14 August 2013

Preferential voting in Australia

It's at about this point in the election campaign someone says to me, "I don't understand preferential voting. It's a waste of time. Why can't we just elect the most popular person and leave it at that?"  Preferential voting is not difficult. And it ensures that the most popular candidate is elected.

Come the election is it crucial that voters understand our preferential voting system. It’s actually not that hard or confusing. It simply means that your vote is influential regardless of who you vote for. Without preferences, minor parties and independents wouldn’t bother standing; they’d rarely, if ever get in.

Our system says a candidate must have an absolute majority of the votes, that is fifty percent plus one vote. If more than two candidates are running for a seat, you can be almost certain no-one is going to get a majority straight up. In some countries they solve this problem by having multiple elections. Round 1 - every one votes, lowest candidate is eliminated from the race. Round 2 weeks or months (and lots of dollars) later - everyone votes again. And so it goes until its a race between just two candidates. Preferential voting does the same thing - in a single election so we don't have to have endless election campaigns.

Here’s how it works:

My electorate of Lah-Lah Land (where lots of pollies live) has four candidates standing for a seat.

We have Jane, ultra conservation, right major party.
Joe, blokey, left major party.
Christine, ultra left, hippy, tree-hugging independent.
Finally, Bob, a little odd and we’re not really sure what he or his party stand for, but he has a winning way with people and they seem to respond to him.

To keep the maths simple, there are 100,000 formal votes (informal votes – those that are incorrectly filled in or defaced – obviously are not counted).

How voters are required to vote is different for different elections (local, state, national). It’s important you check the rules as stated on the paper. In some cases, it is sufficient for you simply put a ‘1’ against your top candidate. Alternatively, you may be required to number every box OR number a certain percentage of boxes.

For ease, in this election we have assumed that candidates must number every box (1 through to 4).

In the first round of counting, the only thing considered is the "1". Votes are separated based on the first preference of every voters. In our electorate that's four piles of papers - one for each candidate.

Of our 100,000 formal votes we get the following results from the first round of counting:
Candidate First Round
Jane 33,000
Joe 21,000
Christine 16,000
Bob 30,000

If a candidate had gained a clear majority – 50% plus 1 (50,001) – they would be declared the winner and we stop right there. However, as no-one has a clear majority counting goes to preferences.

The candidate with the lowest number of votes (Christine, our tree hugger) is eliminated and her ‘preferences are distributed’. These means that her 16,000 papers are distributed according to the number ‘2’ votes marked on them.

For example: I voted ‘1’ for Christine and ‘2’ for Bob. When Christine is eliminated my vote will now count for Bob. Why? Because I decided if I couldn’t have tree-hugging Christine as my representative I’d prefer to have odd-ball Bob rather than the either of the two major parties.

The results of our second round of counting are:

Candidate First Round Second Round Total
Jane 33,000 7,000 40,000
Joe 21,000 4,000 25,000
Bob 30,000 5,000 35,000
Christine 16,000 - -

We still have no clear majority. Again, the lowest candidate is eliminated and their next preference is distributed. That is, Joe (our leftie) is eliminated. The 21,000 voters who placed Joe as ‘1’ will have their second preference counted, and the 4,000 voters who originally voted for Christine will have their third preference counted (their second preference having been Joe). My vote was Christine, then Bob – so it’s not involved in this round of counting. Only the votes that have either gone directly to Joe or have been distributed to him in the second round of counting will be affected.

Our third round of counting results are:

Candidate First Round Second Round Third Round Total
Jane 33,000 7,000 6,000 46,000
Bob 30,000 5,000 19,000 54,000
Joe 21,000 4,000 - -
Christine 16,000 - - -

After the third round we have a clear majority, Bob, the slight odd-ball with no clear policy, is now our sitting member.

Why do we do this? Why is it important to understand how it works and use it wisely?

The preferential system means that the candidate who is ‘preferred’ by the most number of people will be elected.

A lot of people who voted for Christine ‘preferred’ Jane over the other candidates. However, in contest between Jane and Bob, they actually preferred Bob.

Why not just count my first candidate? 
The other option is a ‘first past the post’ system, rather than a majority. In a first past the post system Jane would have been elected, even though she’s not the candidate that most people would prefer to have.

Party preferences 
Often the parties will allocate their preferences. You, the voter, simply put in a ‘1’. If additional rounds of counting are required, your vote is distributed according the preferences nominated by the party. This is all very well IF (big IF) the party’s preferences match your’s. Unfortunately, a lot of voters use the party preference because a) they don’t understand the system and b) it saves them time and effort – particularly on the Senate vote, which can have dozens and dozens of candidates.

How to mark your preferences 
Still not sure how to use your preferential vote? It’s really very simple.

1. Put a ‘1’ against your absolute top candidate. ‘If everything goes the way I think it should this person will be elected.’
2. Think ‘Okay, if number one wasn’t running, who would I vote for out of the rest of these geezers?’, because (essentially) that’s what preferential voting is about. Put a number 2 against that candidate.
3. Continue the process until every box is numbered.


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