Senate: a new voting system

There is clearly a major problem in the system we use to elect the Senate. For the third election in a row it seems that Senators will be elected on the basis of preferences allocated by other parties which would be deeply offensive to the supporters of those parties. In 1998, the openly gay Democrat Brian Greig was elected to the Senate from WA with the preferences of the Christian Democrats. In 2001, the Greens' Kerry Nettle polled just over 4% in NSW but managed to secure a massive flow of preferences. In 2004 Steve Fielding from Family First secured less than 2% of the vote, but managed to get elected with the preferences of a range of parties including the ALP and the Democrats.

What's the problem? The problem is that voters who vote above the line give the party of their choice complete control over where those preferences go. Sometimes they use that power wisely, otherwise they simply use it for political advantage. The only way that voters can control where their preferences go is to number each and every box below the line - 78 candidates in NSW this year - a complex task that discourages more than 90% of voters from utilising it.

What's the solution? We need a slight variation on the existing voting options. Instead of either one box above the line or every box below it, we need the following alternative:

- Voters can number every box below the line OR
- Voters can number every box above the line, and this will be as if the voter had numbered the candidates from top to bottom in each list in the order of the parties chosen

The advantages are significant:
- Parties no longer decide on the allocation of preference for the bulk of voters, instead the voter themself does this
- Voters who are overwhelmed by dozens of names on the ballot paper can instead chose from the smaller list of parties
- Preferences will no longer flow away from the intention of the voter who votes above the line

It's easy, it's practical, but most of all it's democratic.


urban creature said…
What a fabulous idea! One that I've been advocating for years.

They should definately trial it at the next state election that comes up (obviously not in Qld though). Which state is next? WA?
Anonymous said…
I think the lower house should also be proportional representation.

Living in a safe Labor seat means I really only get to:
a) have a say in the Senate, and
b) award financial support to minor parties.

Why should people in marginal seats be the only ones to get a meaningful say in electing the executive?

Anonymous said…
Agreed, though surely if you were voting Liberal and you put ALP candidates last, you'd want them to be in reverse preference order? Even though in practice preferences wouldn't be distributed, they could be for Family First and HEMP for instance.

Also shouldn't every independent get an individual column below the line and above the line too?

This whole mess was created by the Labor Party in 1984 becuase they thought their voters were dumber than Lib voters. They should not have introduced above the line voting (it should be number every box, as per House of Reps - no exceptions). Nor should they have increased the number of reps & senators. Had they not done the latter, the new parliament house would not have been necessary.
Anonymous said…
Have you seen the old parliament house??? They needed a new one, trust me.

Ari - how to handle independents is the weak link in the arguement, but I do agree it sounds reasonable and alternatives do need to be looked at.

I've voted three times in my life now - all times, voting below the line. I just don't trust anyone to distribute my vote.

I've handed out how-to-vote cards for the Dems before, but have never followed a HTV in my life. Even while handing out HTV's, the thought has often alarmed me that people are that disinterested in politics that they might actually just follow whatever card they are handed as they pass through to the booth - and I think that this is about as common as people who affiliate with a party and only take the HTV of that group to follow.

Even so, at least a HTV is clear on where preferences go (except the Dems split tickets, but I'll leave that for another day). Putting a 1 above the line and leaving it at that for the Senate vote demonstrates an alarming amount of trust in the one group you've given not just your first preference, but all of your subsequent preferences, to. There needs to be much, much greater disclosure on these preferene deals.

I want to know who makes these decisions, where and how. If I was a Victorian who'd put a "1" above the line for the Democrats, I think I'd be a little pissed off with how this result seems to be playing out. This is a very, very bad way to learn the lesson that you should broker your preference deals not just with the plan of "how do we win" in mind, but "what if we lose". The last thing the Dems needed was another reason for people not to vote for them next time.

As for the suggestion of reverse order through those you don't want your preferences going to - if you're getting to that level, you'd assume they'd been eliminated anyway. Someone who is your last or near to last preference can still be elected - just because you like them least won't stop that happening, and people you do like might have been the first ones eliminated.

And on that count, see my previous comment - god, I hope that people don't give a sh*t, because the thought that the Howard Government is so overwhlmingly people's preference really does scare me.

urban creature said…
I agree there should be greater disclosure of above-the-line Senate preferences.

However, the AEC website contained all of the group tickets for the public to view, large polling booths have the group tickets up on the walls (last time I checked anyway), and if you ask the people handing out HTV cards outside, they can show you or even give you a copy. For those who read blogs, the information was already out there - mostly on Poll Bludger's blog and some, limited, details of preferences on mine too.

Perhaps the AEC can put the group tickets in newspapers the week before the election.
Anonymous said…
Urban - you are assuming your average Joe Voter reads blogs or follows large advertisements or asks questions of staffers or people handing out HTV cards. Don't make that mistake. The politically aware and curious are the exception in this country, not the rule. For the majority, voting is a chore, something unpleasant, and deserves as little time as possible.

Anonymous said…
In terms of people asking questions of booth helpers...

I assisted the Dems on October 9 with HtV's, and 1 person (yes, ONE) person asked me about how the Democrats distributed their preferences. I had no idea, and took a few educated guesses before telling this bloke I usually vote below the line anyway.

I was then later advised by other that the listings were inside, but no one knew where.

Had I known Family First were going to end up getting a bloody seat, my advice would have been much, much different.

The only way to make the 'Every box above the line' system work would be to give each Independent one box above the line. This makes for a very wide ballot paper.

And if these guys are happy to blow $700 each on a Senate 'campaign', let them!


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