Newsletter of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia
March 1996, QN1996A

Federal Election Analysis: 1996

The March polls for the House of Representatives resulted in a record number of Independent MHRs, five, being elected.

Difficulties within each of the two largest parties resulted in three Independent Western Australian members of the 52nd House of Representatives standing as Independents and winning against endorsed candidates of the parties of which they had recently been parliamentary members. They were Alan Rocher and Paul Filing, the former Liberal members in that House for Curtin and Moore respectively (they were not preselected again), and Graham Campbell, the disendorsed former ALP member for Kalgoorlie.

The Liberal Party's endorsed candidate in Oxley, Queensland, was Pauline Hanson, but the party withdrew her endorsement between the close of nominations and polling day, as she had made public statements about aborigines contrary to party policy. That withdrawal left Oxley as the only Federal division without an endorsed Coalition candidate, but electoral law ensured that the designation 'Liberal Party' still appeared alongside her name on the ballot-paper. Despite the party's action, she was elected.

The other Independent elected was the new member for Calare in New South Wales, Peter Andren, who had been a local television newsreader. He did not have the recent close relationship with a large party the other Independents share.

This issue of Quota Notes includes a four-page analysis of how the largest parties and groupings and others could have fared if the Hare-Clark electoral system had applied to elections for the House of Representatives. The page of the analysis headed RESULTS AUSTRALIA-WIDE has a summary of how much more fairly the Hare-Clark system would have reflected the views of voters, and how, given the stable system of using a countback of ballot-papers to fill any casual vacancies, a small majority, even the majority of one earned here, is adequate for allowing a Government to survive for its full term. The Government would have 75 members to draw upon for the Ministry. Voting Formally: As Simple as 1, 2, 3?

Section 329A of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 forbids anyone advocating, in an election period, a vote in a House of Representatives poll that is other than a full preferential vote. Albert Langer of the Neither! campaign insisted on continuing to incite voters to cast a formal vote, but to give neither Labor nor Coalition candidates an effective House of Representatives preference. His clash with the legal system had him incarcerated in Pentridge, one of Her Majesty's prisons in Victoria, despite his having told the judge that he was one of Her Majesty's loyal agitators.

This subject was well handled in an article 'A process far from informal' that appeared in The Canberra Times of 28th February 1996. An edited version of that article follows.

A House of Representatives vote is formal provided there is a single first preference, and there are numbers in all but one of the remaining squares. Mr Langer urged minor party and generally disgruntled voters to repeat numbers when they no longer had any real preference, to deny his targets their vote. He erroneously believed that if enough people did this in a particular electorate, a supplementary poll would be necessary there as no candidate would gain an absolute majority of all the formal votes. However, Section 274 (11) makes it clear that exhausted votes do not create any obstacle to the election, from the two candidates continuing in the count after all the prescribed exclusions and associated preference distributions have taken place, of the candidate with the greater number of the remaining votes.

Curiously, a ballot-paper marked 1, 2, 3, 3, 3 ... is formal for the House of Representatives, but such a ballot-paper is informal if entered below-the-line for the Senate. On the other hand, while any two squares left blank automatically make a House of Representatives ballot-paper informal, a Senate ballot-paper can sometimes have two or more squares below-the-line left blank and yet be formal. If there are more than 9 candidates, at least 90% of the squares must be marked (in 1996, at least 57 of 63 in NSW), with no more than three departures from sequential numbering. A Senate ballot-paper marked 1, 2, 3, 3, 3 ... in the party boxes above-the-line is treated as though it had been numbered just like the Group Voting Ticket registered by the party gaining the "1". As such a voter clearly had no idea of how the party boxes operate, there is little prospect of any awareness of the preference order on that registered ticket.

These strange federal inconsistencies show the complexity of what is accepted as a formal vote in major polls. In the table below the treatment of ticks and crosses sometimes adds a further layer of differences. Many electoral matters are no longer subjects of partisan controversy, but the fundamental question of what is accepted as a formal vote still is.

Formality Provisions at Polls for Australian Legislatures

Legislature Upper House Lower House
Common- wealth Party box, or 90% of squares below the line, with no more than three departures from numerical sequence (States 6 vacancies, but 12 at a dissolution) Numbering all squares* (errors allowed)
New South Wales Party box, or at least 15 preferences below the line. Errors allowed. (21 vacancies) Optional preferential voting
Victoria Fully preferential voting* (errors allowed) Fully preferential voting* (errors allowed)
Western Australia Party box, or fully preferential* to right of line (no errors) (5 or 7 vacancies) Fully preferential voting*
South Australia Party box, or fully preferential* below the line (no errors) (11 vacancies) Fully preferential*, but a single "1" (so deemed if otherwise informal) is treated as a registered ticket vote
Tasmania At least 3 preferences where 3 or more candidates At least 7 preferences [no omissions or duplications among those 7] (7 vacancies)
Optional preferential voting
Australian Capital Territory
Ballot paper calls for at least as many preferences as vacancies: first preference sufficient. (5 or 7 vacancies)
Northern Territory
Fully preferential voting*

*Where voting is fully preferential, if a single square is left blank, it is assumed to indicate the final preference on that ballot paper, and the vote is accepted as formal.

