Why Your Freedom Party Vote May Help Elect a Green to the Senate and How to Stop It!
In the 2016 federal election 7.5% of formal senate votes exhausted!
NSW exhaustion rates went as high as 9.2%
An exhausted vote cannot help any candidate get elected!
Exhausted votes may still help disfavourable candidates by shrinking the quota required to win a seat.
To help avoid this problem you must fully preference your Senate ballot paper by numbering ALL THE BOXES ABOVE THE LINE with the possible exception of leaving off the most disfavourable of the major parties.
This election many activist gurus are handing out advice on how to “oust” the major parties. I am onboard with evicting the major parties. The majors have outstayed their lease, drastically underpaid the rent and the house is completely wrecked. Unfortunately, much of this “How to Vote” advice designed to save Australia from the political cabal is based on ignorance of the Senate voting system and if followed is likely to assist the major parties and in particular the Greens to maintain their foothold in parliament.
Understanding the Senate Electoral Reforms
In February 2016 the government introduced amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. These amendments abolished group voting tickets in favour of a Partial Preferential Voting system. Whenever you see voting reforms you would be wise to assume that any changes made only further cement the major parties in power come election time.
Unsurprisingly Australians don’t like to spend too much time thinking about their votes. Since 1990 around 90-96% of all formal votes were above the line on the Senate ballot paper.1 Until the 2016 federal election you could simply place a number 1 in a single box above the line for the political party of your choice. Under this system the voter entrusted the political party of their choice to distribute voting preferences to other political parties most aligned with their interests.
This Group Voting Ticket system enabled political parties to swap preference deals with other political parties. The group voting tickets were settled prior to an election so voters knew where preferences went when they voted above the line.
This system had a number of advantages, especially for small parties:
It reduced the number of informal votes2 by reducing the time and complexity of voting.
It enabled ALL political parties control over their Upper House preferences without requiring significant money or resources to influence voters habits at the polling places.
By working together smaller political parties could get candidates elected to Senate to represent their interests by preferencing each other and not the major parties.
One disadvantage for some voters under the old system is that for them to exercise control over their Senate preferences they had to number every single box below the line. This was a time-consuming process.
Less well-known smaller parties being able to achieve a presence in the Senate is thought by some as unfavourable.3 By way of example, during the 2013 senate election, the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party was elected to the Senate having only received 0.51% of formal First Preference votes.
While that outcome may sound unattractive we should keep in mind that together small parties preferred this candidate in preference deals above major parties. And whilst major parties complain about this situation they help to bring it about by refusing to give preferences on the group voting tickets to more popular minor parties. In an effort to shut out smaller parties from parliament, the major parties ensure the preference deals of the minors sometimes flow to unexpected candidates.
This is where the Partial Preferential Voting system came in. By abolishing group voting tickets voters are now required to determine their own preferences above the line by voting for at least six political parties. Similarly, below the line you no longer have to fill out every single box but only choose at least twelve candidates. However, since voters are lazy and are only required to vote for six or twelve candidates in most cases their preferences are only partially expressed. This is what is meant by partial preferential voting.
Smaller Parties are Now Disadvantaged
The first problem with partial preferential voting for small party politics is that only the major parties have the resources to influence voter preferences at every single polling place in Australia. Smaller Parties do not have the finances or volunteers to adequately inform voters of their ideal preference arrangements. This means they are effectively cut out of negotiating preference arrangements with other political parties because they have limited ability to influence voter habits. It is now significantly more difficult for small parties to work together against the major parties.
But there is another not well-known problem with partial preferential voting systems and that is the issue of Exhausted Votes.
Exhausted votes are a natural outcome of a partial preferential voting system. Under the new system of Senate voting, voters don’t have to express their preferences across the full range of candidates. Since they only have to choose a minimum of six political parties or 12 candidates what happens when all their chosen candidates on a ballot paper are out of the election race? This is what is known, by the AEC, as ballot paper or vote exhaustion:
“exhaustion occurs when a ballot paper has no valid preferences left for any of the continuing (i.e. not elected and not excluded) candidates”4
In other words, if the choices on your ballot paper have all been dismissed from the electoral race on account of preference allocation to other candidates who now have a higher count then your vote effectually “exhausts” because you have provided no further direction on how to allocate the remaining value of your vote.
Under the old system from 1984-2014 Senate elections had very low levels of exhaustion because preferences were fully expressed on the group voting tickets. However, in the the 2016 federal election 7.5% of formal senate votes exhausted.5 That is a significant number of voters whose wishes may not have been fully expressed despite Senate seats yet remaining to be filled.
Now this doesn’t mean every exhausted vote was a complete waste. It is estimated that 8 out of 10 exhausted ballots helped elect a single candidate and more than half of exhausted ballots helped elect four or more candidates.6 Nevertheless 20% of exhausted ballot papers had no impact at all and the remainder exhausted without expressing the full preferential value of their vote.
