Home > Oz Politics > A better system of voting for the Senate

A better system of voting for the Senate

March 19th, 2016

After a fractious debate, the LNP and Greens have combined to push through changes to the system of voting in the Senate. The primary change is to introduce something like optional preferential voting above the line, replacing the system where party apparatchiks got to allocate preferences. While not perfect, this is an improvement on the old system.

It points the way to a much simpler system. I suggest scrapping the below/above distinction, and moving to a standard optional preferential system, except that we would vote for named party lists. Independents could pick a party name describing their objectives, or just run under their own names.

The main objection to this system is that it rules out the option of voting for (say) Labor candidates in an order different to that of the party ticket, which is currently possible below the line. But, as far as I know, in nearly 100 years with the current system, no candidate has ever been elected ahead of someone higher up their own party list.

Against that, it would be simple, familiar and easy to count, with a greatly reduced risk of accidental informal votes.

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  1. March 19th, 2016 at 13:38 | #1

    Good idea.

    If people wanted to preference members of parties they could ask for a different voting form with all the names on it.

  2. Jim Rose
    March 19th, 2016 at 14:59 | #2

    John, I am in complete agreement with this post. The new system is the best way of capturing motor preferences. It is probably closest to a semi-open list

    Antony Green has written a number of blogs on it including the logistical and computer challenge facing the electoral commission in counting all the balance.

  3. David Allen
    March 19th, 2016 at 15:41 | #3

    Exhaustion of preferences will be a problem. There’s no way I will let my vote trickle through to numb-nuts so my vote will probably not elect anyone. Looking forward to the data analysis after the election. Is everyone happy with 15% of voters (my guess) ending up not counted?

  4. David Allen
    March 19th, 2016 at 15:47 | #4

    And the obvious warning flag around this change is that it’s the LNP. nothing good ever , EVER, comes from the LNP.

  5. Simon Fowler
    March 19th, 2016 at 16:30 | #5

    You’re not entirely clear about the details: the new legislation introduces optional preferential voting both above the line /and/ below the line.

    Above the line a formal vote will number party tickets 1 through at least 6 with no upper limit, with votes within the party tickets distributed in the party’s nominated order. There are savings provisions that make any vote with at least a first preference valid, up to wherever the ballot exhausts or where the voter makes their first ordering error (i.e. going 1, 2, 3, 3, 4, 5 would result in preferences 1 and 2 being counted).

    Below the line a formal vote will number candidates 1 through at least 12 with no upper limit. Savings provisions exist that allow any ballot that expresses 6 properly ordered preferences to be considered valid (i.e. with no ordering errors – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 7 would be valid, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 6 would not).

    I don’t think this result could realistically be any better as far as making senate voting meaningful and practical. It’s actually pretty easy to vote for your preferred party senators in a different order (I expect that Joe Bullock would have had more issues getting elected under this system).

    Modelling by psephologists Antony Green and Kevin Bonham suggests that the fears of minor parties never being able to get in are overstated – the kind of micro party preference harvesting that’s been done in recent elections won’t be practical, meaning the truly micro parties will have about as minimal chance of getting in as they should, given their support base, but a minor party with a real support base would have a real chance of getting a senate seat. This is especially true of a full senate election. Regardless of how hard it might be for the minor parties, the new system will properly reflect the preference decisions of the voters, unlike the current system.

  6. Collin Street
    March 19th, 2016 at 16:58 | #6

    > meaning the truly micro parties will have about as minimal chance of getting in as they should, given their support base

    This is kind of question-begging, because exactly how representation is determined and should be determined is exactly what we’re discussing.

    A less-popular opinion should be less represented than a more-popular opinion, sure. But say you’ve got a group that has one-tenth of a quota, reliably; in a very real sense, giving them a seat one out of ten elections is a more accurate representation of what the people want than never electing them ever, which is what a naive approach will get you.

    Because elections aren’t one-off events, you have to look at the behaviour over time.

    In digital signal processing, a lot of the time, a random element is added to the signal being digitised that turns quantisation distortion into quantisation noise; noise, randomness, is often preferable to a systemic bias, distortion, because over time randomness will cancel out. And the unpredictable flow of preferences is about as good a source of entropy — randomness — as you can wish for.

    I mean, over the past hundred-and-sixteen years of the commonwealth [yes, yes, multi-member STV for the senate isn’t that old, etc], I don’t think that the micro-parties have been over represented. It feels pretty right to me.

    [and, honestly: who would you rather have in the senate, ricky muir or corey bernadi?]

