Electoral reform Archive

ACT Assembly going to 25

In the lead-up to the state elections in South Australia and Tasmania, I didn’t have time to cover another electoral story in the Australian Capital Territory. After many years of debate, and competing proposals, the ACT Legislative Assembly appears set to increase in size, from 17 to 25 seats.

The ACT’s legislative body currently has 17 members elected from three multi-member electorates. The electorate of Molonglo, centred on Lake Burley Griffin, elects seven members, while the Belconnen-based Ginninderra and the Tuggeranong-based Brindabella each elect five members.

The Labor Party and the Greens have supported some expansion in size of the ACT for a while, but it has faced opposition from the Liberal Party.

An expert panel (read the report) recommended the creation of five electorates – which would initially elect five members each before eventually electing seven members each for a total Assembly size of 35.

The Liberal Party’s ACT division decided to support the increase to 25 at their meeting on March 5. It’s unclear if either party is pushing for an eventual increase to 35 seats.

The next ACT election is due in just over two and a half years, giving plenty of time for the Assembly to pass the change and for new boundaries to be drawn.

We don’t know exactly how the boundaries will be drawn, but there aren’t that many options when you are drawing electoral boundaries in Canberra.

One possible way to divide ACT's polling places into five electorates. Belconnen in orange, Central in purple, North in blue, Tuggeranong in green, West in yellow.

One possible way to divide ACT’s polling places into five electorates. Belconnen in orange, Central in purple, North in blue, Tuggeranong in green, West in yellow.

In 2010, I conducted some analysis at the likely impact of a 5×5 electoral system that didn’t make it to this blog. This included assigning all polling places to one of five electorates.

The ACT is divided into seven districts. The central suburbs are split into North Canberra and South Canberra by the Lake. These areas are usually referred to as the ‘inner north’ and ‘inner south’.

In the north you find Gungahlin, and Belconnen in the north-west.

In the south you have Tuggeranong, and just north of Tuggeranong to the west of the city is Weston Creek and Woden Valley.

When drawing these boundaries I found that both Tuggeranong and Belconnen were too large to be contained within a single electorate. Both areas formed the basis for an electorate. I then created an electorate called ‘West’ covering Weston Creek and the remainder of Tuggeranong. In the north I created an electorate covering all of Gungahlin and northern parts of Belconnen, as well as the northern fringe of the inner north.

I then created a fifth electorate in the centre, surrounding the Lake and mostly covering the inner south and inner north.

Population will continue to shift, and I didn’t take into account absentee and other special votes which may vary in numbers. It’s quite possible that the Central electorate will lose parts of Woden. Having said that, I think they provide a useful guide as to how a 5×5 system would change the balance in the ACT.

I’ve taken the results by polling place of the 2012 results (no thanks to Elections ACT, who don’t provide the data in a format that allows you to download it all at once – you need to visit a separate page for each polling place) to produce my estimate of how many quotas each party would have polled in each of these five hypothetical electorates in 2012.

Seat Labor Liberal Greens Others
Belconnen 2.5227 1.8653 0.6105 1.0004
Central 2.4636 2.1197 0.9045 0.5118
North 2.4001 2.1628 0.7039 0.7324
Tuggeranong 2.1273 2.8835 0.3939 0.5950
West 2.4007 2.4501 0.5984 0.5494

The Liberal vote is more concentrated in Tuggeranong so the highest result for a particular party is for the Liberal Party in Tuggeranong. Tuggeranong is the best area for the Liberal Party, and the worst for both the ALP and the Greens. Belconnen is best for the ALP and worst for the Liberal Party. The Greens vote peaks in the central electorate.

On these numbers, I estimate that we would see 11-12 Liberals, 10-12 Labor and 2-4 Greens MLAs. The fifth seat in Belconnen could either go to the ALP or the Greens. The fifth seat in the West could go to Labor, Liberal or Greens. In this scenario, all parties would increase their numbers.

In most circumstances, this result would ensure that both major parties won two seats in each electorate. The Greens vote is quite strong in Central – probably enough to offset the fact that they previously benefited from a lower quota in Molonglo that has been lost. In this scenario, 0.7 quota in the North is probably enough to elect a Green, but may not be enough to guarantee a win if the balance between the major parties shifts.

The Greens polling 0.6 quotas in Belconnen and the West would provide enough of a base to give the party a chance, particularly in a good election. The Greens would have to perform exceptionally to win a seat in Tuggeranong.

Overall, these new electorates would see no change in the balance of power: on 2012 votes, the Greens would have held the balance of power, with the likely result seeing Labor and the Greens sharing government as they have done. The biggest impact would have been a deeper bench: resulting in more talent available to serve as ministers, and a larger backbench.

