Can you get elected from below the line?


2016 was a good year for candidates overcoming their party’s Senate ballot order. We saw Tasmanian Labor senator Lisa Singh win re-election as one of five Labor senators despite being ranked sixth on her party list, with the candidate ranked above her, John Short, missing out. We also saw Tasmanian Liberal senator Richard Colbeck perform strongly on below-the-line votes, but he was less successful, although he later returned to the Senate due to a vacancy caused by section 44. Singh’s victory was the first time since the introduction of above-the-line voting in 1984 when a Senate candidate defeated a candidate from their party who was ranked above them on the party’s ticket.

This election Lisa Singh has again been demoted to an unwinnable position, while New South Wales Liberal senator Jim Molan is attempting to hold on despite being ranked fourth on his party’s ticket.

So can either of these senators win despite the unfavourable position? It’s very unlikely, for a number of reasons. Each state will only elect six senators in 2019, compared to twelve in 2016. It’s also much easier to achieve this in Tasmania than in mainland states, for a number of reasons.

Below the fold I’ll run through some more analysis on this question.

Lisa Singh was ranked sixth on the Labor ticket in 2016, while Richard Colbeck was ranked fifth on the Liberal ticket. Prior to the election there was active campaigning on both sides for voters in Tasmania to vote below-the-line for these candidates.

Singh polled almost 90% of a quota in below the line votes, while Colbeck polled just over half a quota. My 2019 Tasmanian Senate guide runs through how preferences flowed in the final rounds. These two candidates did benefit from early preferences from other below-the-line voters, but preferences dried up once it came down to the final ten or so candidates. Since there was another Liberal and Labor candidate still in the race, any above-the-line preferences flowed to that candidate instead, leaving these two starved of preferences.

Colbeck eventually dropped out. Most of his preferences did go to the Liberal Party, but enough flowed to Singh to give her the remaining 0.083 of a quota she needed to win.

It’s not clear to me whether Singh is actively working to attract below the line votes this time, although some corflutes have been spotted.

There is clearly an active campaign to support Jim Molan, although Molan himself has been treading a cautious line to spruik his credentials while not quite advocating a below-the-line vote for himself.

So how hard will it be? In short, very hard.

Let’s start with the quota. In 2016, the quota was about 7.7% of the statewide vote. This time it will be 14.3%. That makes a big difference and instantly makes the challenge much more difficult. The experience in 2016 was that Lisa Singh had to get quite close to a quota just on her primary votes, since she didn’t gain many preferences. So you’d be talking about at least 10% of the state’s electors choosing to buck the party line and vote below-the-line.

I want to pause and explain why it’s so hard to attract preferences. If you assume that most other votes are cast above-the-line, then those votes will flow automatically to the highest-ranked candidate in each party group. So if Singh or Molan are competing with a fellow member of their group, they won’t get a single above-the-line vote as a preference until that other person is elected or excluded.

The best chance for either of these candidates to overcome such a challenge is for their party group (excluding their own below-the-line votes) to poll just over a quota – say 2.2 quotas – enough that the second candidate is elected outright but so that the third candidate is excluded with some preferences which would flow onto them. But as long as that third candidate is in the race they will be attracting minor party above-the-line preferences and the below-the-line challenger can’t compete.

It’s also more difficult to vote below-the-line. Below-the-line voting was made much easier in 2016. Now voters just need to number 1 to 12 below the line (with 1 to 6 or more counted as formal), whereas they previously had to number every box. But that’s still a lot more effort than voting above the line. Formality isn’t the only issue – if you want your vote to stay in the count you would need to number more boxes below the line to get the same effect as an above-the-line vote (although you could save a lot of time by just numbering the first candidate in most groups). Voters will be reluctant to do this.

Finally, the state matters. Below the line voting was much higher in Tasmania than in other states. 28.1% of formal votes in Tasmania were below the line, compared to 15% in the ACT and no more than 8.5% in any other state. Only 5.4% of voters in New South Wales delved down below.

