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How our preferential voting drives the election result

With the so-called 'teal independents' arriving on the scene, and the primary vote well down for the two major political parties, preference votes counted more than ever at the 2022 Federal Election.

The reality is that the preferential voting system in Australia gives relevance to independents and minor parties. But imagine if we didn’t have preferential voting, and instead had say, the UK electoral system of first-past-the-post (FPTP).

How preferential voting works and the impact

Our preferential system requires that the winning candidate in a seat acquires a majority of votes, made up of in order:

  1. first preference votes, then
  2. allocated second preference votes, and so on,
  3. until a majority is achieved.

We have had this electoral system since 1918.

The UK has always used a FPTP electoral system, whereby each voter casts one vote for one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes takes office. If we'd had a FPTP system at this election, the results would have been quite different.

Of the 151 seats contested at this election, 16 were won by candidates who did not win on first preference votes. These were:

Seat

Winner after preferences

First preference winner

Bennelong

Labor

Liberal

Boothby

Labor

Liberal

Brisbane

Greens

Liberal

Curtin

Independent *

Liberal

Fowler

Independent

Labor

Gilmore

Labor

Liberal

Goldstein

Independent *

Liberal

Higgins

Labor

Liberal

Kooyong

Independent *

Liberal

Lyons

Labor

Liberal

Mackellar

Independent *

Liberal

North Sydney

Independent *

Liberal

Robertson

Labor

Liberal

Ryan

Greens

Liberal

Tangney

Labor

Liberal

Wentworth

Independent *

Liberal

 

* = 'teals'

 

Incredibly, six ‘teal’ independents can therefore put their success down to preference voting, all reversing an initial Liberal Party primary vote lead. Seven Labor seats and two Greens also leapfrogged Liberal with preferences, with one non-teal independent (Fowler) gaining at the expense of Labor.

Similar analysis of the 2019 election revealed that 10 Labor and two independent wins came after the Liberal Party had won the primary vote. Intuitively it makes sense that preferential voting benefits the Labor Party because some 80% of the Greens preferences go to Labor. And while Labor’s primary vote has been steadily falling in recent elections, its two-party preferred vote has not.

Our voting system drives the outcome

Instead of the actual outcome of:

  • Coalition 58 seats, Labor 77, minorities and independents 16

Under FPTP, the parliament might have consisted of:

  • Coalition 73, Labor 71, minorities and independents 7.

That is, a hung parliament, with the major party seats more broadly aligned to the national primary vote of the Coalition 36.1%, and Labor 32.8%.

This alternative outcome assumes first preference voting behaviour doesn't change voting under a different system. We will come back to that but in reality, a move from preferential voting to FPTP may have produced a result somewhere between the actual and alternative outcomes.

Which is a better system?

With preferential voting, the ability to vote for a minority party, then direct a second preference vote to a major party that you would prefer to form government, arguably enhances the democratic process. It gives minor parties a voice, because it encourages major parties to broaden their policy platform in order to garner a reasonable flow of preferences. For example, would the Coalition have pledged net-zero emissions by 2050 under a FPTP system?

Preferential voting however, should not benefit extreme minorities, because major parties will not broaden policy to that extent. A preferencing system therefore, encourages more centrist politics.

As noted, voting behaviour may differ under a FPTP system compared to preference voting. Voters may employ so-called ‘tactical voting’. An example is a voter who favours a minor party in a two-party dominant system, votes for a major party closest to their ideology so as not to waste their vote. It is a tactic that entrenches a two-party system.

This and other forms of tactical voting that FPTP lends itself to mean that mapping first preference votes to FPTP votes is not necessarily one to one, but should be indicative. Tactical voting is possible under preference voting, but is much less common as it requires good predictability of preference flows.

Another issue with the FPTP system is that winning candidates can be elected with a minority of the vote. Suppose a seat has five candidates. As little as just over 20% of the total vote could see a candidate elected. And if that kind of result was replicated across enough seats, a party could form government with a minimal share of the overall vote.

Consider the 1979 election in the UK when Margaret Thatcher first became Prime Minister. The Conservatives won 339 seats with 43.9% of the total vote, while the Liberals won just 11 seats with 13.8% of the vote. That is, the Conservatives won about 30 times as many seats as the Liberals, with just three times the votes.

