South Australia’s Legislative Council has one of the smallest quotas for election for any elected body in Australia. At each election, eleven members are elected for an eight-year term, with a total of twenty-two members serving at any one time. This means that the quota for election is just over 8.3%.
The only state legislative body with a smaller quota is the NSW Legislative Council, which elects 21 members at a time.
These elected bodies thus provide the opportunity for independents and candidates for very small parties to win a seat in the Legislative Council with a slim vote. The NSW Legislative Council saw numerous microparties win seats at the 1995 and 1999 elections.
In South Australia, Nick Xenophon won a seat at the 1997 election with only 2.9% of the vote for his No Pokies party and Kelly Vincent was elected for Dignity for Disability in 2010 off 1.2% of the vote.
The technique of ‘preference harvesting’ which allows candidates to be elected off a small fraction of a quota has since spread to the Senate, with Steve Fielding winning in 2004, and a number of candidates perfecting the technique in 2013, but it was invented in the upper houses of New South Wales and South Australia.
After the 1999 election, New South Wales solved this problem by abolishing ticket voting: the electoral process which allows parties to direct their voters’ preferences en bloc from one candidate to another, allowing parties to make binding deals which don’t require how-to-votes or the cooperation of candidates to enforce.
The lure of ticket voting also encourages the formation of numerous small political parties, and encourages those parties to run in lots of places, massively increasing the size of the ballot paper. Senate ballot papers in New South Wales and Victoria reached the maximum size in 2013, forcing the AEC to provide magnifying glasses to read the reduced-size text.
After last year’s Senate election saw a number of candidates elected on a small vote, South Australia’s Parliament began discussing plans to reform their electoral system to reduce the size of the ballot and ideally prevent candidates getting elected through the ‘preference lottery’.
Some members proposed introduce NSW-style optional preferential voting, under which candidates could preference multiple parties above the line, but would not allow those preferences to flow automatically. The state government also proposed introduce a party-list system using the Saint-Lague counting system, which would not involve any preferences or below-the-line voting.
In the end, neither of these proposals was able to be agreed to in time for the election, due to the late notice and disagreement within the Legislative Council. Instead, the Parliament passed a number of proposals: increasing the nomination fee to $3000 per candidate, requiring groups of independents or parties to run two candidates to lodge a preference ticket, and pushing independent groups to the right of registered parties on the ballot.
These reforms triggered an outcry from many small parties, but what effect did it have on the size of the ballot?
The number of groups with at least two candidates increased slightly from 23 to 24 groups, but the number of single-candidate groups collapsed, from 12 in 2010 to one in 2014. This means the number of columns has been cut from 35 to 25. This ballot includes fourteen parties and eleven independent columns.
South Australia is also the only jurisdiction where independent candidates are allowed to add additional words after the word ‘Independent’ in the spot where the party name normally appears, which allows independents to be recognised with words above the line. I’ve previously discussed the problem of independent groups appearing above the line with no distinguishing name, either a group slogan or the name of a candidate.
In one case, independent MLC John Darley is running with the phrase ‘Nick Xenophon Team’, even though Xenophon is not running in the election. Darley filled the casual vacancy caused by Xenophon’s resignation from the state Parliament in 2007, after running as the third candidate on Xenophon’s ticket in 2006.
The harsh new nomination laws appear to have had some effect, but not enough to rule out the possibility that a candidate could win with a very small ballot. The 2014 ballot will be the equal-third-largest ballot in South Australian history.
Ultimately South Australia will remain vulnerable to ‘preference harvesting’ resulting in the election of a candidate with minimal profile or support until reforms take place to the system that allows preferences to flow in ways that voters don’t understand: either by introducing above-the-line optional-preferential-voting or moving towards a European-style party-list system.
In the meantime, fiddling with candidate nomination laws focuses on the symptom, not the disease.