SA 2014 – boundary issues

South Australia’s election produced a result that has sparked a lot of interest: despite the Liberal Party winning a majority of the two-party-preferred vote (and by even more than in 2010), the Liberal Party has won less seats than the ALP, and we appear to have narrowly avoided the Labor government holding an outright majority.

It’s not an uncommon outcome, in South Australia and elsewhere in the country. The ALP has formed government in South Australia despite losing the statewide vote three times in the last 25 years: in 1989, 2002 and 2010, and in two of those cases the ALP won an overall majority.

In federal politics, the 1990 and 1998 elections both saw the sitting government maintain power despite losing the vote (Labor in 1990, and the Coalition in 1998).

Following Saturday night’s result, multiple Liberal figures have come out to complain about the outcome and to vaguely criticize our existing electoral system which allows such an ‘unfair’ result.

Tony Abbott described South Australia’s election laws as ‘extraordinary’, ignoring the fact that Saturday’s outcome could just as easily happen under federal electoral law.

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The fight for the AEC

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has had a bad couple of months. The September election saw the most complex elections in the history of the Senate, resulting in numerous close results. The razor-sharp election result in Western Australia forced a recount, where it was discovered that 1370 votes had gone missing.

The result of the recount saw a different set of candidates elected, and the result was thrown out by the Court of Disputed Returns. Best estimates suggest that the inclusion of the 1370 votes would have produced a one-vote margin of victory, which may have been enough to invalidate the result due to other errors.

Following the decision of the Court of Disputed Returns earlier this month, the Electoral Commissioner, Ed Killesteyn, announced his resignation, effectively leaving immediately. Peter Kramer, the Australian Electoral Officer for Western Australia, also resigned on the same day. At the time, Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson was quoted as saying that the AEC needed to “regain the confidence” of the community.

This story was followed earlier this week by the appearance of AEC officials before the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, and questioning of those officials regarding the number of voters who had voted more than once. Liberal Senator Dean Smith described the situation as a “very blatant abuse of the process“.

Clive Palmer has jumped into the fray again, throwing wild accusations at the AEC and demanding sweeping changes to electoral administration to suit his own agenda.

A picture is being painted – of an AEC that is behind the times, incompetent and failing in its duties. This ignores the reality, that the AEC is one of the top electoral administration bodies, demonstrating impeccable independence and a very high level of competency when it comes to running elections. It now seems to suit the interests of some conservative politicians to tear down that regime, and all Australians who appreciate the value of independent and competent electoral administration should be alarmed.

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Queensland LNP takes aim at electoral law

While the rest of the country has been focusing on federal politics, two weeks ago the Queensland Attorney-General, Jarrod Bleijie, announced plans for a number of changes to Queensland’s election laws.

The package includes some innocuous proposals to improve electoral processes, but also a number of items that seem aimed to roll back the clock on election funding reforms and make it harder for some groups of voters to cast a vote.

Queensland’s election funding laws have managed to progress beyond those of the Commonwealth and most other states (arguably apart from New South Wales), with caps on donations and election spending and low thresholds for the disclosure of donations.

The Newman government plans to scrap donation and spending caps, and raise the threshold for disclosing donations to $12,400. This threshold, the same as the federal level, will massively reduce how many donations are required to be disclosed.

While making it easier for large amounts of money to be donated and spent by political parties with reduced requirements for disclosure, the LNP is planning to significantly cut back on the amount of public funding – making parties even more reliant on private donations.

These funding cuts will most severely hit smaller parties. In addition to overall amounts of funding being cut, a candidate will need to poll over 10% to qualify for funding – a massive jump from the current 4% threshold.

Most candidates in the 4-10% range come from parties like the Greens and Katter’s Australian Party, and this will deprive them of substantial sources of funding in a targeted manner.

The LNP has tried to justify this targeted assault on smaller parties on the grounds of stopping “profiteering” – but this has no basis. Queensland has long had rules requiring receipts for election-related expenses be provided for all public funding. If you didn’t spend as much as what you are entitled to, you don’t get a full share. This is very effective at stopping any candidate from making a profit from public funding.

The LNP claimed this was needed to offset the expense of the massive payrises to Queensland MPs (since reversed), ignoring the fact that most of those payrises were to go to government MPs, while public funding cuts would disproportionately hurt the ALP and smaller parties.

Perhaps the most insidious proposal is the government’s plans to introduce voter identification requirements.

Voter ID laws have been a common tactic of US Republicans aiming to reduce turnout amongst groups that often lack identification.

There is little to no evidence that impersonation voter fraud takes place in any organised way – certainly not enough to have ever changed the result in a single electorate, let alone an entire election. The government’s own green paper acknowledged that this was not a problem.

Voter ID laws only make sense if there’s groups of people who you don’t want voting – and it’s worth watching what the LNP plans to do with this idea.

