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Above or below the line? Managing preference votes

By Antony Green - posted Wednesday, 20 April 2005

Before new electoral rules were introduced in 1984, elections for the Australian Senate were marred by rates of informal voting that sometimes rose above 10 per cent. Voters were forced to indicate preferences for every candidate on gigantic ballot papers with no party names, the process a recipe for error and confusion.

The 1984 legislative changes simplified voting by adding party names to the ballot paper and also introduced the current ballot paper divided by a thick horizontal line. Electors can now vote for a single group ticket voting square “above the line”, or vote by marking preferences for every candidate “below the line”. At the 2004 Senate election, 96 per cent of mainland electors voted above the line, a lower 81.2 per cent in Tasmania where state elections have given voters more experience with proportional representation.

Parties with a group voting square have lodged one, two or three group ticket votes showing preferences for all candidates on the ballot paper. Electors voting for a party using the group ticket voting option effectively cede their right to distribute preferences, ballot papers defaulting to the preference ticket of the selected party.


The good that has come from ticket voting is the dramatic fall in Senate informal voting. But the acceptance of group ticket voting has involved a trade-off. With the vast majority of ballot papers now tied to party tickets, increasingly Byzantine preference deals are being engaged in by political parties in an attempt to engineer election results. A democratic deficit has developed, with serious questions as to whether the results engineered by group ticket voting truly represent the will of the electorate.

The democratic deficit is clear when you look at the choices faced by voters. Group ticket voting produces the ridiculous situation where voters are forced to choose between voting above the line for a party ticket they don’t know, can’t find out about and probably wouldn’t understand if they could, or to vote below the line giving preferences to a vast array of candidates they don’t know and don’t care about just to have their vote count for the smaller number of candidates they do know.

Consider the choices faced by New South Wales voters at the 2004 Senate election. A well informed voter could have examined the preference deals on the Electoral Commission’s website, except the booklet on NSW preferences was a pdf file of 1.6 megabytes, unusable without broadband internet connection. Alternatively, electors could try examining the Group Ticket Voting booklet available in polling places. Assuming the staff knew what the voter was talking about, one of these 80 page booklets would be available for every thousand voters expected at a polling place. Even then, an elector would have needed an intimate knowledge of the electoral system to understand this booklet. Even for those with inside knowledge, some of the NSW preference deals were unfathomable.

If our informed voter passed these hurdles and decided they didn’t like the preference deal of their party, what could they do? In NSW, the only choice was to number preferences for all 78 candidates listed below the line. Party “how to vote” material is of no assistance, only recommending an above the line vote. Even the best informed voter would be lucky to know half the candidates and parties on the ballot paper. To cast a formal vote, the only option to complete a ballot paper would be some form of random process to allocate further preferences.

Yet the democratic deficit goes beyond the choices faced by voters. The tight exchange of preferences made possible by group ticket voting is distorting the preference choices of the political parties. The power over preferences delivered by group ticket voting is leading to strategic preference deals that owe more to the academic field of game theory than political ideology.

The Senate’s electoral system is one type of “Proportional Representation by Single Transferable Vote”, or PR-STV for short. It is not proportional representation based on the primary vote, as seen every where else in the world, but operates on a complex interplay of primary votes and preferences. Primary votes determine the number of Senators each party elects with full quotas in the initial stages of the count. The final vacancies are filled by the distribution of preferences between candidates remaining with partial quotas.


In all other systems of proportional representation, a party’s sole interest is to maximise its own vote. Under PR-STV, a party has two interests, maximising its own vote, but if one of its own candidates cannot be elected, there is a second interest in influencing which other parties win the final vacancies on preferences.

PR-STV counting is mind numbingly complex, but the simple strategy for a voter to follow is to simply number all the candidates in the order they would like to see them elected. Any attempt to vote tactically could fail, because it requires detailed knowledge of how many quotas each party will fill, and also in what order each party will finish after all candidates with full quotas have been excluded from the count.

Political parties have more knowledge of the order each ballot paper group is likely to finish, and thanks to ticket voting, they also have a mechanism to trade preferences with other parties. If it were it not for ticket voting, major parties would not do deals with smaller parties, as the smaller parties would not be able to deliver on their end of any deal.

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This article has been based on a submission to the current enquiry of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the conduct of the 2004 Commonwealth election. Submissions to the enquiry will be published at the end of April.

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About the Author

Antony Green is an Election Analyst and produces regular publications on elections for parliamentary libraries, but he is best known for producing the reams of content at the ABC's election websites, and also as the face of ABC-TV election broadcasts. He is currently on extended leave from the ABC, and the opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not represent any view of the ABC.

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