  7. J-D
    March 19th, 2016 at 17:18 | #7

    If you’re looking for a system that is ‘simple … and easy to count’ and which also allows the option of voting for individual candidates without reference to the party ticket, I recommend the following: no preferences at all, with each vote cast for one and only one candidate; each list is allocated a share of the available seats in proportion (as nearly as possible) to its share of the votes; within each list, the seats won go to the candidates of that list with the largest personal votes.

    If a party put forward a list that attracted (say, for the sake of argument) a third of the total votes cast, it would receive a third of the total seats; if that meant (say, for the sake of argument) four seats, those four seats would be allocated to whichever four out of the candidates on that party’s list got the four highest personal vote totals.

    With no way to vote for a list except by voting for a candidate on that list, there’d be an incentive for parties to nominate candidates that people actually wanted to vote for.

    As easy as possible for the voters, as easy as possible for the counters, and you’d still get proportional results (if that’s what you want).

  8. davidp
    March 19th, 2016 at 17:34 | #8

    In the mid-late 1970s in Victoria there was a Labour senate candidate (a woman (Joan?)) who got bumped to an unwinnable position after some factional deal. While there wasn’t enough outrage to get the order reversed at the ballot box, my memory is that was a noticeable deviation in the votes that was attributed to this.

  9. FlannOB
    March 19th, 2016 at 18:06 | #9

    Jean Melzer?

  10. andrew_m
    March 19th, 2016 at 18:27 | #10

    Constitution, section 7: The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State, voting, until the Parliament otherwise provides, as one electorate.

    Family First & Leyonhjelm are challenging the current changes on the grounds that they violate the requirement for direct election. A party list system for the Senate will clearly require an amendment.

  11. Simon Fowler
    March 19th, 2016 at 18:38 | #11

    @Collin Street
    A minor party that can reliably gain 1-2% of the vote would have a real chance of getting a seat in a full senate election, and a small chance of getting a seat in a half-senate election. It might be a smaller chance than the old model, but that difference is due to people actually expressing a preference (or choosing not to express a preference) between the minor parties, not because of preference deals that have almost nothing to do with the contest of actual political ideas.

    The current senate voting system is pretty obvious at the start of the count – the big parties achieve quotas easily, and the smaller parties may achieve a quota on their own right, or they’ll get a quota based on the redistributed residual votes from the big parties. It’s at the tail end of the count that things get hinky. When you start to eliminate candidates you find that the ordering at the bottom of the list is essentially random, and the order of elimination is similarly random. The beneficiaries of the those eliminations are almost completely determined by preference deals, not by the voters themselves. /Someone/ will get over the line, and that person will mostly be the winner of a lottery.

    With the new system things different. At the tail of the count there will be far more ballots that simply exhaust, because voters will only bother to express preferences as far as required. Micro parties will for the most part receive nothing from those ballots, except when a voter /explicitly preferenced them/. The ordering at the tail end of the count will still have a large element of randomness, but the direction in which the votes go will be /explicitly chosen/. That may end up benefiting the larger parties, of course – I imagine a lot of people will put their pet protest party first, then follow up somewhere along the line with someone they think may actually win. Equally likely, though, they may simply choose to exhaust their vote rather than preference a larger party. In either case, the voter will make the choice, rather than being forced to express a preference they don’t actually have. Exactly who gets over the line will still have an element of winning the lottery (though assuming there are far fewer micro parties that will be significantly reduced), but the lottery will be based on actual expressed preferences rather than back room deals.

    Elections aren’t simply about selecting a representative grouping from the population, they’re about /reflecting the voting preferences/ of the population. The old system either forced people to jump through multiple flaming hoops to achieve a valid representation of their voting preferences (and risk making a mistake somewhere and rendering their vote invalid), or it forced people to pick and choose between preference orderings that were determined by someone else, in a context where the exact relevance of the ordering was impossible to know before everyone had voted. The new system allows the voter to express their preferences in as much detail (or as little) as they want, with no reference to anyone else. Regardless of how the fine details at the tail end of a count work out, and regardless of whether the estimable Senator Muir retains or loses his seat, the end result will be a better reflection of the voting preferences of the population, and that really should be the bottom line for any voting system.

  12. Simon Fowler
    March 19th, 2016 at 18:40 | #12

    That doesn’t make any sense to me – the old system above the line was far more indirect an election than the new one. Unless they want to argue that the constitution /requires/ full preferential voting.

