At the moment, compulsory preferential voting is used for both the Senate and the House. This means that voters are required to number every box on the ballot paper. This is not such an onerous task for the House; however, in the Senate, larger numbers of candidates run. Up until 1983, voters were required to express a preference for every candidate on the Senate ballot paper by numbering every box. This led to a high informal rate, as candidate numbers increased.
Following the election of the Hawke Labor government in 1982, the new government, motivated partially by political concerns about informal voting's impact on immigrant voters (who often voted Labor), introduced a new system. Compulsory preferencing was retained; however, before the election, parties could submit a ranked list of all the candidates on the ballot paper. Voters would put a 1 in the box above the line marked with that party's name in order to adopt that party's ticket as their vote.
|A Senate ballot paper (Source:Australian Electoral Commission)|
It meant that parties could transfer their preferences to whichever parties they liked. For example, in 2004, the Labor Party did a deal with the Family First Party, a conservative Christian group, to swap preferences. Labor expected the deal to result in Family First preferences coming to them; instead, it resulted in Family First, on 1.9% of the primary vote, beating the Greens (on 8.8% of the primary vote) to a seat.
It has also meant that small parties can preference each other ahead of major parties, often regardless of ideology. This has meant that senators have been elected on tiny shares of the primary vote; for example, Senator Ricky Muir of the Motoring Enthusiast Party was elected to a Senate seat in Victoria off 0.5% of the primary vote by gathering preferences from a wide variety of parties. Kevin Bonham provides a more complete discussion of the issues.
In recent days, the government has introduced legislation to change the Senate electoral system. The proposed changes would introduce optional preferences above the line. Voters will only have to number one box above the line (although the ballot paper will instruct voters to number six boxes above the line). This vote will go to the candidates of that party's ballot group, and, if no further preferences are expressed, the ballot paper will exhaust (be removed from the count).
However, rather curiously, this provision will only apply above the line. People who wish to vote below the line will still have to number every box, though an extra two errors will apparently be permitted. This goes against the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.
Exactly who insisted on this is unclear. The legislation is being supported by the Liberal/National Coalition and the Greens, and both blame each other for the proposition. The motivation behind the decision seems to be fear that with optional preferencing, voters will change the orders of party tickets.
However, in my view, this is a baseless concern. Optional below-the-line preferencing, even if above-the-line voting is totally removed, has little impact on the specific people elected.
In New South Wales, the same electoral system as recommended by the committee is used. Voters can vote for one group above the line, which counts as preferences for that group only. They can also number fifteen or more boxes below the line. At the last state election, 1.62% of voters who voted for groups with a box above the line voted below the line. At no point in the history of this particular system have these below-the-line preferences changed the order of election.
You may ask whether the difficulty of numbering fifteen boxes against numbering one means that voters will automatically opt for the easy option. However, this does not appear to be the reason. Before the introduction of group tickets in 1988, New South Wales required voters to number fifteen candidates or more; there was no option for above the line voting. While parties put the candidates in order, it would have been no harder for people to vote against the party ticket.
So, what happened? Well, according to Antony Green's paper on these elections, at each election about 98% of voters voted for the number 1 candidate in each ballot group, and about 98% of those votes transferred to the second candidate. In South Australia, a similar system was used. I am unsure whether voters were required to number a certain number of candidates. Once again, 98% of voters voted for the first candidate.
The issue appears to be that Australian federal elections do not provide an opportunity for individual candidates to campaign for their own support, and Senate candidates of major parties are not scrutinised. For example, Joe Bullock, a right-wing Western Australian Labor senator, was forced to run for election again following the invalidation of the previous result. Bullock's conservative views received more attention during the by-election, and, as a result, incumbent left-wing Senator Louise Pratt outpolled him on below-the-line votes.
In my view, it is foolish of the government to keep compulsory preferences below the line. If vote exhaustion is okay above the line, it is surely okay below. The political advantages of restricting below-the-line voting are irrelevant, and it would take a number of other reforms (decoupling House and Senate elections, abolition of above-the-line voting, rotating ballot positions, banning how-to-vote cards). However, for the same reason, it does not deserve so much attention; party ordering would likely remain the way Senators were chosen regardless of whether preferences were compulsory or optional.
Note-The government has abandoned the requirement to number all the boxes below the line. Voters are only required to number six boxes, though the ballot paper will state that twelve are required.