Now you could argue that some of this variation was because of the prominent efforts to encourage voters to vote below the line, but this trend has a long history. Tasmania generally has smaller ballot papers, making it easier to vote below the line. The Tasmanian state electoral system also encourages voters to make up their own mind about individual candidates. Tasmania is also much smaller than New South Wales, so the raw number of votes needed to win a seat is a lot less. This does make it easier for an individual senator to get known by voters and overcome the party ticket.

So this does give Singh a greater chance than Molan, but I don’t think either of them have much of a shot. Unless there is another big increase in below-the-line voting I don’t think we’re going to see another candidate overcome their party’s ticket for a long time to come.

Liked it? Take a second to support the Tally Room on Patreon!


  1. It is interesting that Molan has his own HTVs at pre-poll in Mosman and the Liberals are handing them out for him when he is not there … if a voter in-the-know asks for them.

    This must say something about the internal dynamics of the branch, which we already know to be pretty swampy.

  2. ABC reporting that LNP senator Ian Macdonald is also encouraging BTL voting in a bid to save his seat.

    As long as ATL voting remains an option (and comfortably the most popular option for voters) I agree that being elected from below the line (whether breaking party ranks or as an independent) will be incredibly difficult – bordering on impossible. Tasmania perhaps being the exception where the raw number of voters makes it slightly more achievable – though the half-senate quota is still a huge hurdle.

    It’d be interesting to see what would happen if “at least 1-12” BTL voting was the only option, with ATL voting removed. Would certainly make for more interesting post-counts, I imagine preferences would scatter a little more across party lines. More votes exhausting may also make it easier to get elected for the final seat on less than a full quota.

  3. Geoff, “Swampy” is a bit generous. Ian McDonald now doing the same thing in Qld, although he’s been in the gig since 1990, so I reckon he’s every right to be aggrieved at his #4 spot on the Senate ticket.

    The bloodletting in the Liberal Party commencing May 19 will be a sight to behold. Truly.

  4. Geoff Lambert Your Post above raises as many issues as it answers.
    What about Mossman Liberals party branch is swampy?
    What does swampy actually mean?
    Why did Molan not organise for HTVs to be handed out to every voter. There would have been plenty of supporters who feel that Senator Molan was a greater asset than the other 5 on his ticket. 4 of those 5 I had never heard of.

  5. Anyone can hand out a HTV cards for any candidate as long as they are registered with the AEC.

  6. In my personal experience, the atmosphere at prepoll tends to be pretty friendly and it’s not uncommon for volunteers to direct voters to another party’s HTVs if the other party’s volunteers are absent. So given that Molan is still on the Liberal and Nationals ticket and the HTV is preferencing the remainder of that ticket, I don’t see anything unusual about Liberal volunteers handing out Molan’s HTV (particularly if they’re only offering them to voters who specifically ask). The chance that BTLs for Molan hurt the Liberals is negligible, so their value in potentially convincing someone would would otherwise vote for Palmer or some other right-wing minor to keep their first six preferences in the L/NP column is relevant.

    Of course, I don’t believe it will actually do any good for Molan. New South Wales has something like twelve times the population of Tasmania so the absolute number of voters needed for this kind of thing to work is proportionally much larger than Lisa Singh needed. I suppose it’s a net positive for democracy that people are thinking about this kind of thing, but I’d be astonished if it worked out in NSW of all states.

  7. Adrian
    AEC does not require HTV or volunteers to be registered. ECQ requires all HTV to be registered and other state electoral commissions may also require. Anyone can create a HTV and hand it out. If you doubt this ask Get Up or CFMEU.

  8. Andrew – its been a long time since I handed out HTV cards. Perhaps the AEC should insist on it after the next election too.

  9. Does anyone know where I can find HTV cards for Christian Democratic Party candidates? Specifically, for Leo-Ning Liu in Hughes electorate.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here