With such a diverse array of requirements, should there be much surprise that the most bizarre superstitions abound about preferential voting? Media election-period references to parties directing preferences perpetuate the mystification. The only times parties direct anything are through party boxes representing registered group voting tickets in Senate elections and those for the Legislative Councils of NSW, WA and SA, as well as the single "1" in SA House of Assembly elections.

The intelligent observer from Mars would be surprised to learn voters have essentially the same single transferable vote in each of these polls (there is variation in how much of it gets used when it helps elect someone in a multi-member electorate). The numbers we write are simply an indication of the order in which we are prepared to assist candidates.

If a candidate (with lowest progress total) is being excluded, the votes obtained to that point are all transferred at full (or existing) value to the next highest available preference on each ballot-paper, that is, the unexcluded (and unelected) candidate with the lowest number next to his or her name. If there is a duplication or omission before that number, what remains unused of the vote is set aside as exhausted.

When proportional representation is used in multiple-member vacancies, the only additional element is that where someone has just been elected, any surplus (what is beyond the minimum needed to ensure election) is transferred, usually at a fractional value.

There is nothing mysterious about when and why votes are transferred. Once people understand that the marking of extra preferences in no way undermines their strongest choices, they can confidently make the most of their vote. If they are voting for candidates they expect to see excluded rather early, they also know the exhaustion risk in not differentiating between those with strongest overall support.

In the House of Representatives, except in a handful of seats with a strong minor party or Independent candidate, ALP and Coalition voters will have nothing except their first preference examined. Why require them to mark all the other boxes when that extra activity has no practical meaning?

Why require the remaining voters to indicate more than their true preferences, on pain of not having their vote counted at all, if they do not resort to some dissembling or subterfuge? For whose benefit is the whole voting process meant to be?

In other single-member legislatures with more stringent formality provisions, why should there be a preliminary compulsory check for numbers that will largely not be inspected again in the course of the scrutiny? It seems arbitrary and undemocratic to so revile or fear votes becoming exhausted as to not count them at the outset. Since 1983, Senate voters have been expected to make a two-tiered choice: accept a party box and have your vote treated as indicating the order of preferences that has been formally registered within 24 hours of the close of nominations (Albert Langer will no doubt be pleased that this helps minimize Labor and Coalition representation in the Senate), or fill in at least 90% of the squares below-the-line.

Over strong Coalition protests when he introduced the legislation for proportional representation in 1948, Labor's Dr Evatt insisted on compulsory marking of all preferences. Informal voting levels promptly shot past 10% as many people struggled not to repeat or omit numbers when they shifted across columns. With informal voting highest in strong Labor areas, Sir William McMahon's recollection that Coalition governments examining the possibility of change were never able to obtain the satisfaction they wanted from Commonwealth Electoral Office reports on the matter should not be a great surprise.

The level of informal voting in Senate elections has been lower than that for the Lower House in three of the last four elections, as voters have increasingly headed above-the-line (nearly 95% Australia-wide in 1993). However, one of the big shocks on election night in 1984 was the sudden jump to 6.3% of House of Representatives informality. People had heard of the simpler way to register a Senate vote, and assumed they could apply it to both ballot-papers.

For the 600,000 or so still voting below-the-line, there is always one consideration additional to those applying for the House of Representatives. Because surpluses are transferred at fractional value, Labor and Coalition supporters will often find that the whole of their vote hasn't been used in electing their party's candidates. Unless they have shown a clear order amongst other candidates likely to accumulate votes throughout the scrutiny, part of their vote may be exhausted.

It is sometimes said that voters should be compelled to mark at least as many preferences as there are vacancies. If everyone were to mark fewer preferences, all for the same small select group of candidates, some candidates would be elected without obtaining any votes, so the argument runs. Such extraordinary behaviour has of course not yet been witnessed in public elections anywhere, but it is possible.

The libertarian view is that voters should be encouraged to mark as many preferences as possible to maximize the effectiveness of their vote. Their refusal to do so should not, in a democracy, see them robbed of their vote, especially if they are obliged by law to turn up at the polling place.

If the new Parliament repeals Section 329A and turns to other electoral matters, the ACT Legislative Assembly may prove a very helpful model on the question of formality.

The sample ballot-paper and description sheet in the original 1992 ACT electoral referendum booklet made it clear that the

"instructions on the ballot paper will require voters to show preferences ... for as many candidates as there are vacancies to be filled in the electorate concerned".
When it came to enacting Hare-Clark legislation, the question arose of what to do where people doubled up or missed out on one of these numbers, or just stopped prematurely.

In the ACT an MLA's inspired suggestion that all such votes still be deemed formal was accepted without any partisan dispute about whether such leniency would favour any party or candidate more than another. There were no problems with exhaustion of votes in last year's ACT election.

First ACT "Countback"

Following the appointment of Molonglo MLA Mr Terry Connolly as Master of the ACT Supreme Court, on 4th March the ACT Electoral Commission advertised the impending filling, by countback, of the casual vacancy.

