On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Election of the Australian House of Representatives 2013

On 7 September 2013 enrolled electors in each of 150 electoral divisions voted to elect members to the House.

The electoral system by which the House is currently constituted is the product of two key historical decisions: the adoption of a system of single-member electoral divisions in 1902, and the adoption of the preferential voting method in 1918 (with compulsory preferencing from 1934).

Two other legislative decisions – the adoption of compulsory enrolment in 1911 and of compulsory voting in 1922 – have also been influential, but are not part of the vote counting method itself.

The decision by the Parliament in 1902 to enact the single-member electoral system for the House has had very significant negative effects on the representativeness of the House over the past 112 years. This voting system preserves one of the primary goals of representation, in that the system is at least one of direct election. However the Houses elected from 1901 onward have all been formed under arrangements of highly constrained choice, very unequal voting influence and a general failure to represent over half of all electors. There has been just one election result, in 1931, in which more than 50% of the (enrolled) Australian electorate endorsed (through first preference votes) the government that took office.


Participation in the 2013 election was a nominal turnout of 93.2% of the enrolled voters. By world standards this is very respectable, and is driven both by legislative compulsion and the entrenched habits of Australian voters. However, it is noteworthy that this statistic is creeping downwards in recent elections.

Around 5.5% of enrolled voters participated in the voting process but their vote was not counted as valid. Previous analysis by the Commission shows that around half of such voters are submitting blank ballots, while the remainder are having their votes invalidated for some technical defect despite their intention to participate in the choosing of representatives.

The denial of effective participation to this latter group – over 400,000 voters – is largely a result of the imposed requirement for compulsory preferencing.

The resulting final rate of participation in the 2013 House was around 87.7% of enrolled voters. Together with the 2010 result (88.0%) the past two elections have been the lowest such results since the 1920s.

This trend should be of concern. Appropriately, in 2012 Australia’s Parliament passed legislative reforms to protect and increase participation, establishing an improved system of maintenance of enrolment data.

It is noteworthy that in 2013 the valid (formal) House vote was slightly less than the equivalent vote for the election of senators which was held on the same polling day. The likely explanation for this is that there is a small population of voters who could find a candidate to their liking among the greater variety of Senate candidates on offer, but do could find one on their more choice-constrained House ballot. In response such voters presumably submitted a blank House ballot paper.


The House is elected by a system of direct voting, as is desirable in principle and as is apparently required by the Australian Constitution.


In regards to choice, the system of electoral divisions enacted by Parliament has meant that in most elections electors have had only a handful of candidates among which to choose.

Indeed, in many instances in the earlier decades, instances of there being only one nominated candidate – and therefore no choice at all – were frequent. The last instance of this was a single case in the small-population Northern Territory division in 1961; single-nomination events ceased in larger state divisions after 1955.

In all cases in 2013 electors were offered no choice of candidates within political parties. In past decades there were cases of the Country (later National) Party offering multiple candidates, but the practice died out after the 1970s.

Inequality of voter influence

The inequality of enrolment between the 150 divisions of the House showed a coefficient of variation of 8.54.

This is fairly respectable compared to other nations using single-member divisions, and is due to Australia’s reasonably good system of divisional redistributions.

The variation would be lower but for the effect of rounding of numbers of seats for the three smallest jurisdictions (Tasmania, the ACT and the NT), and the constitutional minimum of 5 seats for Tasmania.

However the inequality of effective influence of Australia’s voters was sharply higher – a variation coefficient of 69.7, a result in the mid-range of recent elections. The result demonstrates that drawing divisional boundaries to provide similar enrolment numbers does very little in practice to give voters real one-vote-one-value influence.

Finally, voters also had very unequal influence on the election of Members depending on which political party they prefer. The different numbers of supporting first preference votes needed for different groups of partisans to elect representatives (and treating ‘other micro-parties’ and ‘independents’ collectively simply to include them in the table) are shown here:

party No. of votes needed to win each seat
Major parties collectively 70,305
Liberal 71,291
LNP 51,899
National 61,585
Labor 78,388
Greens 1 seat –   1,116,918
PUP 1 seat –   709,035
Katter AP 1 seat –   134,226
Other micro parties 0 seats –   460,389
Independents 2 seats –   150,088

Actual representation

There were 14,722,752 electors enrolled to elect members to the House at the elections. Of these, 6,200,020, or 42.1% of those enrolled, saw a candidate of their primary choice elected.

This is the lowest result since the introduction of compulsory voting in 1922. The second-lowest result recorded since 1922 was that of 2010 (43.6%), indicating that a trend is emerging.

After preferences were distributed around 51.5% of enrolled voters preferred the members who were elected to the House than any of the available alternatives. This is also the lowest result against this measure since at least 1998.

However, this is not a very well-founded measure, because it cannot be assumed that preferences for those who were elected over the limited range of available alternatives is the same as outright endorsement, because of the imposition of compulsory voting.

Millions of Australians did not achieve actual representation in the House of Representatives which was shorn in in November 2013.

We can identify where they live and who they voted for in some detail. The unrepresented include:

  • urban Liberal voters (around 1,128,000)
  • rural Labor voters (around 780,000)
  • both Coalition and Labor voters in provincial centres (around 560,000 together)
  • Greens voters everywhere except in the division of Melbourne (around 1,080,000)
  • Palmer United Party voters everywhere except in the division of Fairfax (around 687,000)
  • other micro-party voters almost everywhere, except for the KAP supporters in the division of Kennedy (around 570,000)
  • independent voters other than those who supported the elected members for the divisions of Indi and Denison (around 249,000).



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