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Above or below the line? Managing preference votes

By Antony Green - posted Wednesday, 20 April 2005

Ticket voting has introduced two tactics that are distorting the proportionality of the Senate’s electoral system. The first I will call preference “harvesting”, and is a tactic employed by minor and “micro” parties to keep preferences away from major parties. The second I will call preference “corralling”, deals done between minor and major parties to engineer results.

Preference harvesting has produced unseemly “show and tell” meetings in foyers of Electoral Commissions across the country, as parties and candidates with no ideological affinity engage in the game of keeping preferences away from the bigger parties. Its first successful use was at the 1995 NSW Legislative Council election, when Alan Corbett was elected on behalf of a party called “A Better Future for Our Children”. The tactic was also successful at the 1997 South Australia election, when anti-poker machine campaigner, Nick Xenophon, was elected after harvesting the preferences of every other minor party on the ballot paper.

The game reached new heights at the 1999 NSW election. A plethora of so-called “micro” parties created a ballot paper the size of a tablecloth, with 264 candidates and 81 groups across 3 rows. Despite finishing 29th on the primary vote, Malcolm Jones from the Outdoor Recreation Party stormed to victory with just 0.2 per cent of the vote, or 0.04 of a quota. Jones harvested preferences from 21 other parties, including 8 that had achieved a higher primary count.


This success by micro-parties has produced the most disquiet concerning ticket voting. It has produced suggestions that a new “threshold” be introduced, a minimal level of primary vote that a party must achieve before it is allowed to stay in the count and collect votes as preferences. The problem with this idea is there would be no need for a threshold if it were not for ticket voting. It would also encourage larger parties to do even more preference swaps, secure that preference deals with small parties could never be reversed.

The second strategy of preference “corralling” has been less controversial to date. It was first seen at the 1984 Senate election when Labor and the Coalition did a preference swap in NSW to prevent the election of the Nuclear Disarmament Party’s Peter Garrett, despite him winning 9.1 per cent of the vote. Three years later, the preference deals were different, Labor helping to elect the far less threatening Robert Wood on behalf of Nuclear Disarmament, despite polling just 1.2 per cent of the vote.

The 1998 election saw the most extensive use of preference corralling as swaps between the major parties, Greens and Australian Democrats worked to prevent victories by candidates from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. Despite One Nation easily outpolling the Australian Democrats in five states, it was the Democrats that elected five Senators and One Nation a single Senator. Perversely, the Democrats recorded by far their best vote in Victoria, the one state where it failed to elect a Senator, and where One Nation’s preferences instead elected Australia’s first Asian born Senator.

Now the 2004 Senate election has seen these strategies reach new heights. All sorts of bizarre deals were done in a bid to engineer the Senate result. In NSW, these complex deals elected a third Labor Senator at the expense of the Greens. In Victoria it resulted in the election of Stephen Fielding from Family First, despite receiving only 1.9 per cent of the vote. In Tasmania, it almost led to another Family First victory, the deal undermined only by the high incidence of below the line voting in Tasmania.

Parties have two major strategic objectives under PR-STV:

  • A party is more interested in electing one of its own candidates than candidates of any other party.
  • If a party cannot elect one of its own candidates, it has an interest in controlling its preferences to elect candidates and parties it prefers to be elected.

If you have no knowledge of the order candidates will finish, and cannot guarantee preferences, then the only strategy to meet these twin goals is to list candidates and parties in the preferred order you would like to see them elected.

But group ticket voting introduces an element of game theory. It allows preferences to be controlled, so parties can trade off the two objectives listed above. A party can gamble its preference list in an attempt to improve its chances of electing more of its own candidates. This is exactly what occurred at the 2004 election. Parties traded off chances to elect like-minded candidates and parties for improved chances of electing one of your their own.

Consider the objectives of parties contesting the 2004 Senate election in Victoria:

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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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