The built-in coup

As yesterday’s abortive coup played out, Nick Bryant from the BBC penned a fascinating piece laying out the differences in political cultures between Australia and the United Kingdom when it comes to leadership coups. Australia’s culture of sudden, brutal and frequent internal leadership changes is not at all seen in British politics.

Bryant, however, missed the primary reason why Australian politics has so many leadership coups compared to countries that appear to have similar political cultures. Australia is the only Western English-speaking democracy where the choice of political leaders is made solely by that party’s members of parliament.

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The end of gerrymandering in California

I’ve blogged a few times over the last couple of years about the perverse processes used in most US states when drawing electoral boundaries for Congress and state legislatures.

In a series of referendums in 2008 and 2010, California’s voters approved the creation of an independent commission to redraw California’s boundaries after the decennial census.

New boundaries will be used for the first time next week for the House of Representatives. The previous boundaries were used from 2002 to 2010 (and you can download Google Earth maps of those boundaries from this page), and the new boundary will be used until 2020.

California’s previous boundaries were drawn to ensure that incumbents, both Democrat and Republican, were able to retain their seats, and these boundaries were very successful in preventing competitive races over the last decade.

These boundaries were severely gerrymandered – jagged boundaries interlocking with each other and covering different areas. This was a similar style to other big states such as Florida and Texas, where districts are transparently designed to produce a particular result.

The new boundaries in California are completely different – seats tend to be far more compact – covering a much smaller geographic area and reflecting local communities. Looking at the new boundaries, it’s immediately obvious what a massive affect these changes have made.

The following maps show the old and new boundaries for the Los Angeles area and the San Francisco Bay area.

Congressional districts in the Los Angeles area, 2002-2010.

Congressional districts in the Los Angeles area, 2012.

Congressional districts in the San Francisco Bay area, 2002-2010.

Congressional districts in the San Francisco Bay area, 2012.

The new boundaries have already had some interesting effects, with incumbents running against each other.

California has also recently instituted the ‘jungle primary’ system, where all candidates from all parties compete in a single primary, and the top two candidates, regardless of party, proceed to the general election. This has meant that there will be a number of races this week where two sitting Democratic members of Congress will be running against each other for the same seat.

USA 2012: The shrinking middle

It’s not new to write about the flaws of the electoral college: how it makes some states important and makes other states irrelevant, and how it produce perverse incentives in terms of policy. However what has become clear as we enter the final stretch of the 2012 is that the electoral college system is becoming more problematic in the age of precise and scientific campaign techniques.

The major parties have become remarkably good at targeting over the last 15 years. They have a better of sense of who can be won and who cannot, and are able to target their resources far more effectively.

When you combine these techniques with the electoral college, you see elections where fewer and fewer states are contested as battleground states.

Over the weekend the New York Times published a piece about how the number of states seriously contested by both parties has shrunk dramatically since close elections in 1960 and 1976. Indeed, the change is evident when comparing the 2012 race to the last three elections.

There are ten states that have been targetted by the Obama and Romney campaign for nearly all of their general election campaigning. As the campaign has wore on the seriously-contested states have narrowed to a bare eight states: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire, Nevada, Iowa and Wisconsin. The states of North Carolina and Indiana were both won by Obama in 2008 but are generally considered out of reach.

The eight states considered tossups are coloured grey (click to visit Real Clear Politics’ ‘create your own map’ tool)

The Times piece compares this to 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon visited almost every state, and in 1976 the biggest states were almost all swing states. This map is even tighter than the map in 2000, 2004 and 2008, which were historically tight elections in terms of the number of states up for grabs.

It has serious consequences for the election. Turnout is lower in safe states, and the most important election in the United States is becoming increasingly dominated by the parochial issues of a handful of states.

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ACT redistribution proposes radical change

Today Elections ACT announced new electoral boundaries that radically change the electoral boundaries used since 1995, and making very difficult or impossible for the Greens to retain all four of their seats at next year’s election.

I’ve posted analysis on the impact and maps of the changed areas below.

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Alice Springs Council: bad electoral systems at work

A friend recently referred me to an academic paper (PDF) produced by Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University. The paper discusses the electoral system used by the Alice Springs Town Council (and all local government in the Northern Territory) to elect council members.

Alice Springs has an elected mayor and a further eight aldermen elected to represent the entire council area. Darwin elects twelve aldermen through four three-member wards, as well as an elected mayor.

Rather than using a system of proportional representation, NT councils use a system of exhaustive preferential voting to fill seats in multi-member districts. This page shows the counting process and results of the 2008 council election.

Under this system, the first seat is filled using a regular preferential ballot (like how a House of Representatives seat, or a mayoral race, is decided). The second seat is decided by a similar preferential ballot after excluding the candidate who has already been elected. This process continues until all seats are filled.

