Archive for April, 2011


Breaking down the Legislative Council vote by seat

After analysing the overall preference flow of the Legislative Council count last week, I have moved on to taking a look at the results in each electorate. When analysing electorate results, most energy is expended looking at the Legislative Assembly vote, but the Legislative Council vote is fascinating as it isolates many factors in individual seats, such as candidate quality and ballot paper position. Every voter in the state gets the same ballot paper and vote for the same parties.

Most patterns in the Legislative Council vote mirrors those seen in the Legislative Assembly, but there are some fascinating elements.

The Coalition topped the poll in the upper house in 80 of 93 districts. In comparison, the Coalition won the most primary votes in 70 lower house races, winning 69 of those seats, and only being overtaken on preferences in Balmain.

The ALP overtook the Coalition in twelve of their strongest seats: Auburn, Bankstown, Blacktown, Cabramatta, Cessnock, Fairfield, Keira, Lakemba, Liverpool, Mount Druitt, Shellharbour and Wollongong. The Coalition managed to overtake Labor in the upper house vote in the seats of Canterbury, Heffron, Kogarah, Macquarie Fields, Maroubra, Toongabbie and Wallsend. The Coalition also won the upper house vote in the independent-held seats of Sydney, Lake Macquarie and Northern Tablelands, and in the Greens-held seat of Balmain.

In the seat of Marrickville, the Coalition came third, with the Greens coming first. While the ALP’s Carmel Tebbutt outpolled Fiona Byrne by 2.23% in the lower house, the Greens beat Labor by 8.28% in the upper house, with the Coalition trailing behind.

In Balmain, the Greens outpolled Labor by only 0.56% in the lower house, allowing them to overtake the Liberal Party on preferences. In the upper house, the gap was more than 10%.

PartyLA voteLC vote

This result certainly indicates that, in the most interesting and complicated race in the state, the personal vote for local Labor MP Verity Firth played a large role in blunting the swing and bringing her close to winning. In the neighbouring seat of Marrickville, the Labor vote was 8.16% lower in the upper house, a similar figure to that in Balmain, indicating that Labor held on in Marrickville largely due to the sitting member.

I broadened this analysis to see if this trend appeared in other seats. The ALP polled more votes in the lower house in 63 of 93 seats. The difference was more than 5% in 25 seats, and in twelve seats the lower house vote was at least 7% higher than in the upper house. All twelve of these seats had a sitting Labor MP running for re-election. In seven of them the ALP retained the seat, while in the other five the Labor Party lost the seat. It does indicate that in some contests a strong local MP managed to hold back the tide. This analysis has previously been demonstrated elsewhere when looking at differential swings. This suggests that the anti-Labor tide was just as strong in these seats, but were held back by local Labor MPs who campaigned virtually as independents.

SeatLabor candidateLA voteLC voteDifferenceResult
OatleyKevin Greene42.13%29.89%12.24%Lost
CanterburyLinda Burney47.18%35.20%11.98%Held
MonaroSteve Whan40.96%29.06%11.90%Lost
MaroubraMichael Daley44.34%33.04%11.30%Held
KogarahCherie Burton44.21%34.75%9.46%Held
LiverpoolPaul Lynch51.43%42.35%9.08%Held
HeffronKristina Keneally41.23%32.57%8.66%Held
WyongDavid Harris40.06%31.47%8.59%Lost
ToongabbieNathan Rees41.19%32.86%8.33%Held
MarrickvilleCarmel Tebbutt38.11%29.95%8.16%Held
East HillsAlan Ashton40.84%32.95%7.89%Lost
BalmainVerity Firth30.16%22.32%7.84%Lost

It’s also worth noting that the upper house vote in Balmain is much lower than the other seats on this list. With a vote of 22%, it was the eighth-worst vote in seats previously held by Labor. The seven seats with with lower upper house votes than Balmain (as low as 19.1% in Menai) all tended to have roughly similar lower house votes, indicating they were some of the seats most heavily hit by the anti-Labor swing. These include Menai, Coogee, Miranda, Heathcote, Blue Mountains, Drummoyne and Riverstone. This seems to indicate that Firth turned what would have been a massive defeat in Balmain into a narrow loss due to her personal vote and effective campaign.

Apart from shining light on the effect of a personal vote on the Labor vote in each seat, the upper house figures include some other interesting statistics.

The Greens overtook Labor in sixteen seats, many of which were the same seats that the Greens overtook Labor in the lower house. This includes Marrickville, and fifteen seats where Labor came third and the Coalition came first.

The Greens were overtaken by other minor parties in 15 seats. In twelve seats they were overtaken by the Shooters and Fishers. In one of these twelve, Barwon, the Greens came fifth behind the Shooters and Fishers and Pauline Hanson. In the seats of Mount Druitt and Blacktown the Christian Democratic Party came third, and in John Hatton’s old seat of South Coast the former independent MP came third with 10.89%.