By contrast, our preferential voting system requires the winning candidate to have a broad base of support that represents a majority of their constituents. For example, suppose a left-leaning seat has two left-wing candidates and one right-wing. Under FPTP, the right-wing candidate could win because the left-wing candidates share votes. Under a preferential system, the more popular left-wing candidate gains the other left-wing preferences and wins. That is, a preferential system gravitates towards the broadest support.

A consequence of preferential voting is the increased probability of minority governments. Consider a seat with multiple minority parties running on policy platforms, such that they would likely preference each other. After preferencing, one of the minor parties could be elevated into a two-party preferred contest with a major party, and indeed go on and win the seat with far less first preference votes. A scenario that would not be possible in a FPTP system.

Our preferential voting system in Australia arguably strengthens democracy by maximising votes, broadening policy and representation in the electorate, and offering more choice overall.

 

Tony Dillon is a freelance writer and former actuary. This article is general information and does not consider the circumstances of any investor.

 

20 Comments
AlanB
June 13, 2022

Today, after a long wait counting preferences in this overly complicated, convoluted, manual preference distributing and redistributing system, Canberra finally gets to know who their second Senate representative will be.

david
June 06, 2022

I think that the preferential system brings about a more reasonable outcome than FPTP but I also wonder would the Hare-Clark system (as used in Tasmania) where everyones' preferences get considered in the final tally might lead to the most accurate outcome. Although counting might take an inordinately long time with out computerized voting.

Jack
June 04, 2022

Those advocating FPTP assume that voter behaviour doesn’t change. But clearly it does because in that circumstance a vote for a minor party is wasted because they generally have no chance of winning. So the effect of FPTP is that it destroys minor parties. Some may celebrate that but it reduces the range of views that need to be taken into account.
Secondly, with a field of 6 candidates the one with 20% of the vote can win even though 80% did not want them. The winner may not reflect the community wishes. The British parliament is elected by FPTP. It voted to Remain in Europe. The population as a whole voted for Brexit.

michael
June 03, 2022

I like being able to put a candidate last. I like our current system, which is easy enough to understand.

Michael
June 02, 2022

The Nazi party got 43.9% of the vote in 1933 in a FPTP voting system. I'm happy to keep the preference system.

Fannnooowww!!!!
June 01, 2022

In fact, if Australia had the first past the post system, the ALP would not have been able to from a majority government since the 1993 election. Even, the 2007 election was a draw.

I have explained that the preferential system is in effect, the person wins when the electorate would prefer a particular person more than the rest put together or the least overall disliked!

Further, many democracies use a preferential system but they don't do it in a single ballot. They may use the lowest elimination system and keep returning to the polls until 50% + 1 is achieved over multiple rounds. Another common system is if a candidate does not have the 50% + 1, a second round is held where the top two are pitted against each other. Our system eliminates these multiple rounds.

Another point, at this election only 16 candidates achieved more than 50% of the vote on their first preference.

Martin Mulcare
June 01, 2022

Further to Tony's correct observation that "the primary vote was well down for the two major political parties", it's important to recognise that this is a strong trend not a temporary blip. In 2010, according to the official AEC results, 77.1% of total votes (including informals) were cast for the ALP or Coalition. By 2016 the corresponding figure had fallen to 72.9% and in 2022 (based on AEC figures on 2nd June) it was only 65.2%. Who would suggest that this trend would reverse in 2025? Not me. Preferences may well become even more important.

Aro
June 01, 2022

Ideally, we should have an optional preferential system. This way the voter only votes for the candidates of their choice. This enables voters to reject candidates without having having their vote being invalidated.

Georgina Cane
June 01, 2022

I couldn’t agree more! Optional preferential voting is the most democratic option and one that perhaps most people could understand (say… vote for a minimum of 3 candidates in your order of preference). It is totally unfair to have to cast a preference for a lunatic you would never want to see in parliament.

Mikhail Spranger
December 27, 2023

Its my understanding that optional preferential is used in NSW state government election.

Often the major parties offer a full preference how-to-vote, then tell the punters only to mark one preference.

I think that clearly is beneficial to the major parties, and destroys the power of preferential voting.

I agree with your suggestion that at least three preferences should be voted for.

