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In praise of preferential voting

By Helen Pringle - posted Monday, 28 March 2011

Like Blind Freddie, I was not on the edge of my chair waiting for the result of the NSW state election last Saturday. Instead, the poll result of most interest to students of voting in 2011 will be known on 5 May, when UK voters answer the question: 'At present, the UK uses the "first past the post" system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the "alternative vote" system be used instead?'. And because the United Kingdom has always been multicultural, the ballot paper in Wales will also ask the question in the ancient language of the Welsh: 'Ar hyn o bryd, mae'r DU yn defnyddio'r system "y cyntaf i'r felin" i ethol ASau i Dŷ'r Cyffredin. A ddylid defnyddio'r system "pleidlais amgen" yn lle hynny?'.

The coalition agreement between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties reached after the 2010 UK general election included undertakings about electoral reform, one of which was holding such a referendum on the alternative vote system (AV), a proposal given assent in February 2011 as part of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act. By 'alternative vote' is meant what is usually called in Australia 'preferential voting', where casting a formal vote requires voters to mark the candidates in an order of preference, rather than just indicating their one most preferred candidate with a cross or tick. The UK Electoral Reform Society, which is campaigning in favour of a referendum 'yes' vote, points out that many elections in the UK and elsewhere are conducted by AV: elections for Labour and Liberal Democrat party leaders and for parliamentary officials in the UK, the poll for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the election for the Taoiseach of Ireland. However, preferential voting is used most comprehensively in Australia, where it was introduced in 1918 by Billy Hughes, and first used at the controversial Corangamite by-election in December 1918, following changes to the Electoral Act rushed through Parliament.

A compelling argument against preferential voting is that it is too difficult and turns voters off, thus contributing to high levels of informal voting, through both deliberate protest votes and unintentional informal voting. A preferential system has this result in part because it encourages small or minor parties to stand candidates who have little hope of winning but who can influence the election outcome through the distribution of their preferences. That is, a vote for a minor or single-issue candidate is in that case not "wasted" but is transferred until the election is declared of the most popular or rather, the least unpopular, candidate. Horror stories abound about the proliferation in Australian elections of candidates with little hope of winning, and the subsequent confusion and ennui of voters, especially in multi-member constituencies such as in Australian upper houses.


One of the most cited examples that is grist for opponents of preferential voting is the 1999 New South Wales election, where 264 candidates in 81 groups nominated for election for the 21 available seats on the Legislative Council. The ballot paper measured 1 metre by 0.7 metre and was called the 'tablecloth', presenting problems for many voters (as well as for the counters). Various reforms made after 1999 attempted to address this problem, but in the 2007 election to the Legislative Council, 333 candidates stood, albeit from only 20 groups, a response to changes in the mode of 'above the line' voting.

Most voters use 'above the line' to cast their votes in the Legislative Council and other upper houses. For example, only 1.72% of voters in the 2007 NSW Council election filled in the squares below the line. I was one of that 1.72%. Voting below the line is really not that hard to do, and it is very satisfying. I start from the bottom, from 333 in the 1999 election, say, and work my way up to No 1. I long ago gave up on voting down the ticket, that is from my most favoured candidate [1] through to the least favoured [333]. In my opinion, it is one of life's small pleasures to stand in a ballot box faced with a tablecoth, and wonder who it is I most despise. One Nation or The Sex Party? Shooters or Fred Nile? And as I work my way up from the bottom, I have to think carefully about where in the middle I will place Godfrey Bigot or Ivor F.

I once served as a scrutineer at a NSW election, and so I know how much easier it is to count 'above the line' ballots. But I can't help myself in the ballot box. I don't even always keep to the order of the party group, but will jump in and out of the group order with alacrity. So my major decision in the 2011 NSW election was not who to vote for, but who to put last. For the Legislative Council, Group J was a clear choice, followed by a foray into Group A to pick up David Clarke, before returning to Group F en masse. But how to choose between the Fishing Party on the one hand, and the Shooters and Fishers on the other? In that large 'middle' on the ballot paper, there are few recognizable names unless your uncle happens to be one of those standing for the No Parking Meters Party (there are 18 of them).

However, voting pests like me who number every square actually form one of the chief arguments against preferential voting: 'vermin of the polling booth' as a friend calls my behaviour. That is, proponents and joyful practitioners of preferential voting uphold a complex system, where instead the simplicity of first past the post voting should be preferred. Australia has one of the highest rates of informal voting in the world, with Australian Electoral Commission research indicating that the rate has risen almost across the board since the 1980s. One of the highest informal rates was recorded at the 2005 by-election in Werriwa to replace Mark Latham, where 16 candidates stood and 13.2% of votes were deemed informal. This figure did include a high level of protest voting (indicated by ballots marked by profanity or profanity directed at a particular candidate, or with a comment such 'waste of time or money'). However, the majority of informal votes in Australian elections are probably accidental, with a voter trying to record a formal vote but failing to do so. The level of informal votes is higher in electorates of lower socio-economic background and educational level, for example.

Preferential voting does encourage a proliferation of candidates, and that is certainly one of the main occasions on which informal voting goes up. However, my argument here is that preferential voting should not be blamed for high informal voting levels. For one thing, it is not obvious to me that having many candidates in an election is a bad thing. In fact, having many candidates is arguably more democratic on its face, allowing people a greater choice. Of course, it can't be helped that your candidate doesn't get in because not enough people share your choice, that too is how democracy works.

My argument is that what increases informal voting is not the complexity of the preferential or AV system. Rather, it is the diversity of voting systems within Australia. While diversity is almost always a good, it is not so in the case of voters negotiating different voting systems. In a recently completed study of the 2002 Cunningham by-election, Scott Denton has shown that voter confusion over different voting systems has a clear connection with high levels of informal voting. Cunningham voters went to the 2002 poll after facing eight local, state and federal government elections since 1998, each with different requirements for recording a formal vote. Moreover, voter confusion as to how to cast a formal vote has been shown to have a disproportionate impact on Labor's vote.


For state-level elections, New South Wales at present has 'optional preferential' voting, which means that voters may mark as many candidates on the ballot paper as they choose, as long as the numbering is in correct sequence. Local government elections in NSW have widely different requirements. And NSW arrangements differ significantly from commonwealth election rules on what is required for a vote to be counted as formal.

So here's my modest proposal: we should work to bring the requirements for a formal vote into close alignment throughout Australia, so that the same group of voters is not faced with conflicting requirements in different elections. Democratic experimentation and diversity are good things, but not where a result is effective disenfranchisement of a significant proportion of voters by having their ballots counted as informal. Even voting on a tablecloth is not too difficult for Australians, but what is difficult is trying to juggle different tablecloths. My additional proposal, as a joyful 'below the line' voter, is to do away with 'optional preferential' voting. Unless numbering every square is required, we are on the way, by stealth rather than design, to a first-past-the-post electoral system. And if you think that is a good thing, perhaps Al Gore and Ralph Nader would be interested in your explanation of its merits.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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