On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Australia nears its centenary of ranked choice voting

Five seats in the Australian Parliament have been decided in a weekend of by-elections using preferential (ranked choice) voting.

Across the United States and Canada, reform movements are calling for ranked choice voting for their own elections.

This weekend’s Australian by-elections (known as special elections in the US) close out a century of the use of preferential voting for seats in Australia’s House of Representatives.

Australia adopted preferential voting in late 1918, first using the method for a by-election in December of that year, just weeks after the end of World War I.

There had been experiments in preferential voting in Australian states since the turn of the 20th century, and preferential voting was almost chosen in the parliamentary debate over Australia’s first national electoral law in 1902.

All of Australia’s state parliaments in turn shifted from plurality voting to preferential voting by the 1930s.

Australian parliaments 2018

Electoral systems used in Australia; all use preferential (‘ranked choice’) voting

While most of the Australian parliamentary lower houses (where governments are formed) now use preferential voting in single-member electoral divisions, a few governing houses, and most of the upper houses (the national Senate and the state Legislative Councils) use multi-member electoral divisions, with the system known as single transferable voting (STV).

In the United States, Maine has just this year become the first state to adopt preferential voting. In June the adoption of the system was confirmed by voters, and party candidate primary elections were decided using the system.

In November’s US national elections Mainers will now elect their two Members of Congress and one Senator using the ranked choice system.

The details of the five Australian by-election results overnight will also be of interest to American electoral reformers.

Four of the five contests were needed because of the rolling fiasco of members of the Australian Parliament being found to have possible grandparent-based claims to dual citizenships in other countries, which resulted in their 2016 elections being invalidated on a constitutional technicality. The fifth by-election resulted from an ordinary mid-term retirement by the sitting member.

Most Australian electoral contests are fought between the two major national parties, the centre-left Labor Party and the centre-right Coalition of the Liberal and National parties. But only two of this weekend’s five contests saw ‘standard’ contests between those parties.

The by-elections in the divisions of Longman* (north of Brisbane in the state of Queensland) and Braddon (making up the north-west and west coasts of Tasmania) were primarily contests between the two major parties. Both are closely contested electoral divisions, probably slightly favouring the Coalition in general, yet each had been narrowly won by Labor at the 2016 general election.

(*In Australia electoral divisions are given formal names; some are geographical, but many divisions get their names to honour prominent historical figures.)

These two contests had rather melodramatically been seen by national media as an acute test of the standing of the national leaders, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Labor Leader Bill Shorten. (The notion of parliamentary representation of the citizens of these localities has come a very distant second in the mainstream political punditry).

In the division of Longman, on results overnight** the Coalition has apparently shed around 10% of the vote compared to 2016 results to secure a weak 28% of the vote – a pretty embarrassing outcome, largely being put down to a flawed candidate and poor campaigning.

(**The link above is to the Australian Electoral Commission’s results page, which will update progressively over the days ahead. On election nights in Australia final counting usually represents the ballots of around 80% of registered voters, and this number creeps up to around 90% as postal and other special ballots are counted in the following days. Most Australian elections have final turnouts of 90-95% of registered voters.)

Labor’s Longman candidate – the former member Susan Lamb – has gained 5% compared to the last election result, to take just over 40% of the vote.

16% of the vote has gone to the ‘populist’ One Nation party candidate. The Greens party won 5%. Seven other minor candidates secured the remaining 11% of the vote.

Under preferential counting, the seven minor candidates will be successively eliminated in the order of their vote tallies, and the ballots marked “1” for each will be re-tallied for the voters’ next-preferred candidates. These ballots will probably not lift Lamb to the 50% target; indeed they are mainly ballots cast for politically conservative minor candidates, so the flow of preferences’ on these ballots will probably somewhat favour the Coalition candidate or (temporarily) the One Nation candidate.

The Green-voter ballots will be re-tallied next, and since preferences from voters who vote Green traditionally flow 70-80% to Labor, these ballots will boost Labor’s candidate close to victory.

Finally, the One Nation candidate – by this point probably holding a tally of around 20% of the vote – will be the last to be eliminated. But even if those votes favour the Coalition over Labor by around 60/40, this re-tallying should easily see Labor win the final stage of the count.

