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Fixing the vote

By Brett Walker - posted Friday, 7 September 2007

What’s worse? One in 10 voters not casting a valid vote or 9 in 10 not knowing who they’ve voted for?

Apparently the former. Ticket voting was introduced in 1983 because we simply could not tolerate a 10 per cent informal vote at our Senate elections.

Senate voting has never been the same since. In 2004 more than 95 per cent of voters voted “above the line” in Senate elections. They did this by ticking one box (beside the name of their preferred political party) and whether they knew it or not that party then got to allocate their preferences as it saw fit, right down to the last candidate on the ballot paper. This gave Parties named above the line significant (I think inordinate) power in determining who would achieve the prized final Senate quotas that send someone to Canberra for six years, possibly with the balance of power.


Did the voters have any idea who received big Party favour and who didn’t? Not likely. Just try and locate details of the preference deals from the Australian Electoral Commission. Then try and interpret them. Good luck. The mechanics of ticket voting is a statistician’s wet dream but would leave most voters feeling a tad inadequate.

Group Ticket Voting has much more to do with efficiency than it does with fairness or transparency. I will argue in this article that ticket voting is not only undemocratic, it is unconstitutional. And I will propose a very simple solution to both the rort of ticket voting and the alleged problem it was supposed to solve - high levels of “informal” voting.

Some history

Section 7 of our Constitution describes the way in which Senators are to be elected: by the direct choice of the people of the (relevant) state. In 1983 amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 introduced the ticket voting system and became the subject of a constitutional challenge by an independent candidate in the 1984 election.

The candidate, Mr McKenzie, alleged that the ticket system was unfair due to the way it only permitted political parties to appear above the line on the Senate ballot paper - an unfair advantage that the (then) Chief Justice Harry Gibbs was inclined to permit to remain. He said in part:

I am prepared to assume that s.7 requires that the Senate be elected by democratic methods but if that is the case it remains true to say that it is not for this Court to intervene so long as what is enacted is consistent with the existence of representative democracy as the chosen mode of government …

Fast forward to 2004 and the Senate contest between the Greens and Family First for the last Senate spot in Victoria Family First got 1.9 per cent of the primary but still got their Senate seat. Not too hard if you know how the ticket system works. Ticket voting was manna from heaven (no pun intended) for a micro-lobby like Family First. They just needed to bash out a few preference deals with the big Parties (I assume fire and brimstone was involved) and effectively by-pass us mug punters. Less than 2 per cent cared to elect them yet preferencing from big Parties with spare quotas gave them the seat on a platter.


I ask you: is this how people in each state should be asked to “directly choose” a Senator? I hope you’ll agree that it is clearly not. It is in fact a bastardisation of the democratic process and I think even Harry Gibbs were he alive would admit that simple truth 23 years after he told McKenzie to go away.

Ticket voting has over the past quarter century done a lot to make our Senate election process a bit of a joke. I think Paul Keating got it right when he described the Senate as “unrepresentative swill” - at least the bit about it not being very representative.

Fixing it

Don’t get me wrong, the idea of ticket voting is not of itself a bad thing, so long as we remove the incentive for people to abuse it. Here’s my suggested solution:
First, make below the line voting 100 per cent optional preferential instead of compulsory preferential, so if I like just one candidate I only need to put a number in their box. Part of the problem with below the line as it currently operates is the way it forces the mathematically challenged and the apathetic back above the line. Who wants to number (sequentially) every box when there could be 50, 60 or more boxes to complete? Apparently only about 4 per cent of the voting population and, according to AEC figures the majority of these fail to do it correctly anyway.

Why do we have compulsory preferential anyway? I have no idea why, other than to sustain the fantasy for every candidate that voters actually care about them. Don’t forget, some electoral funding is actually tied to how many votes people achieve, so let’s make them earn every cent. Let’s make voting actually meaningful and just let voters pick those they deem worthy of their vote.

Second, make ticket voting selections only allocate preferences to the political party selected, not to any others. Presto - no more rorts, no more back room preference deals and the vote actually reflects what people want - not what political parties say they must have.

Let’s face it - compulsory voting is bad enough, let’s at least make the act of voting fair and transparent. Time for a change.

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About the Author

Brett Walker is a lawyer and small business operator who spends most Sundays enjoying time with his wife and kids. He tried to read the Bible once but got caught up in the begat-fest at the front. He remains sceptical of anyone who would ask him to not be sceptical.

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