I was interested in investigating where the increased vote for the Shooters and Fishers came from, geographically. In 2007, the Shooters Party (without the Fishers) polled 2.8% statewide, while the Christian Democratic Party polled 4.4%. This time around the Shooters and Fishers increased their vote to 3.7% while the CDP vote fell to 3.1%. The CDP decline is easily explained by the 1.5% vote for Family First, headed up by former CDP MP Gordon Moyes. Why did the Shooters and Fishers vote increase?

My original hypothesis was that the vote was due to the party taking on the issue of fishing. The fishing issue had become a major political issue on the north and south coasts at the 2010 federal election and the recent state election. When you break down the vote for the Shooters and Fishers, however, you find that most of their vote is concentrated in the inland country areas.

I divided the state between the metropolitan areas including Sydney and areas as far north as Newcastle and as far south as Shellharbour. I then divided the remainder between 12 coastal seats and 17 inland seats. Averaging out the votes in each of these seats in 2007 and 2011 produced the following figures:

RegionShooters 2007Shooters 2011SwingFishing Party 2011

While the Shooters did gain a swing in coastal areas affected by the fishing debate, the swing was much bigger in inland areas. The biggest swings were in Murray-Darling (5.93%), Murrumbidgee (5.06%) and Albury (4.12%). As a comparison, the Fishing Party (which did not welcome the Shooters Party changing its name) polled more strongly on the coastal strip, but not by a substantial margin.


Scottish Parliament election 2011

Alongside elections to the National Assembly of Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly, voters in Scotland will be voting in the fourth election for the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999 following a referendum in 1997 which decisively voted in favour of setting up a national Parliament, with over 74% of voters voting yes. The new Labour government of Tony Blair had picked up the issue as unfinished business from the last Labour government.

The last Labour government had proposed a devolution referendum in 1979, which was narrowly defeated before the Conservatives took power at Westminster later that year.

The Conservative government became particularly unpopular in Scotland in the 1990s, and in 1997 were wiped out in Scotland, winning none of Scotland’s 72 seats.

The Scottish Parliament is elected using the Additional Member System, similar to that used in New Zealand and Germany, and also used to elect the National Assembly of Wales and the Greater London Assembly.

The Scottish Parliament includes 73 members elected by single-member constituencies. In addition, another 56 members are elected in regional lists for eight regions across Scotland. This proportional system has produced three consecutive hung parliaments.

Originally, the Scottish Parliament used the same boundaries for 71 of their constituencies as were used for the House of Commons. The Westminster constituency of Orkney and Shetland was divided into two constituencies for the Scottish Parliament.

Prior to the creation of the Scottish Parliament, Scotland was overly represented in the House of Commons. Following the creation of the Parliament, new boundaries were drawn for the 2005 UK general election, cutting Scotland’s seats at Westminster to 59.

The original boundaries were used for the 1999, 2003 and 2007 elections. The Scottish Parliament will be using newly-drawn boundaries for the 2011 elections. Both of these maps can be downloaded from my maps page.

At the first election in 1999, Labour won a vast majority of single-member districts, but the top-up seats meant that Labour won 56 seats overall, 9 seats short of a majority. The largest beneficiary of the proportional system was the Scottish National Party, who won 7 constituencies and a further 28 top-up seats. The Conservatives managed to win 18 top-up seats after winning no constituencies.

The Labour Party, led by Donald Dewar, formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Dewar served as First Minister until his death in 2000, when he was succeeded by Henry McLeish. He served until he resigned due to a scandal in 2001. The Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition was then led by Jack McConnell.

The opposition in the first Scottish Parliament was led by the Scottish National Party. The SNP had long been a minor party winning a small number of seats in the House of Commons, leading the campaign for Scottish independence, but in the new Parliament became a major party, due to the weakness of the Conservatives in Scotland.

The SNP has largely taken left-wing stances on other issues alongside their stance in favour of more devolution to the Scottish Parliament and eventual independence for Scotland.

Alex Salmond led the Scottish National Party from 1990 to 2000, serving as the first Opposition Leader in the Scottish Parliament. He resigned as SNP leader in 2000 and focused on his seat in the House of Commons. In 2004, he was again re-elected as SNP leader, but held the position while only holding a seat in the House of Commons, not the Scottish Parliament.

At the 2003 election, both Labour and the SNP lost seats, largely to smaller parties. The Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party each won a single seat in 1999. In 2003, the Greens increased their representation to 7 seats, and the Socialists won 6. Following the election the Labour-Lib Dem coalition continued in government, but with a much smaller majority.

At the 2007 Scottish election, SNP leader Alex Salmond announced his intention to run for the Lib Dem-held seat of Gordon, neighbouring his former seat of Banff and Buchan.

A swing of 10% to the SNP saw them win the largest number of seats. The SNP gained twelve constituencies, but the Labour Party still won a majority of single-member seats. Labour lost four seats overall, while the SNP gained twenty seats. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats each lost a single seat, while five of the seven Greens were defeated, and all six Socialists were defeated.

The overall seat figures were:

  • SNP – 47 (21 constituency, 26 list)
  • Labour -46 (37 constituency, 9 list)
  • Conservative -17 (4 constituency, 13 list)
  • Liberal Democrats – 16 (11 constituency, 5 list)
  • Greens – 2 list seats
  • Independent Margo MacDonald – 1 list seat

Results of the 2007 Scottish Parliament election.