  13. James Wimberley
    March 19th, 2016 at 23:17 | #13

    It is striking how easily the hoi polloi adapt to new and quite complicated electoral systems: proportional, party list, multiple rounds etc.

    The US Presidential primaries have a very different dynamic to the general in that the former are more or less proportional while the latter are winner-take-all through the absurd Electoral College. Republicans in California and Democrats in Mississippi only vote in the general out if civic duty, there is no chance that their votes will make a difference. In the primaries, every vote is wanted.

  14. wmmbb
    March 20th, 2016 at 01:17 | #14

    I always thought, perhaps mistakenly, that the Senate was voted with a party list system. The notion of the Single Transferable Vote never registered . With these changes, the critical decisions will remain, I imagine as before,with the fifth and sixth places. At least now voters can deliberate on directing preferences. I suspect that social media will play a more critical role. Malcolm Mackerras is not happy and is supporting Senator Day’s constitutional challenge. He does acknowledge the demise of the tea towel ballot paper. My suggestion is”democracy first”, with the number of senator representing each State and Territory reflecting their relative voting populations. To anticipate the objections, I suggest constitutional recognition of local government and the creation of new states.

  15. Collin Street
    March 20th, 2016 at 07:00 | #15

    but the lottery will be based on actual expressed preferences rather than back room deals.

    I can’t see any a-priori reason to object to preference deals on the basis that they aren’t directly determined by the voters, given that, y’know, once they’re elected candidates get free rein, without referring it back to the electorate.

    “representatives can make whatever deals they like once elected, but preference deals are a bridge too far” doesn’t strike me as a position with a sound theoretical footing.

    [if you don’t have a preference after a certain point, why not leave it up to your first-preference candidate to decide? I mean, ipso facto you don’t care, and you’ve already delegated huge amounts of decision-making authority to them by voting for them for parliament. I simply do not see that preference allocations represent any sort of problem.

  16. Ikonoclast
    March 20th, 2016 at 08:46 | #16

    Historically, our Australian Constitution installed a two house system because the upper house was intended to protect state rights. We can regard it as a power guarantee extracted by states, at the time of Federation, to protect their rights. This explains the fact today that Tasmania, population 515,000, and NSW, population 7,554,000, elect 12 senators each. The Senate was once called “unrepresentative swill”, ironically by erstwhile pig farmer Paul Keating who clearly knew a thing or two about swill.

    I am in favour of the general principle of bicameralism. The idea is that two houses, elected by different methods, provide elements of review and moderation based on modernised notions of mixed government and distribution of power. But the state rights protection angle seems outmoded. What new ideas could we come up with to elect the senators in a different way? Which of these ideas would stand a chance of getting a YES vote in a referendum? Our constitutional referendum system, after all, also privileges the voters in small states with more voting power in effect.

    One idea might be to turn the Senate into a genuine citizens’ house of review. Is there some way that “professional politicians” (a difficult class to define) and formal political parties could be excluded from significant influence in the senate? Is there some way that ordinary citizens could be put into the Senate? One idea might be sortition. Check the “sortition” entry on a search engine of your choice. However, sortition would a political concept difficult for many to accept and a referendum on sortition would be difficult to frame and probably almost impossible to get a YES vote on.

    What other changes could we enact to make the Senate more representative than it is now and yet still useful as a house of review? Again, I would say that this ought to entail somehow making the senate more of a citizen’s house and less of a professional party politicians’ house. Some would argue that the current “odd” way of electing senators already goes part way to this end. It does give some minor parties more a look in but it also seems to add in some “cranks” from religious fundamentalists to motoring nuts. I would be disappointed if I thought the mass of sensible citizens of the country could not be depended on to produce enough useful people, rather than cranks, for a citizens’ house of review. How could it be achieved constitutionally? Is it even worth trying such an idea? Those are my questions.

  17. davidp
    March 20th, 2016 at 08:46 | #17

    It was Jean Melzer. Thanks!

  18. Ikonoclast
    March 20th, 2016 at 11:05 | #18

    As a footnote to what I wrote above namely;

    “Tasmania, population 515,000, and NSW, population 7,554,000, elect 12 senators each.”

    The latest figures I can find indicate;

    TAS Enrolled Voters = 369,282
    NSW Enrolled Voters = 4,954,692

    Thus it takes about 30,700 TAS voters to elect a TAS senator and about 412,800 NSW voters to elect one NSW senator. How is this a fair outcome?

    In the Reps, NSW returns 48 seats and TAS 5.