Indeed, we actually already know that this will happen, because in Australian elections the counting staff are instructed to re-examine the ballot papers cast for other than the two leading candidates on election night itself.

AEC election ballot counting

Australian election ballots being counted by hand on election night (image: AEC)

This work is what generates the “Two candidate preferred (TCP)” count shown in the provisional online election results, which have Labor’s Susan Lamb on 55.4% the morning after the election. The exact numbers will shift slightly in the days ahead, but Lamb is safe.


In the Tasmanian seat of Braddon the result of closer, but Labor is also counted to have won 52.4% of the two-candidate preferred vote overnight – safe enough.

The Liberal candidate in Braddon was in fact in front on 39% to Labor’s 37% at the first preference vote count. An independent won 10% of the vote, and apparently his supporters preferenced Labor over Liberal on their ballots by around 80/20. Five other minor candidates also ran. The elimination counts done so far have proved to be enough to lift Labor’s candidate Justine Keay up to over 52%.

Results where the candidate ranked 2ndon the count of first preferences takes enough preferences to win the election from other ballots first favouring eliminated candidates happen fairly frequently in Australia, occurring over 10% of the time in recent decades.

In Maine this year, the same mechanics will apply. However, Australia has a specific rule that to be valid, ballots must mark a ranking for each and every candidate on the ballot, leading to some pretty casual lower preferences (and also to a few needlessly invalidated ballots).

Election law in Maine has not copied this rule, so some ballots will become ‘exhausted’ if the voters only mark preferences for candidates who get eliminated from the count. Ballots will influence the final election result so long as some preference ranking is marked for at least one of the last two leading candidates (normally being the Republican and Democratic parties, although Maine voters have a track record of heavily backing independents).

Speaking of independents, back in Australia another result overnight was that in the division of Mayo, conservative-voting territory in the Hills south of Adelaide, capitol of South Australia. The seat was surprisingly lost by the Liberal (conservative) party in 2016, to Rebekah Sharkie, candidate of a centrist party now known as Centre Alliance.

Sharkie has remarkably increased her support from 36% of the first-preference vote in 2016 (she eventually won in a 3-way contest) to 44%, reducing the Liberal vote to just 35%. Labor scored a risible 6% of the vote here last night; Labor voters, few in number in this area, appear to have swung in behind the ‘independent’.

Sharkie seems set to follow the Australian tradition of independents who, once they win a seat in Parliament, tend to increase their vote and endure for several elections. The federal House currently has well-entrenched independents from northern Queensland, rural Victoria and the Tasmanian city of Hobart.

The final two elections overnight were held in the divisions of Perth and Fremantle in urban Perth, capitol of Western Australia. Both are fairly safe Labor divisions, and the Liberal Party in fact did not even nominate a candidate.

Final two-candidate count results in both these elections seem to be around 65% for Labor to 35% for the Greens party (which typically scores 10-15% in urban areas in ordinary elections). But there are signs that the turnout will be low in both cases. (In Australia voting is compulsory, so many registered electors in these divisions will get a notice in the mail threatening a small fine unless they can come up with some plausible excuse for not voting.)

So in the end, Saturday’s five by-elections have returned (eventual full results will be here) the same parties or independents who held the seats previously, in four cases re-electing the same MPs whose eligibility for office was voided by the courts (they have since taken the legal steps they needed to become eligible for election).

Nothing changes about the overall composition of the national House of Representatives, in which the Coalition government currently has a narrow majority of 76 of the 150 seats.

Australia’s electoral law will celebrate the centenary of the adoption of preferential voting in October, just a few months away.

The next full election of the House is at the discretion of the Prime Minister, and after last night’s disappointing results for his party (which lost votes in each of the three contests it entered) the election is now expected in the first half of 2019, probably as late as May.

In the upcoming election of a US Senator for Maine on 6 November, one of the candidates will be popular incumbent independent Senator Angus King, making ranked choice voting all the more important by avoiding the result of a three-way contest being decided by a simple plurality of votes.

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