Results of the 2007 Scottish Parliament election in central Scotland, including Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Following the election, the Scottish National Party formed a minority government, which has been in power for the last four years.

In recent polls, both Labour and the SNP are projected to improve on their position. While the Conservative vote remains fairly steady since 2007, the Lib Dems appear on track to lose many of their seats.

With the Lib Dems losing ground, the prospect has arisen that one of the major parties could gain a majority in the Parliament, although it still remains difficult under the Scottish electoral system.


Welsh Assembly elections 2011

On Thursday 5 May, Welsh voters will go to the polls for the fourth time to elect members of the National Assembly of Wales.

The Assembly was created in 1999 as part of a process of devolution which also saw the creation of a Parliament in Scotland, the Greater London Assembly, and the restoration of a devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland.

The Welsh Assembly consists of 60 members. Forty are elected to represent the same constituencies used for Westminster elections. The remaining twenty are elected as “top-up” members for five regions.

Constituency results at the 2007 Welsh Assembly election. White lines mark regional boundaries.

Each region covers seven to nine constituencies, and elects four “top-up” members to make the overall result more proportional, using the Mixed Member Proportional system used in New Zealand. Unlike New Zealand, the small number of seats available per region means that small parties do not usually win seats, with most top-up seats going to the larger parties to balance out the bias in the constituencies.

At the first election in 1999, the Labour Party won almost half the seats in the Assembly, with Plaid Cymru winning the next largest number of seats, followed by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The same pattern was maintained in 2003 and 2007, with Labour reaching a peak of 30 seats in 2003. Labour has traditionally dominated the constituency results, winning a significant majority of those races and winning little to no top-up seats.

In 2007, the result was:

  • Labour – 26 (24 constituency, 2 list)
  • Plaid Cymru – 15 (7 constituency, 8 list)
  • Conservative – 12 (5 constituency, 7 list)
  • Liberal Democrats – 6 (3 constituency, 3 list)
  • Independent – 1 constituency seat

Party politics in Wales largely reflects British politics. Wales has been Labour Party heartland for most of the twentieth century, with the party always winning most Welsh seats. Labour particularly dominates constituencies in South Wales and parts of North Wales.

The second party in the Welsh Assembly for the last twelve years has been Plaid Cymru. Plaid, like the Scottish National Party, advocates for an independent Welsh state. They are also in favour of short-term objectives to achieve greater devolution for the Welsh Assembly and promotion of Welsh culture.

The office of First Minister in the Assembly has been held by Labour since devolution in 1999. Labour governed in minority from 1999 to 2000, led by Alun Michael. Michael had served as Secretary of State for Wales in the UK government from 1998 until devolution, but was not popular with the local Labour Party.

Michael resigned in 2000 after a vote of no-confidence was passed in his government. Following this, Labour elected Rhodri Morgan as their party’s leader, and he formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

Following the 2003 election, Morgan’s Labour Party held 30 of 60 seats in the Assembly, and along with a deselected Labour member who had been re-elected as an independent, he formed a working majority.

The 2007 election saw Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives gain seats while Labour lost seats. Originally Plaid, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats looked to form a coalition government in opposition to Labour, but the talks collapsed, and Plaid went into coalition with Labour.

A referendum was held on 3 March 2011 to vest extra law-making powers in the Welsh Assembly, giving it total authority over 20 areas of law that previously had only been devolved in part to the Assembly. The referendum was a condition of the Coalition between Labour and Plaid, and was passed decisively, with 63.5% voting yes.

In recent polling, Labour appears on track for another majority government. Labour has been consistently polling around the mid-40s, with one poll showing them on 50%. Their best ever result in 2003 saw them win 40%, and they only polled 32% in 2007.

Labour’s coalition partner Plaid Cymru polling 22% in 2007, but is recently polling in the high teens, that would probably result in them losing seats. While Plaid polled less than 400 votes more than the Conservatives in 2007, they are consistently polling less in recent months. Conservatives are usually polling around 20%.

The Liberal Democrats polled almost 15% in 2007, but following a year of sharing government in Westminster with the Conservatives, they have been polling between 5% and 8%, which would likely see them lose most of their seats.


NSW 2011: analysing the Legislative Council result

I blogged earlier tonight on what the actual result was in the Legislative Council. Now I want to turn to analysing that result and how that reflects on the campaign and coverage of the result.

In the end the result of my projection was accurate, even if the exact margin wasn’t so accurate. The problem was that my calculator needed to make an assumption about the number of formal below-the-line votes, which it did by looking at the proportion of above-the-line votes that were counted. Through most of the count it assumed that the final number of BTL votes would be between 60,000 and 80,000 votes, but the final figure ended up being over 91,000. It appears that a lot BTL votes were left until the end of the process to be data-entered, which makes sense as they take much longer to process than ATL votes. So while I had Hanson’s percentage of BTL votes about spot-on, the much larger total number of BTL votes meant that I had underestimated her final primary vote lead by about 9,000 votes.

