The result is a pair of only partially satisfactory democratic assemblies.

Western Australia has a fairly standard form of Australian parliament, consisting of a lower house (the Legislative Assembly) elected in single-member electoral divisions, and an upper house (the Legislative Council) elected by the multi-member direct election system known as the single transferable vote (STV).

Australian elections typically take around a fortnight to complete their vote counting process. There are two separate reasons for the delay.

Firstly, Australia’s electoral laws allow voters the option of submitting postal votes or voting ‘absently’ in polling places away from their home. Around a week is usually allowed for such ballots to be received by their intended ballot counting centre.

Secondly, Australia’s voting systems all use preferential voting, which means that a process of eliminating minor candidates and transferring their votes to other candidates needs to be undertaken.

Since the sequential elimination of candidates must wait for every ballot to be available, the formal preference transfers cannot begin until every postal and absent vote has arrived.

To count the preferences in the larger STV-based electoral systems, Australian electoral authorities now digitize the ballot data, a laborious process that is then capped by a rapid revelation of the seat winners once the authorities ‘push the button’ on their vote counting software.

(In the STV-based elections in Éire and Northern Ireland, by contrast, preferential transfers begin on the morning after election night, and the conclusive results are usually available within a day or so).

The counts for single-member electorates in the Australian lower houses are simpler, but they also typically involve a handful of seats still awaiting confirmed outcomes a fortnight after election day.

Nonetheless, the election results for the great majority of Australian single-member division seats is usually obvious late on election night. More than half of these seats are won outright by more than 50% of ‘first preferences’.

The recent West Australian election, which saw a landslide government-changing win for the Labor Party, illustrates many of the strengths and weaknesses of Australia’s electoral systems.

Almost all Australians vote in national and state elections, in part because because voting is legally compulsory. But Australians also have a strong duty-to-vote culture, and opinion polls have always indicated that compulsory voting is strongly supported.

For many decades Australian election turnout rates were at around 95%. But in recent years national turnouts have been declining to below 90%, and state polls are typically a little lower still.

At the Western Australian poll two weeks around 87% of the electorate showed up to have their names marked off, with around 83% casting valid ballots.

While declining, these turnout rates are still among the highest in the world.

image - WA Legislative Assembly.jpg

The Legislative Assembly chamber

The newly elected Legislative Assembly – the state’s lower house, in which executive governments are formed – will have 59 members elected singly in local electoral divisions.

Between them, they represent the first preference votes of around 39.5% of the state’s registered voters – just under half of those who cast valid ballots.

The result illustrates that the majority of voters – those who did not support the single seat winner – do not get the representation in the Assembly that they desire.

Preferential voting means that the MLAs chosen in each Assembly electoral division is at worst the whole local electorate’s preferred compromise candidate.

But thousands of people voted for someone else, and end up with a ‘local member’ whose votes in parliament may be the exact opposite of what many of them would wish.

The Labor party won 41 of the 59 Assembly seats. These 41 members only fully represent the 456,000 Labor voters for whom they were the preferred representative.

A slightly greater number of voters in these 41 divisions – 474,000 – are not appropriately represented.

In the remaining 18 electoral divisions the degree of representation is even lower. In these areas 172,000 Liberal and National party supporters are the only voters truly represented, while 101,000 Labor supporters and 117,000 other voters (including some Liberal and National supporters in seats where both nominated) remain unrepresented.

These low rates of representation are endemic to all single-member electoral systems.

Australia’s national House of Representative – last elected in July 2016 – only represents the first preference wishes of just under 41% of Australians.

And Australian results are typically the highest in the world for single-member division systems, because of Australia’s very high turnout rates.

Both the UK House of Commons and the Canadian House of Commons currently represent just 33% of their nations’ registered voters.

The United States House of Representatives represents 37% of voters since its new term began in January 2017. The figure is higher than for Britain and Canada largely because the two main US political parties so dominate their system that votes which in other comparable democracies spread to third or minor parties are captured within the major party vote.

For the preceding two years, the mid-term elected US House had represented a shockingly low 23% of American voters.

image - WA Legislative Council.jpg

The Legislative Council chamber

The Western Australian upper house, the Legislative Council, is a more representative chamber than its companion on the other side of the Parliament building. In the new Council will sit 36 members representing 67% of the state’s registered voters.

But the Council has other democratic flaws, the most noticeable being that some of the state’s voters have votes weighted at up to six times the value of others.WALC regions.png

The giant Mining and Pastoral electoral division – which at over 2 million square kilometres is the largest parliamentary electoral division in the world (depending on how the Russian national party-list electoral system is understood) – is home to just 68,000 registered voters.

Those who actually vote – at the recent election, only 49,000 people –  elect 6 members to the Council.

But in the three electoral divisions in the state capital Perth, it takes a quota of almost as many voters – about 46,000 – to elect a single Council member.

The malapportionment here is the last remaining instance of rural vote weighting, previously common in many of Australia’s state and federal parliamentary systems.