To make matters worse there is a correlation between the number of exhausted votes and number of choices on the ballot paper! The more candidates in the election the higher the rate of exhaustion. In NSW, VIC and QLD the rate of exhaustion went as high as 9.2%, 8.58% and 7.67% respectively.7 It stands to reason then that the votes most impacted by exhaustion are those who preference smaller parties whose candidates are less likely to be elected.
When a vote exhausts it is no longer used in preference allocations and cannot directly help a candidate get elected! However, an exhausted vote can still indirectly determine the outcome of the election by lowering the quota of votes required for any remaining candidate to win the election!
Who Benefits from Partial Preferential Voting?
As we have already discussed, the major parties benefit from PPV by brokering their preferences via How To Vote cards at polling places at the expense of minor parties.
However exhausted votes would seem to play a role also. In states with a larger number of candidates put forward by smaller parties there would seem to be a greater number of exhausted votes. When ballots with votes for these small party candidates are removed via exhaustion the remaining candidates who likely received large swathes of preferential votes from a major party like Labor, now find it easier to achieve the quota required to win a seat. It is probable that the PPV voting system is favouring parties like the Greens because they are closely aligned with a major political party.
Bob Day, a former politician from Family First Party who mounted a High Court challenge against the electoral reforms in 20168 tried to warn us about the outcome of changes to Senate voting:
“Nothing good will come of this. The government’s claim that these changes will benefit the voter is false. Voters will be severely disadvantaged because the government is removing from voters – approximately three million of them, their right to delegate to their minor party of choice the distribution of their preferences. These changes will result in the Greens obtaining the balance of power permanently.”
Former Prime Minister John Howard also warned the government that the Coalition’s deal with the Greens could backfire on them. “The principal beneficiary of these changes will be the Australian Greens,” Howard said.
He was right. The Greens won six senate seats at the 2019 election (one from each state) and will almost certainly repeat this result at this election giving them a total of 12 senators and the balance of power.9
Fixing the Problem
It seems to me there is no easy way to reverse the disadvantages metered out to small party politics on account of recent Senate electoral reforms.
However small parties and their advocates must band together to educate voters to go beyond choosing a mere six preferences on the ballot paper to avoid wasting our preferences to vote exhaustion.
Small party voters must produce a ballot paper that more closely resembles our old fully preferenced voting system. For small party candidates to achieve the required quota they must benefit from a longer chain of preference allocations.
It is critical therefore to number ALL THE BOXES above the line with the possible exception of leaving off the most disfavourable of the major parties. Alternatively you could choose a much more significant number of candidates below the line. Either of these options reduce or eliminate the likelihood your vote will exhaust.
Therefore alternative parties and activist gurus MUST AVOID telling citizens to vote 1-6 above the line as this system benefits the political establishment and not the smaller parties. Instead aim to number as many boxes as possible!
The fact is there are plenty of useful candidates on the Senate ballot sheet preferable to Liberal, Labor and Greens that go beyond 1-6 of which we must vote for if we are to avoid assisting a party like the Greens from gaining a Senate seat!
In 2016 reforms to the electoral act abolished group ticket voting in the Senate and replaced it with a Partial Preferential Voting system.
Under partial preferential voting smaller parties are cut out from brokering preference deals because they do not have the resources to influence voter habits at every polling place in Australia.
The system is called a partial preferential system because voters are only required to choose 1-6 above the line or 1-12 candidates below the line on the Senate ballot paper. Voters are not required to fully express their preferences across the full range of candidates.
Under the new system vote exhaustion occurs when a ballot paper has no valid preferences left for any of the continuing (i.e. not elected and not excluded) candidates.
In states where there were a larger number of candidates on the ballot paper the greater number of votes exhausted.
In the 2016 federal election 7.5% of formal senate votes exhausted! In NSW exhaustion rates went as as high as 9.2%.
An exhausted vote can no longer directly help any candidate to get elected even though there are still Senate seats to win. However exhausted votes can influence the election by reducing the quota required to win a seat for any remaining candidates!
The PPV system and vote exhaustion would appear to favour political parties like the Greens who receive a large number of preferences from the Labor party thus eliminating smaller parties from the balance of power.
To help avoid this problem you must fully preference your ballot paper by numbering ALL THE BOXES above the line with the possible exception of leaving off the most disfavourable of the major parties. Alternatively you can choose a much more significant number of candidates below the line.
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More on Senate Vote Exhaustion
Lex Stewart also discussed the Senate vote exhaustion problem in an interview with Dave Pellowe from The Good Sauce (Listen from 50:10). https://www.facebook.com/DavePellowe/videos/522943159423738/
Further Reading in the 2022 Federal Election Series
Don't Vote for Christians! (20th April 2022)
The Two Horse Race: The Illusion of Democracy in Australia (13th May 2022)
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An informal vote cannot be counted because the ballot paper has not been filled out correctly or is otherwise marked.