This tends to result in lopsided results, with a majority voting block winning most of the seats up for election. While you would win one of eight seats with a vote of 11% under a proportional system, most or all seats would go to the majority under the exhaustive preferential system.

A similar system was used to elect Senators from 1919 to 1946. Almost all elections produced a result where all three of a state’s Senators up for election were from the same party. The United Australia Party and the Country Party collectively held 33 of 36 seats following the 1935 election, and the ALP commanded a similar lopsided majority following the 1946 election.

It is also used to elect two-member wards in New South Wales. It was used to elect Wollongong and Shellharbour councils prior to their sacking in 2004, and is used for the City of Botany Bay. Botany Council consists entirely of Labor members, who were all elected unopposed in 2008.

Alice Springs is a controversial council, with a recent history of targeting the homeless and conflict between the council and communities on the fringe of the town. The area has been the centre of conflict over the federal government’s intervention on indigenous issues. In 2009, the council decided to begin fining beggars and remove blankets from local homeless people.

The paper focuses on the indigenous population who live in town camps on the outskirts of Alice Springs. They make up approximately 10% of the population of the town of Alice Springs but are socially distinct from the urban Alice population.

While this population could consistently elect a single alderman to the Town Council under proportional representation, they have been locked out of the council under the current system.

With Alice Springs Council regularly taking a hostile attitude to local homeless people and the indigenous population, it is interesting to consider the way that the majoritarian electoral system encourages neglect of minorities and locks them out of representation.

Councils to be restored in the Illawarra

Voters in the UK are currently voting in a referendum on electoral reform, and the results should come in tomorrow morning. Closer to home, some electoral reform is taking place in two councils in the Illawarra area south of Sydney.

Wollongong City Council and Shellharbour City Council were both sacked in 2008 after allegations of corruption on the councils, and have been run by unelected administrators since then. Both of those councils previously were elected using a system of “winner takes all” preferential voting. Each council had six wards of two councillors each, along with a directly elected mayor. Each ward used a system that meant that the group winning a majority of votes after preferences would almost certainly gain both seats.

In contrast, most councils in NSW use some system of proportional representation, as is mandated for all wards electing at least three councils. Following the sacking of Wollongong and Shellharbour, the only councils still using the old system were Botany and Ku-ring-gai in Sydney and a number of small rural councils. There was an attempt to impose the system on a newly-created New England Regional Council last year, but the merger was scrapped and the electoral plan also went on the scrap-heap.

The new Coalition government has decided that the Illawarra councils will move away from the majority-rule system to the proportional system used in most NSW councils.

Firstly, they have decided that the two councils will face election this September, a year before all other councils in New South Wales are up for election. Secondly, they are making changes to councillor numbers and ward systems in both councils.

In Wollongong, the state government has decided that they will continue to have a directly-elected mayor and twelve more councillors, but they will be elected through three wards, each ward electing four councillors. This will mean that, rather than the majority winning all seats in each ward, a councillor will need to achieve a 20% quota to win a seat in any ward. This reflects many other councils in urban NSW, with 3-member or 4-member wards being the most common model.

In Shellharbour, the number of councillors will be cut to seven, with the mayor to be elected from amongst the councillors. No wards will be using, allowing candidates to win election with 12.5% of the vote in the council area. This is an extremely low number of councillors for a reasonably large council. Most urban councils in the Sydney, Hunter and Illawarra regions have between nine and fifteen councillors each. Kiama Council, immediately to the south of Shellharbour, has less than one third of Shellharbour’s population, but has nine councillors. The only councils in Sydney with less than nine councillors are Burwood (approximately 33,000 residents), Strathfield (approximately 35,000) and Hunter’s Hill (approximately 15,000). They each have seven councillors. Shellharbour, in contrast, has approximately 67,000 residents.

The Coalition government has made the argument that “Fewer councillors has shown that council can effectively focus on the bigger picture and seek whole of council outcomes”, but I don’t really see any evidence for that argument. Considering that councillors are paid very little money for their role, and considering the large size of Shellharbour Council, it seems like halving the size of their council brings little financial benefits while substantially reducing the link between the community and their representatives.

I have previously argued that councils in Sydney should be designed so that there are more councillors on each council, not less, and that bigger councils have more councillors. While the government’s decision makes these councils’ electoral systems far more democratic, the unnecessary reduction in councillor numbers in Shellharbour reduces democracy.

A note on my local government maps: New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland will all be holding local government elections in 2012. The ward maps I have on my maps page are for the 2008 council elections in those three states. At some point when I have time I will go through and identify which councils have redistributed their ward boundaries and produce new maps. Obviously I will have to produce a map of the new Wollongong City Council wards once they have been announced, which will be added to the 2012 ward map for New South Wales when it is produced. Sorry Western Australia and South Australia, I don’t think I’ll have time to do yours.