If I had known that Hanson would end up leading by 15,000 votes I would have been far less confident in my belief that she would lose, which would have been reasonable considering how close the final figures were. All the same, it still remained far too early to call the result yesterday, as some media outlets did.

In addition, for reasons that I have yet to understand, there are more ATL votes in the final count than there were in the original count posted on the website. The Coalition had 5,000 more votes, the CDP almost 5,000, Labor almost 4,000, the Greens 2,000 and Hanson 4,000. Thus the overall percentages were different, whereas my calculator assumed that these two figures would eventually coalesce.

In the end, the key preferences deciding the result certainly weren’t the Greens (despite the shrieking of David Penberthy and Labor figures), nor were they Labor preferences. It is true that the Greens and Coalition needed every set of preferences they got, but the decisive preferences came from John Hatton and Gordon Moyes. After all of Labor’s talk about preferencing the Greens and the need to keep out Hanson, only 9.4% of Labor votes at the key point went to the Greens. It’s hardly particularly impressive, and may have been just as high if the party hadn’t made a big song-and-dance about the issue. Maybe it would have been higher if the party had actually preferenced the Greens in all seats, as they said they did. Luckily it was just enough to win.

This points to how difficult it is to know how these things will play out. It remains the case, as it was before the election, that preferences won’t make a difference in the Legislative Council unless the primary vote count is extremely close. Some of us may have been flippant in dismissing the possibility of this close race happening, but you have to admit that this contest was extremely close, and that very few preferences did actually flow. Of the eleven groups that had their preferences distributed, the exhaustion rate was on average 78%, ranging from 67% for Socialist Alliance to 85% for the ALP. It was a perfect storm. I still believe that Greens preferencing Labor would have been counterproductive and resulted in neither Labor or Greens winning one of those last seats, but it is true that the scenario Labor painted could have come true, and one bearing some relationship to it did. Yet despite all of Labor’s talk about needing to swap preferences, 85% of Labor voters did not give a preference.

Most of the media commentary about which candidates were going to be in the final contest was inaccurate. Following election day the media talked about a race between Buckingham, Ferguson and Hanson, even as Ferguson’s chances slipped away. In the end Ferguson came 27th, being excluded before the No Parking Meters Party. Meanwhile the media (myself included) largely ignored the danger to the Coalition’s eleventh seat, and missed the key role Family First would play in pushing the Greens and Nationals ahead of Hanson.

It is quite disappointing how often mainstream journalists seem to show a serious lack of understanding of Australia’s electoral system. Regularly during the campaign journalists ran with stories that would have been non-stories if the journalist understood the electoral system. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story about Pauline Hanson claiming a huge amount of public funding from running, despite the fact that she had little chance of polling 4%, and if she did she would have certainly been elected, providing far more access to public funds through a parliamentary office and expenses for eight years.

The Herald also ran a story about the Greens denying preferences to the ALP in Marrickville with no understanding of the fact that, as a race between Labor and the Greens, preferences from the Greens would have no impact on the result in Marrickville.

The Australian Associated Press ran a story on April 3, when it was clear that Labor was not going to win, swallowing Anthony Albanese’s highly dubious claim that the Greens not preferencing Labor would result in Hanson getting elected. David Penberthy went further on The Punch, but I think it’s more likely that his claim was malicious, rather than due to a lack of understanding, considering his outright refusal to reconsider his statement when the facts were presented to him clearly.

Just yesterday the ABC and AAP both reported that Hanson basically had the Legislative Council seat in the bag. They quoted Antony Green’s factual statement that Hanson was leading by 6,000 primary votes, and then spun that into a story saying Hanson would win, despite the evidence from the 2003 election, confirmed today, suggesting that the Greens could easily overtake a 6,000 vote lead. The ABC is usually better in covering electoral matters, and it’s a little bit scary that they can drop the ball this badly when Antony Green leaves the country for a few days.

Most of the time these stories come from journalists who usually show a strong understanding of politics in New South Wales, but sometimes it doesn’t extend to understanding the electoral system. I’m not talking about young journalists who don’t understand policy, as was an issue during the federal election. Often you need to conduct your own research to know the consequences of preference flows, or to know whether a particular outcome is possible or probable. I worry that the modern political journalist has little time to test these outcomes and do this research, and it often can fall by the wayside, buying the line of a politician who has an agenda to push (like Luke Foley or Anthony Albanese). Maybe major media outlets need to invest in someone like Antony Green who understands the process and can follow the count and give proper advice to political journalists. No, I’m not volunteering, although journalists can always call me to talk about these things.

It is important to Australian politics that journalists actually understand how elections work, and what way a result is likely to go. Often we can’t say for certain which way a result will go, today’s result was a perfect example of that. But understanding preference flows and where candidates stand in the count can allow you to understand how likely particular outcomes are. It can have a significant impact on the narrative of Australian politics when the media gets a story wrong. Just look at the reaction to yesterday’s stories saying Hanson was on track to win in the Legislative Council. Of course she had a chance, and came very close, but in the end it was far early to call it, and it turned out to be wrong.

