Electoral reform Archive

Parliamentary committee aiming to end group voting tickets

The federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters released its interim report yesterday, which covered recommendations for how to reform the Senate voting system.

The Senate voting system has come under criticism for the system of group voting tickets producing bizarre results and creating very close races, and a proliferation of political parties making hard for voters to cast a formal, informed vote.

The proposals, in short, are:

  • Abolishing group voting tickets for Senate elections, meaning that parties can’t direct preferences automatically to other parties without the voting expressing a preference.
  • Introducing optional preferential above the line voting, so that voters can number boxes for parties above the line, with a minimum of one preference for a formal vote.
  • Only requiring below-the-line voters to number as many boxes as there are vacancies (2, 6 or 12). This will make it much easier to cast a formal vote below the line.
  • Tightening party registration processes:
    • Requiring parties to have at least 1500 members (up from 500)
    • Requiring parties to go further to demonstrate membership numbers.
    • Easier processes for a party to register for just one state.
    • Giving existing parties one year to meet the stricter standards.
    • Banning the practice of a person serving as registered officer of more than one registered party.

The committee also suggested that there is a need to restrict candidates to run in the state where they live, but didn’t propose a specific solution. The committee did not support the Liberal proposal for thresholds.

Overall, it’s a very good outcome. Abolishing group voting tickets and making it easier for voters to cast their own preferences, either above or below the line, is a good move for putting power back in the hands of voters. Preferences will still matter, but only when they are genuine preferences, and parties will only be able to influence their voters by giving them a piece of material with advice that the voter can choose to follow – no more automatic flows of preferences.

While the number of candidates and parties has reached an excessive level, I tend to think that the abolition of group voting tickets will reduce the draw for small parties to enter the ‘preference lottery’. Still, the restrictions proposed should still allow a large number of minor parties to stay registered.

The next challenge will be getting the legislation through the Parliament. The Coalition, Labor and the Greens all support the proposals, but it seems likely that most of the other crossbenchers in the Senate will be opposed. While their votes won’t be critical, life may be difficult for Tony Abbott if this legislation is being fought over when the new Senate comes in, and he will be looking for support from other senators.

JSCEM seems to have decided to deal with the Senate reform issue before going on to any other issues of electoral law later this year – perhaps they are hoping to pass the necessary legislation before the new Senate takes office on July 1.

Elsewhere: Antony Green deals with the proposed changes and models how previous Senate results would have been affected by the different voting system.

JSCEM – move for Senate voting reform

The federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) held hearings yesterday in Canberra, where representatives from five political parties presented evidence on how to reform the Senate voting system, following previous hearings from experts and officials over the last three months.

Yesterday’s appearances, as well as late submission from the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party, saw both parties come out in support of the abolition of group voting tickets (GVTs), and the introduction of optional preferential voting (OPV) in the Senate. The Greens have supported the model for a long time, and the model is currently in use for the NSW Legislative Council.

The Nationals only supported abolishing GVTs if compulsory preferential voting was maintained, which would force voters to number a large number of boxes for their vote to count. That seems unlikely to fly.

Other proposals were made, including the Liberal Party coming out for rules requiring voters to show photo identification when voting. However it seems that JSCEM is planning to put off matters unrelated to the Senate voting system until later in the year, and is now focusing on changes that will effect the Senate.

The umbrella of changes affecting the Senate appears to include two broad approaches: changing the voting system, and changing rules around nominations and party registration.

In addition to the Senate counting system, three other major proposals were raised.

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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 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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