    It takes about 73, 800 TAS voters to elect a rep. It takes about 103, 200 NSW voters to elect a NSW rep. So NSW people are even disadvantaged in this.

    I live in Qld BTW and was born and bred in QLD.

  19. Collin Street
    March 20th, 2016 at 11:48 | #19

    > How is this a fair outcome?

    Define what you’re using “fair” to mean and we can have a discussion.

    But note that this is inherently a twofold process: does the political mechanism deliver results that match your definition of “fair” — an empirical / fact-bound question — and is your definition of “fair” the one we should be working with, which is obviously a question based on considering messy conflicting priorities. I mean, if it were that simple and indisputable that [whatever you propose] were the only right way, then we wouldn’t even have to discuss it, would we?

  20. Ikonoclast
    March 20th, 2016 at 12:48 | #20

    @Collin Street

    It’s generally considered that gerrymandered electorates are unfair in a representative democratic system. Gerrymandering manipulates boundaries and/or relative voter populations of various voting districts. It is widely understood that this creates essentially unrepresentative situations where the intentions of smaller groups of voters can outweigh the intentions of larger groups of voters. This goes against the principle of “one vote, one value”. Having lived through the Bjelke-Petersen gerrymander era in Queensland, I can assure you I consider that my detestation of gerrymanders has good grounds.

    The above concept of unfairness and fairness in representative voting systems (for Reps or Senate) related to vote value is not hard to comprehend. It’s an empirical fact-bound definition, to use your terms. It doesn’t exhaust all fairness issues of course but it is still an important matter in its own right. What is not as clear is how we could change this, for a house of review, in a manner both practicable and fair in relation to “one vote, one value”. The latter is the reason why we need to debate matters.

  21. BilB
    March 20th, 2016 at 13:01 | #21

    If the legislation sticks the independents may need to be creative and form an Independents Party in which each special interest becomes a portfolio. It would be no worse than the present, and may well have the advantage of pulling far more votes as they would be seen as a common force for independent views.

  22. John Turner
    March 20th, 2016 at 17:00 | #22

    I agree, the present system is too complicated and as a result is not clearly understood by many voters. Like you I would prefer a direct proportional voting system, where the number of seats a party gets is a reflection of the direct votes they have received ( no preferences). I believe that this will actually improve the prospects of minor parties.

    I also agree with Ikonoclast that the present representation of the states in the senate needs to be changed so that it is closer to achieving the one vote one value principle.

    While we are talking about better electoral systems, my personal view is that the entire Federal system needs to overhauled by getting rid of state government and moving instead to regional local government with systems that allow citizens more direct say in how their region is local governed. This can be achieved easily enough using modern technology. Never happen of course.

  23. Collin Street
    March 20th, 2016 at 17:17 | #23

    getting rid of state government and moving instead to regional local government with systems that allow citizens more direct say in how their region is local governed.

    This is less clever than you might think.

    The australian states largely line up with economic and social areas, which means that the large-scale variation that we have subnational governance for pretty much lines up with the state borders already. If you abolished the states and redrew sub-national boundaries ex-nihilo… you’d wind up with something basically the same. NSW would shrink, but apart from that no real change.

    If you replaced the states with smaller entities, they’d still need to make unified responses over state-sized areas, only this time through ad-hoc structures rather than a unified state government. Like how metropolitan planning happens in every state except queensland, only instead of each state running coordination for a single metropolitan area it’d be the federal government coordinating a half-dozen. I can’t for the life of me see how this helps anybody. reduces admin costs or increases the responsiveness of government to people’s problems.

    How do you think this will help?

  24. March 21st, 2016 at 09:46 | #24

    The problem with new states is path dependence. Every current state except Queensland is majority capital city; to split any into approximately equal chunks either has to divide the capital and the country or, at best, have one all the country and some of the suburbs and another inner city and some suburbs. Both alternatives have appalling problems. either you have, in the half-city outcomes, a division between essentially identical interests that would make urban planning twice as difficult, or, in the all country/all city version, two states with unAustralianly pure particular and incompatible interests. New states might be able to spin off sufficient funding to create their own urban conurbations, though I doubt it – coastline is also an issue – but it would take decades, if not centuries, and we’d be pretty stuffed in the meantime.

  25. J-D
    March 21st, 2016 at 11:00 | #25

    @John Turner

    The suggestion I made is one which I think is around the outer limit of the category of proposals that have some serious practical possibility of being adopted. The more drastic suggestions you make have (I submit) no serious practical possibility of being adopted, regardless of their theoretical merits. That’s not a reason not to mention and discuss them — I’ve got my own drastic proposals that I consider theoretically meritorious but lacking any serious practical possibility of being adopted — but I think the distinction is worth noting.