In practice it is rare that a candidate comes completely from behind on preferences.

Geoff
June 01, 2022

Hear, bloody hear...

We had 10 H of R candidates in our electorate - Liberal, Labor, Greens, UAP and frankly I don't remember the rest but the thought of actually having to decide between 5 or so extreme minor candidates who aren't expecting to be elected anyway, and are doing it all for reasons of their own is ridiculous. It was a safe Liberal seat and I was heading that way anyway, so went 1 Liberal 2 Labor (because if it wasn't to be LNP in power, as was clear, I really wanted Labor to have a majority in the H of Rs and sideline the teals and Greens) and had to keep numbering all the way to 10, nominating people I would never, in a million years, actually want in power.

We should be able to limit our preferences. OR go full list, but have a diminishing value of each preference re-allocation.

Now I know that would make it all the more complicated, but that's only because we persist in hanging onto a pencil and paper format and it's easier. It could be done very easily using technology in the elections, something everyone seems very shy of.

It'll never happen, of course, as there are too many unknowns for the major parties to contemplate such a change.

John Washington
June 04, 2022

I agree that Optional Preferential voting is the way to go.

Up here in QLD, the Labor Party, on being elected in 2015, got rid of OP voting as one of their first acts, as Preferential voting clearly favours Labor, and the minor parties don't seem to understand the preferencing system.(One Nation had an absurd policy of putting sitting MP's last on their How To Vote cards).

Add to that the fact that QLD doesn't have an Upper House (also canned by Labor), whoever is elected enjoys a virtual dictatorship. So much for the 'most democratic' argument.

As a consequence, we have Acts of Parliament severely restricting fund-raising by opposition parties, and other Acts curtailing campaign advertising by the opposition parties. In my opinion there doesn't seem to be any safeguard against the ruling party just outlawing all opposition parties by Act of Parliament.

Ray White
June 05, 2022

Again, I agree with those below in that we should have optional preferential voting.
But I would go so far as to allow a simple 1 in a box to be a valid vote.
I heard so many people in line who didn't understand what they were doing. So did an informal vote await?
And, like others below again, I hadn't a clue as to most of the rest.
So donkey vote it as for them then...

Cam
June 01, 2022

Labor under Neville Wran changed to optional preferential in NSW in 1981, as many Liberals were coming from behind on preferences. Compulsory preferential is clearly the best system. It may seem politically opportune to change, but as NSW Labor has found out the tide can change and the system in NSW now works against Labor. It also results in some people just voting 1 in Federal elections and ending up voting informal.

alex stitt
June 01, 2022

For me, it beggars belief that "First Past the Post" represents effective democracy. As Tony's example shows, FPTP has the potential to disenfranchise far more voters than does our preferential system. For me, I'd like to take it further and have, say, 3-member House of Reps seats, so that the full diversity of political opinion is better represented in our Parliament - and in saying that, I'm not afraid of minority governments at all as I believe having legislation seriously challenged brings better legislation. And wouldn't it be wonderful if the two big kids in the Parliamentary sand pit could learn to play together co-operatively for the benefit of the country rather than expending all their energy on lobbing sand and toys at each other for their own benefit.

Jim Lane
June 01, 2022

An excellent article that should be compulsory prior reading for the many spruikers on social media since 21st May. Unfortunately, the preferential system appears poorly understood by many.

Matt
June 01, 2022

Thanks for the article Tony, the more I read about the preferential system the more I like how we do it in Australia and that my vote can still have some influence if my first preference doesn't work out. I think the senate system is more of an issue, where states with higher populations have their votes diluted as states have an equal number of senate seats. It would be interesting to see the make up of the senate if quotas were consistent across the country and the number of senate seats were based on population (although from the looks of this election count it may not have been much different).

Neil
June 01, 2022

Matt, I think the real question you are asking is whether it is still appropriate to keep the constitutional basis of the Senate continuing to be a "states rights" chamber (ie Tas to have equal votes as NSW). If you were to revert to per capita representation in the Senate, why bother having two Houses at all?

Cam
June 01, 2022

Matt, the Senate set up was required to form our Federation. The smaller states were concerned they'd have no voice. I think that's a correct assumption aswell.

Rod in Oz
June 01, 2022

Good point Neil. Thanks for pointing this out.

 

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