Pauline Hanson, in her press conference this morning, criticised the electoral system and claimed she would have won under a system that made it easier for people to vote for her. It may surprise you, but I agree with her. I believe that Hanson received the largest below-the-line vote of any candidate because many voters would have been confused and not realised that they could vote for her above-the-line. Her above-the-line box was only marked with the words “Group J”, which have no meaning for any voter. In contrast, every other group except John Hatton got their party name above the line. Below-the-line votes for Hanson needed to have at least 15 squares numbered formally. Any “Just Vote 1” votes for Hanson below the line would have been counted as informal. A survey of votes when I was scrutineering at the counting centre indicated that many informal votes were attempts to vote for Hanson. She would have likely been elected if those attempts to vote for her had been counted.

Hanson is not the best ambassador for electoral reform, but there are serious problems with how we conduct Legislative Council ballots that make it hard for voters to understand. As a first step, it should be at least possible for independent groups that have met the high bar to appear on the ballot to have “John Hatton independents” or “Pauline Hanson independents” appear above the line in the place of a party name. Independents running for the Legislative Assembly are as easy to find on the ballot as party candidates, the same should be true in the Legislative Council.

I would go further, and abolish the need to number all 15 squares below-the-line. This would also allow parties to run far less than 15 candidates, which would make the ballot paper much simpler and avoid having such huge numbers of candidates, the vast majority of whom never came close to being elected, and probably wouldn’t have wanted to be. If you wanted to go further, you could abolish below-the-line voting entirely. Below-the-line voting made no difference at this election. You might say “but Hanson wouldn’t have won on above-the-line votes”, but those votes would have probably been cast above-the-line if it was clear who they were voting for. It remains the case that a candidate further down a party ticket has never won a seat on a surge of below-the-line votes.

Instead, we could have a system where each party has one box, and you can only number preferences for parties as a whole, and preferences would then flow the way above-the-line preferences flow now. In the process you would make the process much simpler and much easier for people to vote. It would also make the counting process much quicker, without having a real effect on people’s ability to exercise choice. Despite the theoretical possibility of voting for an individual candidate against the party’s wishes, it currently doesn’t have any real effect on the count, and significantly confuses and complicates the voting process for many voters.


NSW 2011: unpacking the Legislative Council count

This is the first of two blog posts I will write tonight on the Legislative Council result. The second will focus on the spin and analysis around the count.

Today’s result in the legislative Council count couldn’t have been any closer. The final two seats went to the Greens’ Jeremy Buckingham and the Nationals’ Sarah Johnston by the smallest of margins, edging out independent Pauline Hanson, despite Hanson’s substantial lead on primary votes.

The count began by electing seventeen candidates from the parties that had polled over a quota: 10 Coalition candidates, 5 Labor candidates and 2 Greens candidates. Following this, 278 candidates who were either ungrouped or a candidate in an unwinnable position were excluded without a significant shift in the count.

After count 296, only one candidate remained from each of the 16 groups with candidates above the line. The key preference distributions that decided the result happened after that point.

The following chart shows the vote for the three candidates in the race for the final two seat. It ignores the CDP’s Paul Green and the Shooters and Fishers’ Robert Brown, who had not polled a quota but were polling well above Hanson, Buckingham and Johnston.

Votes at counts 296-308 for key candidates Jeremy Buckingham (green), Sarah Johnston (blue), Pauline Hanson (purple), showing the count as the last candidate of each party is excluded.

At count 296, Hanson was 9720 votes ahead of Johnston, and 16592 votes ahead of Buckingham. At every point of the count Buckingham and Johnston gained more preferences than Hanson, with a few candidates playing a key role.

The Greens gained boosts from the exclusion of Socialist Alliance candidate Peter Boyle (1609 vote net gain on Hanson), Democrats’ Arthur Chesterfield-Evans (3074 votes) the ALP’s Andrew Ferguson (3580) and independent John Hatton (3983). Johnston particularly gained votes from the Democrats, No Parking Meters and the Fishing Party, but were gaining votes slower than Hanson.

When John Hatton was excluded, Buckingham overtook Johnston. When Gordon Moyes of Family First was the only candidate remaining, the vote was:

  • Hanson – 102,466 votes
  • Buckingham – 102,276
  • Johnston – 101,183
  • Moyes – 64,738

While a vast majority of Moyes’ votes exhausted (52,101 votes) and over 4000 went to the Christian Democratic Party, Moyes’ preferences allowed both Buckingham and Johnston to jump over Hanson, leaving the final figures:

  • Buckingham – 105,472
  • Johnston – 104,341
  • Hanson – 103,035

At this point Hanson was excluded, leaving four candidates for the four remaining seats.

Attached is the table of the preference distribution, beginning with the exclusion of “Restore the Workers’ Rights Party”.


UK to vote on preference voting

At the 2010 general election, the British House of Commons produced a hung parliament, the first one for over 30 years. The final result was a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, putting Labour out of power after 13 years, and putting the UK’s third party in government for the first time since the 1930s.

In the coalition negotiations it was agreed to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote, which Australian readers will know as optional preferential voting, the voting system used in New South Wales and Queensland.