  26. dedalus
    March 21st, 2016 at 12:42 | #26

    I think all would agree that there is no Senate voting system that is without SOME flaw(s).

    However, the current system has the virtue of having a greater number of independents than would otherwise exist under the proposed “new” system.

    Many here have objected to the randomness with which many of the independents have been elected. But the point is, surely, that the proportion of Senators representing the main parties has been minimised – and this probably reflects the fact that voters have not explicitly voted for the main parties. By voting for ANY independent, these voters have, in effect, voted to be represented in the Senate by” someone other than the main parties.”

    True, that “someone” turns out to be randomly selected by an imperfect voting system. But that does not really matter. The effectiveness or otherwise of the elected Senator will only be known after the fact (Colin Street’s point when comparing Muir to Bernardi). The important thing is that an independent has replaced a member of a major party, and consequently this alone is sufficient to reflect the will of a certain section of voters who would prefer to see an independent in the Senate.

    Therefore, if x% of Senators are elected as independents, and this balances out with (100-x)% of the total voters who explicitly vote for candidates from the main parties, then this outcome would correctly (at least in theory) reflect the wishes of the people.

    I suspect that the “new” system will result in a lesser number of independent Senators, and that this will, by definition, not reflect the wishes of the people.

    On that basis I consider the new legislation a very retrogade step which will consolidate power into fewer hands.

  27. David Irving (no relation)
    March 23rd, 2016 at 14:23 | #27

    @Ikonoclast , the Senate scheme was deliberately designed to protect the interests of the smaller states. It’s a feature, not a bug.

  28. March 28th, 2016 at 11:31 | #28

    Well said Collins Street and dedalus.
    How can we in good conscience endorse the new system which effectively disenfranchises approximately 17% of the voters?

  29. Ikonoclast
    March 28th, 2016 at 15:10 | #29

    @David Irving (no relation)

    I subscribe to constitutionalism. This makes me a rather eclectic political beast because I am also a Marxian autonomist. Whilst I support constitutionalism, this does not blind me to the fact that constitutions, by their essentially conservative nature, develop archaic features relatively quickly in a fast-changing world. Good constitutions have positive features and positive effects but these do not entirely remove the paradoxical effect that a constitution is also the semi-dictatorship of the dead over the living. Constitutional provisions are not all wise and even those that that once were wise may no longer be wise in new circumstances.

    The intention to protect the interests of the smaller states was rooted in the practical exigencies of the process of Federation up to 1901. The smaller states required these protections to sign up. State lines in a federation are of a historical nature. Geography historically played a role too. But today why are Tasmanian interests (12 senators for 516,000 people) more important than say NT rights (2 senators for 244,000 people) or ACT rights (2 senators for 390,000)?

    Why is “North Queensland” not to be a state for example (although I personally do not support that) with its approximately 500,000 people counting the North Queensland and Far North Queensland statistical divisions? It has almost as many people as Tasmania does now, it has a much greater area, greater resources and greater growth. Why should not North Queensland be a state and have 12 senators and the same protection of interests as Tasmania? Why be bound by historical exigencies when new realities are being created on the ground by change and progress? One could play this game with many regions of Australia and thence ask why they should have less senatorial protection of interests than Tasmania?

    Tasmania has special interest protections, if indeed the senate works that way anymore anyway, purely by geographical and historical accidents. There really is no other reason. It is time to look at a better way of electing an upper house (which I would like to keep by the way). I would favour citizen sortition for the upper house based on proportional representation. However, the likelihood of any major changes for the Senate is low. Getting a referendum up on the issue would be very hard. Two thirds of the popular vote and two thirds of the states are needed to pass a referendum issue IIRC. Tasmanian voters will scarcely vote against their own interests on this matter.

    On reflection, perhaps I should support a new state of Nth Qld and 12 senators for it. This would at least put them on a par with Tassie. Perhaps this would be only fair.

    I think the days of logically justifying Tassie’s 12 senators are long past. One can only say it is a political reality of archaic origin, of no enduring justification but unlikely to change in reality given its strong constitutional protections.

  30. rog
    March 28th, 2016 at 21:50 | #30

    @Collin Street Getting rid of the states would shift the powers of the Crown to one federal body and should there be govt in both houses you would have power absolute – a frightening thought.

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