The 23 defeated candidates had 10 days in which to consent to serve if chosen as the replacement through a re-examination of Mr Connolly's quota. Nine of them, including 3 from the ALP, contested the vacancy. Over 14,000 ballot-papers were examined in less than three working days.

The 4075 papers of full value, just under half the quota, were widely spread out, but with a focus on two ALP candidates, Marion Reilly (36%) and Michael Wilson (28%). As over two-thirds of ballot-papers transferred from Ms Follett's surplus to Mr Connolly had Ms Reilly as next available preference, she achieved an absolute majority as soon as all of Mr Connolly's quota had been thrown.

Multiple Senate Group Voting Tickets

During the federal election campaign, The Canberra Times reported that very recent High Court judgements declare constitutional requirements on electoral matters to be purposive and therefore to be followed strictly.

Where parties register two or three Group Voting Tickets, it is unlikely that a single party box can meet the requirement of senators being directly chosen by the people of each State. Thus a challenge in the Court of Disputed Returns might result in multiple-ticket party-box votes stopping just before the first number where the tickets differ - as the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 curiously provides if for any reason those voters cannot be deemed to have supported each ticket in roughly equal proportions.

The early split of registered ALP tickets in NSW, SA and Tasmania made it possible that ALP preferences from above-the-line voters might not flow to the ADs or Greens.

As it happened, in those 3 States there was no Labor surplus to be transferred elsewhere, but in 1993 around 140,000 Labor party box votes brought Australian Democrat Karen Sowada very close to a quota in NSW. A challenge would probably have been mounted if those votes had put her over the quota, as Labor's two registered tickets alternated the order of the Democrats and Greens. If such a challenge had succeeded those party box votes would have been set aside as exhausted when the last Labor candidate was excluded.

The PRSA considers that the current multiple registered tickets provisions will provoke major public disquiet as soon as an initial outcome is found to be constitutionally invalid.

Senate Party Boxes

At her February National Press Club appearance, Democrats Leader Senator Kernot criticized the system of Senate above-the-line voting, saying
"it has become the darkest kind of auction which denies the democratic rights of people who vote, and entrenches it in the hands of a few party officials."

Senator Kernot described the lead up to the deadline for registering party tickets as probably her worst time in politics, saying that the major parties had tried to play off the Democrats and the Greens. In Western Australia, the ALP had registered a single ticket placing the Greens ahead of the Democrats even though Labor had complained about the difficulty of working with their two senators.

It remains to be seen whether this assessment of the horse-trading that occurs in the 24 hours just after the close of nominations will result in a determination to do away with party boxes, or at least make below-the-line voting easier.

During the campaign, Greens candidates called for an end to party boxes, the introduction of optional preferential voting and the use of Robson Rotation within group columns to give voters more influence over who was elected.

Candidate Surveys

The PRSA's SA and ACT Branches surveyed candidates on Senate voting matters after nominations had closed. They asked whether the requirement to mark at least 90% of the squares below-the-line, with no more than 3 errors, was a fair alternative to endorsing a registered Group Voting Ticket by marking a party box above-the-line. Each gained some media publicity for its survey. In the ACT, 15 of the 27 candidates for both Houses replied. Six (including two ALP and two Liberal candidates) said the alternatives were fair, eight (including 5 Australian Greens, 1 Liberal and 1 Australian Democrat) said they were not, and one was unable to comment. Liberal Senator Margaret Reid said the system worked well in the ACT, but she saw problems in some of the larger States where there are many candidates if people did not want to follow a party ticket.

Given occasional past threats, by personages such as Paul Keating, to abandon the current Senate system, the ACT Branch also asked all House and Senate candidates whether they supported the Senate's continued election by quota-preferential methods. Thirteen candidates, including Mr Bob McMullan, supported such proportional representation for Senate elections, and two could not comment.

In SA, candidates from 10 of the 13 Senate groups replied. One Liberal and one Democrat said the Senate voting alternatives were fair, two ALP candidates suggested raising the issue with the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, while others, including Australian Greens and the Australian Women's Party, criticized current arrangements.

When replying to an earlier Society request for simpler Senate voting below-the-line, SA Liberal Senator Nick Minchin acknowledged there is a problem and asked for a view on what the minimum number of preferences should be. PRSA President, Bogey Musidlak, has written back pointing out that no argument can be made for requiring more preferences than there are vacancies. A summary of arrangements around the nation has been prepared.

The responses offer some hope that the next Parliament will consider giving voters more effective choice by making it easier to record a formal vote different from that wanted by party machines. The Society would prefer that voters made their own informed choice about what to do with their single transferable vote, but it will support any significant dismantling of the current disincentive to their expressing preferences for individual candidates.


National President:  Bogey Musidlak
14 Strzelecki Crescent  NARRABUNDAH ACT 2604

National Secretary:  Deane Crabb
11 Yapinga Street PLYMPTON SA 5038

Telephone: (06) 295 8137, (08) 297 6441
Facsimile: (03) 9589 1802
Internet:  http://www.cs.mu.oz.au/~lee/prsa

12 Pirie Street ADELAIDE SA 5000

See also - PRSA ELECTION ANALYSIS: Supplement to QN1996A