The referendum will be held on 5 May this year, alongside local elections in England and elections to the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly.

There have been campaigns for many years in the United Kingdom for some change to the electoral system. The Electoral Reform Society has campaigned for decades for a proportional voting system, specifically the Single Transferable Vote (STV), as used in Tasmania and Ireland.

The Blair Labour government established an inquiry into voting systems, the Jenkins Commission, in 1998. The Commission recommended a system they called Alternative Vote Plus (AV+). The model would see about 80% of seats elected in single-member districts using optional preferential voting. The remaining 20% were to be elected by local lists in 80 regions across the United Kingdom. While it would have slightly compensated for the imbalance of single-member electorates, it wouldn’t have resulted in the election of many minor party MPs, due to the small number of top-up seats.

In 1999, the new Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Greater London Assembly were all elected using the Additional Member System, which saw a small majority of seats filled by single-member districts using first-past-the-post, with the remainder filled by top-up lists.

Up to the 1994 election, UK seats in the European Parliament were filled by single-member electorates using first past the post. From 1999, these seats were filled by party lists in large regions – nine regions in England, as well as Scotland and Wales. Northern Irish seats are filled using STV. STV is also used for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

At the 2010 election, the Labour Party promised a referendum on AV, while the Liberal Democrats continued their long-term support for a truly proportional electoral system. Once they formed a coalition with the Conservatives, they compromised to support the more conservative AV system.

While the history of British democracy is one of gradual change from an absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy, the vote on AV will be the first opportunity British voters have had to vote on how their national democracy works. There have been referenda on regional devolution and the European Union, but never on a key part of the British constitution.

The campaign, like any referendum campaign, has been filled with scaremongering and lies. Antony Green (who is currently in the United Kingdom following the campaign) has been working hard at rebuffing misinformation by the “no” campaign.

There have been claims that AV would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to implement due to expensive new machines (completely puzzling to any Australian voter) and that Australians overwhelmingly want to scrap the system (again puzzling), along with many others that would seem bizarre to Australians used to voting with preferences.

The No campaign has also claimed that preference voting saw turnout collapse in Australia, despite compulsory voting being introduced before preference voting. They have also claimed that AV would see the end of “one person one vote”.

The “No” campaign often ignores the example of Australia, a former British colony with a similar political system to the UK, by only comparing AV to those in Papua New Guinea and Fiji. John Howard had to point out to a BBC interviewer that Fiji  is a military dictatorship when she claimed that Fiji was looking to get rid of preference voting.

On the other hand, many of those campaigning for “Yes” have exaggerated the potential benefits of AV. Many AV proponents, including the Liberal Democrats and the Electoral Reform Society, originally supporting a proportional system, and many Yes proponents mistakenly believe that AV would produce a proportional result.

All that AV really does is gives people the freedom to vote for who they genuinely support rather than vote tactically. As Antony Green has made clear, the optional preferential system tends to see most seats won by the candidate leading on primary votes. At the 2011 NSW election, 92 seats would have produced the same result under first-past-the-post. But it does mean that in a seat like Balmain you don’t have a Liberal candidate winning when such a large majority of voters supporting a left-of-centre candidate.

AV would allow supporters of small parties like the Greens to freely vote Green without having their votes wasted, and would allow a fairer result in the many three-cornered contests in the UK. Yet, the Australian example makes it clear that, even if minor party voters are free to vote their conscience, it doesn’t mean those parties will win seats.

The main difference between Australian and British politics has been thee presence of a stronger third party, with the Liberal Democrats regularly polling over 15% in national elections, and winning in a lot more seats. This has tended to produce tactical voting, particularly between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with voters voting for whichever of the parties is in a better position than the Conservatives.

All the same, first-past-the-post has seen the left-wing vote split between Labour and the Lib Dems, resulting in greater results for the Conservatives, with the Lib Dems particularly suffering.

In the past, projections have shown that Labour and the Lib Dems would both benefit from AV, with their voters swapping preferences to defeat the Conservatives.

That said, polling has changed markedly since the 2010 general election. After the Liberal Democrats formed coalition government with the Conservatives their vote dropped remarkably – with many of their left-wing voters switching to Labor. The remaining Lib Dem voter base is more right-wing than it has been in the past, and this has meant that AV would likely have different effects than in the past.

A recent YouGov survey showed that AV would now benefit the Conservatives and hurt Labour, while the Lib Dems would continue to benefit. It’s worth noting, however, that the Lib Dems collapse in polling would see them lose many of their seats, regardless of the electoral system.

It is often difficult to conduct polling in referenda. When it comes to political parties most voters have already made up their minds and vote predictably, but often voters will only learn about what a referendum means late in the campaign, and can be much more influenced by the argument. Peter Brent points out that the referendum is following the pattern of Australian referenda: “High support for the proposal at first, but decreasing as the vote approaches.”

Yesterday’s Sunday Times/YouGov poll has Yes on 39%, No on 38% and 22% undecided, suggesting that it could easily go either way. Last week’s Populus poll suggested that the No vote is stronger. The No vote wins the vote when voters have the system described to them. The “No” vote is also more concrete, with more “No” voters suggesting their vote is final.


