Splitting the progressive vote

Whenever the topic of voting for the Greens comes up, the question arises of whether this involves “splitting the progressive vote” or “wasting your vote”. In large measure, this suggests results from confusing the Australian system with the “first past the post” (plurality of first preference) system that prevails in the US and Britain. In all Australian voting systems it is possible to vote Green with a second preference for Labor. Obviously, if you don’t do this (by preferencing the Lib/Nats or by exhausting your ballot where this is an option) the result will be to reduce the chances of a Labor candidate being elected. But are there any other cases where this is a risk?

For single-member constituencies, the most common case is where the Greens are sure to run third. In this case, their preferences are distributed, and a Green vote with a Labor second preference is functionally equivalent to a Labor first preference, although the views they express are different. In the rare cases where Labor is sure to run third, the opposite is true. The only interesting case is where the order in which Greens and Labor are going to finish is unsure. In this case, the outcome that gives the best combined Labor-Green chance is that the candidate with tighter preference flows should finish third. That way, there is less leakage of preferences to the conservatives. In practice, I don’t think this is a big deal, but to the extent it is at all relevant, it usually suggests that progressives should vote Green. But there is a problem with this, in that, if people really acted on this analysis, there would be a reward to the party whose voters were more likely to split their preferences.

Broadly speaking, the same analysis applies in the Senate. Most of the time, the total number of Green and Labor Senators elected will be the same regardless of how preferences are arranged between them. Given the complexities of the system, especially with voting both above and below the line, anything can happen, but since these complexities are almost impossible to predict in advance, they can’t really influence a decision on how to vote.

20 thoughts on “Splitting the progressive vote

  1. Preference flows in the Senate are complicated and unpredictable without perfect knowledge of everyone elses ballot. Thus, while it is possible in theory to game the system and vote strategically, without perfect knowledge (i.e. in reality) you should always vote for the candidates in the order in which you would like to see them elected.

  2. Good explanation John. Now I have some evidence to show to those people who seem to consistently harp on with the whole ‘a vote for the Greens is a vote for Labor’ rhetoric, which seems to be the mantra of worried conservatives or people who don’t understand how the election system works here.

  3. This biggest issue on understanding (which is broadly shown in this post as well) is that a “vote” in Australian elections is an expression of a preference amongst candidates rather than a tick of approval for a particular candidate. So when it the question raised is “who will you vote for?” then you are immediately in the wrong frame of mind. The question should be “who is your most preferred candidate?” if you are only interested in their top preference or “how will you vote?” if you are interested in a particular person’s preference of candidates. The confusion is deliberately spread by the major parties as it obviously helps them given the highly conservative nature of the Australian public.

  4. @Austin

    Or more precisely: of the candidates on offer, is there anyone you could support as the least of all evils?


    of the candidates likely to be elected, is any the least of all evils?

  5. @FMark
    an example is 2004 where the Libs and Nats ran separate senate tickets

    A quirk in the way votes are counted elected three Liberals and Barnaby Joyce. Had a joint ticket arrangement existed, the Coalition would have elected only three Senators.


    the splitting of votes is influenced by expressive voting.

    how many of the green voters who second preference the Libs could still bring thmselves to this low course of action without first being cleased and purified by voting green first. voting green allows 20% of the green voters to be the equvalent of sunday catholics

    agenda control matters. the architecture of choice matters.

  6. Isn’t it the case that first preference votes are the basis for public funding? So who you vote for first matters quite a bit in that sense.

    Still voting for the Australian Democrats first!

  7. The basis of primary vote electoral funding is just the current crappy political arrangement to pacify people. It is really a very poor way to achieve a representative democracy. I guess if you are worried about where $4 of your federal taxes go, then it may be a deal changer. The vast majority of people would be far to confused to connect public finance, single run off voting and political stability in their minds correctly at the same time. Most people can barely understand public finance on it’s own.