Largely abolished by the 1980s in Australia, rural vote weighting rules now only continue in Western Australia and, to a slight degree, in the state of Queensland.

Scaled around a median value of 1.00 vote:

  • the 962,000 Perth urban electors who voted this month had votes worth 0.68
  • the 194,000 voters in the South-West division had votes worth 1.03
  • the 83,000 voters in the Agricultural division had votes worth 2.70
  • the 49,000 who voted in the Mining and Pastoral Division had votes worth 4.13

Significantly, the Mining and Pastoral voters also turned out to vote at easily the lowest rate in the state – just 72% – meaning that those who did vote has even more exaggerated influence on electing members to the Council.

The vote weighting has noticeable partisan impacts. In general, it reliably returns more politically conservative members to the Council than the state’s voters as a whole intend.

Curiously, at this month’s election the final seat awarded (out of 6) in two of the three over-weighted Council electoral divisions were won by candidates from the progressive Green party. However the MLCs for these divisions were, as a whole, generally more conservative than elsewhere in the state.

The Greens’ luck in winning those two non-urban seats has been balanced by a highly unlikely result of losing a seat in the South Metropolitan urban electoral division, where a seat that would naturally have been won by the Greens has been snatched by a candidate from the Liberal Democrat micro-party.

The latter result is the outcome of another defect of the Council electoral system. Western Australia still uses the discredited ‘group voting ticket’ system (GVT), whereby political parties can direct all the preference flows of voters who select the group ticket option on the ballot to other parties and candidates of the party’s choosing.

The result of the GVT technique – recently abandoned for use in electing the national Senate, but still in use in three Australian states – is that political parties can try to horse-trade their support for each other to win Council places.

GVT-based election results are, however, radically unpredictable, since neither the parties nor the voters can know in advance the order of elimination of candidates which will emerge as the votes are counted, and therefore the order in which the GVTs will be activated..

In the recent poll most electoral divisions have seen the sixth and last seat – generally the one most affected by the GVT rule – throw up surprise results.

The Liberal Democrat candidate (supported by 13,268 voters) collecting preferences through GVTs to win a seat over the Green candidate (28,269 voters) in the South Metropolitan division is one such result.

Similarly the Shooters Farmers and Fishers (SFF) party won a seat in the Agricultural region with 4,626 initial votes. The seat would most likely have gone to the ‘populist’ One Nation party, which started with 9,671 votes, had a more normal flow of voter individual preferences determined the result.

And the Liberal Party lost the last seat to One Nation in the East Metropolitan division for the same reason.

All up, the combination of malapportionment and the GVT rule has had the net effect, in comparison to how many seats each political party might have won based on their statewide voter support, of most likely depriving the Labor party of two Council seats and the Liberal party of one, and transferring them one each to the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and the SFF party.

At least four small minor conservative parties – the SFF party, two Christian parties and the Liberal Democrats – between them shared enough votes to possibly win two seats, if their supporting voters happened to continue down the ballot to give preferences among this cluster. This vote base would also have overlapped with the supporters of the One Nation party to some extent.

But the election results which have occurred are almost completely fortuitous in nature.

Perhaps the most aggrieved party is the Australian Christians group, which won significantly more votes statewide (24,000) than the Liberal Democrats (19,000) and would have received significant preferences from the supporters of the other Christian party, Family First.

The Liberal Democrat winner also appears to have benefited from a simple case of mistaken identity by voters. As many as 3% of voters in the South Metropolitan division may have intended to vote for the Liberal Party, but marked the box for the similarly-named (and earlier–occurring on the ballot paper in this electoral division) Liberal Democrats party by error.

The mis-voting – if it happened – probably did not deprive the Liberal party of a seat, but rather cost the Greens the last seat in the affected electoral division.

This unfortunate confusion of names has occurred previously in a national Senate election.

The Liberal Party regularly tries to have the Liberal Democrat name deregistered – making a proprietary claim over a political adjective that is very hard to justify (all the more so because the modern Liberal Party is arguably much more conservative than liberal in nature).

As of 2016 ballot papers for Australian Senate elections include graphic party logos to attempt to minimize such errors.

Printing of multiple versions of the ballot paper, which diminishes the rate of such party identity errors and largely eliminates their impact, is a useful technique also used in the state of Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.

All up, the political complexion of the new Western Australian Legislative Council will be 18 progressive (Labor and Greens parties) and 18 conservative (Liberal, National and all other) members. A 19:17 split would have better reflected the statewide voter support recorded at the election.

The conservative equality of council votes will also have the unhappy effect of blocking legislation to reform the existing defects of the state electoral laws, unless one or more of the large or small conservative parties chooses to support reform.

The Labor Party and the Greens have both attempted to eliminate the malapportionment caused by rural vote weighting in the past. The state constitution requires an absolute majority (19 votes) in the Council to effect legislative change.

However at a national level the Labor Party has yet to accept the need to abolish the GVT ballot technique, having opposed the Senate ballot reforms in 2016.

The two Western Australian houses will serve four year terms.

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