Introducing my time-series maps

I’ve been making and posting my Google Earth electoral maps on my blog since day one, and I have now got quite a large collection posted. These include national electoral maps for the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland, as well as subnational maps in Australian and the UK.

Some of my maps now cover up to four elections for the same jurisdiction. In order to view these in an interesting and simple way, I’ve developed a format which allows you to quickly flick between different maps for the same area, while holding to the same position on the map.

I’ve produced a number of these time-series maps, including state maps for New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, and national maps for Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

You can access them through a new page dedicated to time-series maps.

The following images show you how these maps are designed to work, in this case using the example of the Victorian state elections from 2002 to 2010.

Click to enlarge each image to its full size.

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Northern Ireland votes

In my continuing series of profiles on elections due in the month of May, today I’m focusing on the upcoming elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly on May 5.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has existed in its current form since the 1998 Assembly elections. These followed the Good Friday peace accord which brought about peace in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s first devolved legislature was the Parliament of Northern Ireland created in 1921. The body was elected by single-member districts and was heavily dominated by protestant unionists, leaving the minority Catholic population locked out of government. The region was governed by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) continuously until 1972, when the Parliament was dissolved and home rule suspended in the midst of the Troubles.

A number of other elected bodies have been elected in Northern Ireland since 1973. The first Northern Ireland Assembly was elected in 1973 to support a power-sharing executive. The Assembly was elected by single transferable vote, the proportional system used in Tasmania and the Republic of Ireland, with each Westminster constituency electing a number of MLAs. This system has been used for each subsequent elected body in Northern Ireland. The executive and Assembly collapsed in 1974 under opposition from the UUP.

Further attempts at a Constitutional Convention in 1975 and another Assembly in 1982 also failed.

The 1998 Assembly saw the largest numbers of seats won by the moderate Ulster Unionist Party and Social Democratic and Labour Party. They formed the majority of the new power-sharing Executive. The Executive’s ministers are elected proportionally by the Assembly, meaning each significant party holds ministerial positions, and the largest parties on the Nationalist and Unionist sides jointly lead the government in the roles of First Minister and deputy First Minister.

The more radical Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein also participated in the first Executive with a smaller number of ministerial posts. Also represented in the Assembly was the non-sectarian Alliance and a number of smaller Unionist parties.

At the 2001 UK election, both moderate parties suffered losses of seats to their more radical rivals. The UUP was reduced from ten seats to six while the DUP increased its numbers from two seats to five. Sinn Fein won two seats off the UUP for a total of four, one more than the SDLP.

Devolved government collapsed in late 2002 around the Stormontgate scandal, when there were accusations of an IRA spyring at the Assembly headquarters at Stormont.

At the second Assembly elections in 2003, the DUP and Sinn Fein became the largest parties on the unionist and nationalist sides respectively. The DUP refused to serve in government with Sinn Fein, and home rule was not restored.

The 2005 UK elections confirmed the decision of the people of Northern Ireland in 2001 and 2003, with the SDLP and UUP suffering further defeats at the hands of Sinn Fein and the DUP. The UUP, who had held a majority of Northern Ireland seats prior to the 2001 election, were reduced to one seat, while Sinn Fein held five of eight Nationalist seats.

In 2006 the St Andrews Agreement saw the DUP and Sinn Fein agree to restore home rule, with the DUP agreeing to work with nationalist ministers, and Sinn Fein agreeing to recognise the new Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The last elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly were held in 2007, with the following result:

  • Democratic Unionist Party – 36
  • Sinn Fein – 28
  • Ulster Unionist Party – 18
  • Social Democratic and Labour Party – 16
  • Alliance – 7
  • Progressive Unionist – 1
  • Green Party – 1
  • Independent – 1

The Assembly is elected from the eighteen Westminster constituencies, with each constituency electing six MLAs using the Single Transferable Vote.

The following maps are an attempt at representing visually the geographical distribution of each party’s MPs, which is made difficult due to multi-member districts.

A visual representation of the result of the 2007 Assembly election. DUP in orange, UUP in blue, Sinn Fein in dark green, SDLP in light green, Alliance in yellow, others in gray.

A visual representation of the result of the 2007 Assembly election in Belfast.

Since the 2007 election, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party have managed to govern together without the government collapsing, although there have been moments when it appeared likely. DUP leader Ian Paisley led the government until 2008, when he retired and was succeeded by Peter Robinson. Robinson was hit by a scandal involving his wife Iris in 2010, and temporarily stepped down as First Minister.

Later in 2010, the UK election produced a largely status quo result. The redistribution only slightly changed the boundaries, and the new boundaries will be used for the Assembly in May. The UUP lost their one remaining seat, with sitting MP Sylvia Hermon becoming an independent after the UUP formed an electoral alliance with the British Conservatives. Peter Robinson lost his own constituency of Belfast East to the Alliance Party, which won its first ever seat at Westminster.

Results of the 2010 UK election in Northern Ireland.