  8. @GrueBleen

    If you want the Greens to hang around for future elections, even if you don’t necessarily want them to win, then give them your first (formal, of course) preference.

    Although I like them a lot more than the majors, I want them to win less than I want both the ALP and the Libs to lose. Since I can’t have that outcome, I can’t vote formally for them, which is sad. As I’ve said elsewhere, I will donate to them a lot more than my vote would have given them ($2.30 IIRC). I plan to scrutineer and donate $2.30 for every informal Green vote in my booth in Bennelong.

  9. @Fran Barlow It is $2.31191 per primary vote. Note that each person has two votes. One for the senate and one for the house. So about $4.60 per person.

  10. This election is looking better and better for the Greens; after all, $2.31 for a Green vote is yet another reason for the majors to rethink their green strategies, to the extent that they have green strategies.

  11. (disclaimer: am non-citizen so can’t vote)

    If I could vote, I’d vote for everyone vaguely progressive in order of merit, with Labor last but still among my preferences. on the grounds of “not Abbott”. This is an absolutely awesome improvement on the (“one vote, one party”) way it works in the UK, and I’m amazed people here who’re disillusioned with the big parties don’t automatically do the same…

  12. in Australia vote-splitting is an insignificant matter… the more important question is splitting the progressive active-membership… should a progressive with the spare time and masochistic streak necessary to be involved in active party politics invest it in building up the Greens as a major third party, or in joining the ALP to fight the internal battle against the Corpo-Right?

  13. @gerard
    split-ticket voting has a growing literature in public choice and political science. google it.

    20% of greens second preference the liberals. That is a big deal to the 2 party preferred when the greens to 8% to 9% of the primary vote.

    80% of liberals second preference the greens. that decides if a green gets into the house in one or two safe inner-city labour seats.

    check antony green’s election blog for every thing you could ever wanted to know about house and senate preference flows.

    about one-half or so of NZ voters split their votes. the danger of the left is about 1/3 of these vote splitters do so for expressive reasons.

    in australia, vote splitters vote with their heart for one candidate in the senate and with their wallet for the Libs in the House.

    without the option of a split vote, for some, the heart would just rule their wallets and the net or 2-party preferred progressive vote would increase.

  14. So tell me Jim, when you’re there in your voting booth wanting to vote split ticket, just precisely how do you determine that you ought to be in the 80 percent or the 20 percent?

    It’s nonsense, what you’ve written, if I understand what you’re claiming.

  15. The trajectory of how people come to vote Greens is relevant. It may well be that the 20% of Greens voters who preference the Liberals were originally Liberal Party voters.

    You cannot assume that all Green voters have a history of voting for the ALP and talk about a vote for the Greens is splitting the “progressive ” vote is just that talk.

  16. @Doug
    The vote splitting comes from expressive voting.

    Expressive voting is the desire most have to express themselves in support of things they approve of, and in opposition of what they disapprove of and make statements about ourselves and what we belong to.

    Voting is much like sending a get-well card, or cheering for the home team, or booing the visiting team. We send the card and cheer primarily because of the expressive satisfaction it provides to us.

    Expressive voting not only explains why a lot of people vote, it also explains the higher voter turnout of the more educated. It also explains why people are more likely to vote in national elections than in local elections even though their vote is more likely to be decisive in local elections

    Expressive voting also explains why people often vote against their personal interests. The fact is that voting against your interests cost you almost nothing when there are countless others voting too.

    Instead of voting for the ALP, a swinging voter can vote green as a protest vote and then vote liberal

    If there were no greens to vote for, no protest vote option, some of the protest vote will stay with Labour because the voter cannot cop-out and split their vote while still feeling good about themselves.

  17. @Doug
    80% of Liberals do not second preference the greens because they wish the labour party well.

    These liberals give labour a poisoned pawn.

    Having a more left wing coalition partner or balance of power party makes a labour government less electable with the middle-of-the-road swinging voter at the next election because every ALP government’s concession the greens puts them off labour.

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