Trends suggest that Sinn Fein will continue their domination of nationalist politics. After four years as leaders in government the party has been largely successful in making home rule work. Many of the same trends are true for the DUP, but the party has been hit by a number of scandals. The strong position of Sinn Fein, and the divided unionist vote between the DUP and the UUP could result in a scenario where Sinn Fein ends up as the largest party, and therefore takes the position of First Minister. It’s yet to be seen if unionist parties are willing to serve in a government headed up by a party aligned with the IRA.


Why do parties hand out how-to-votes?

On the afternoon of the election I had a discussion on Twitter about why parties hand out how-to-vote cards and the significance of their preference decisions. I thought people might find it interesting to have the perspective of someone who has handed out thousands of how-to-votes (HTVs) for a political party on why they are so prevalent.

The primary reason for this practice has little to do with political parties wanting their voters to follow their preference instructions, beyond voting for their party.

The primary reasons for HTVs is historical, and related to party exposure. Election campaigns in the United States and the United Kingdom do not focus on handing out pieces of paper to voters on election day, instead focusing on get-out-the-vote efforts. There are efforts made to put up signs and have a presence at polling booths, but the primary aim of the campaign is not to hand a particular new piece of election material to voters as they come to vote. Even in Ireland, the country closest to Australia using a system of preference voting, I don’t believe they hand out how-to-votes.

It was previously the case that it could be quite difficult to fill out a ballot paper without the help of your political party. For much of the twentieth century, all mainland state and federal elections were held using compulsory preferential voting, and with no identification of a candidate’s political party on the ballot. Voters for a major party would need to number every box, and may not be able to identify little-known candidates for such parties as the Communist Party. A how-to-vote would allow voters to number every box, even if they had no idea about a number of the candidates.

This is less of an imperative now. In state elections in New South Wales and Queensland, optional preferential voting means that voters can cast a formal vote without numbering many boxes. In most electorates the major parties advise voters to “just vote 1”. In other states, and in federal elections, party labels on the ballot paper make it easier for voters to number every box. Ballot papers also make it clear when voters need to number every box. Of course, many voters may lack the confidence or intelligence to work this out for themselves, but it remains the case that it is much easier to vote.

The main reason why political parties focus on handing out how-to-vote cards is exposure. It is the last opportunity to have contact with voters, and everyone else does it. It becomes a kind of arms race, with parties in marginal seats focusing on trying to have more workers than the other party, even if they are not all necessary to reach every voter. While it wouldn’t have a serious impact on elections if no party were to hand out cards, it would likely be detrimental for a political party if they stopped doing it unilaterally.

I’m sure it is true that a secondary reason for handing out HTVs is to ensure all of your voters do cast a formal vote. This would particularly be an issue in areas with low literacy rates or language diversity, where many voters may not be fluent in English. A how-to-vote can allow them to copy out their vote without understanding the instructions and can also help with confusion in states where the rules vary between federal and state elections.

If a party is one of the top two polling parties in a district, their preferences will not be distributed under any circumstances. Except for rare three-cornered contests such as Balmain, it is usually clear who will come in the top two well in advance, so the major parties know their preferences won’t be counted.

In some cases, preference decisions are part of a deal with another party. A party might swap preferences between a district where they won’t win and a district where they could win, or for preferences in the upper house. Even if preference decisions are made based on principle, they are usually not the primary motivation for handing out HTVs.

Discussions on preferences often dominate airtime for smaller parties, and in some places can be the only media a small party can receive. Rather than being an opportunity to influence politics, it can often prove a distraction, preventing the party from discussing policy issues that may have motivated them to run in the first place.


Canada takes another shot at a majority

Canadian voters will go to the polls on 2 May for their fourth federal election in seven years.

The centre-left Liberal Party governed in majority for eleven years from 1993 to 2004, easily brushing away divided conservative forces alongside a popular sovereignty movement in Quebec. Between 2000 and 2004, the right-wing Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party merged to form the Conservative Party of Canada.

At the 2004 federal election the Liberal Party, led by Prime Minister Paul Martin, lost its majority, but maintained power as the largest party in a hung parliament. The Conservative Party, led by new leader Stephen Harper, and the left-wing New Democratic Party, led by its new leader Jack Layton, both gained seats.

In 2006, the government fell, and Harper’s Conservatives formed a minority government in another hung parliament after gaining the largest number of seats. Yet another election in 2008 saw Harper’s government increase its numbers, but still fail to form a majority.

The Conservative government is currently polling strongly, and may have a chance at winning the twelve remaining seats it needs to form a majority government. In most of Canada, however, the Conservatives have already reached as high as they can do, with large majorities of seats in Western Canada, the Maritime Provinces, British Columbia and those parts of Ontario outside of Toronto. Forming a majority has become so difficult due to the domination of the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec. The only remaining strongholds for the Liberal Party are in the major cities of Toronto and Montreal.

I will post in the coming weeks about the campaign in the different provinces, with very different party matchings competing for seats in different parts of the country. Meanwhile you can read the first two posts I ever published on this blog during the 2008 election campaign: on Canada’s political parties and the peculiarities of Canadian politics, as well as a number of other posts I wrote during the 2008 campaign.

You can also download the electoral map of Canada, used for the 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011 elections.