Senate reform Archive


Don’t like senators winning with 77 primary votes? Here’s how to fix it

There’s been a lot of attention over the last few days on the newly elected One Nation senator from Queensland, Malcolm Roberts. His election was a bit of a surprise, whereas we were confident that Pauline Hanson would win her seat, and her two other Senate colleagues were predicted as likely to win since election night.

There’s a lot to pick over about Roberts’ record, but a lot of the focus has been on the fact that he received only 77 primary votes – less than any other successful candidate.

I actually think there is a real problem with our Senate voting system which is exposed by Roberts’ tiny primary vote, but it’s not the one that most media has focused on. This problem isn’t unique to Malcolm Roberts. The reality is most senators, from major and minor parties, receive very few personal votes, and rely almost entirely on voters preferencing according to their party’s ticket to win a seat.

It is remarkable that someone won a seat off only 77 personal primary votes, but I would argue that it isn’t significantly different to the many major party candidates elected on a few thousand votes in large states.

The phenomenon of unpopular candidates winning seats with no public profile is not limited to One Nation – the major parties have a history of gifting Senate seats to party hacks who couldn’t win a seat in the House of Representatives. It doesn’t have to be this way.

In this article, I’ll explain the broader issue, and what I think can solve it.

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Tasmanian Senate button-push – summary

I’ve got a piece prepared for the Guardian today which discusses the Tasmanian Senate result but I had some thoughts that didn’t fit in to include here.

Firstly, the challenge in winning a seat from below the line isn’t just in gaining enough primary votes to be a contender. On primary votes, Richard Colbeck looked like he was in a strong position to win a seat. He was actually on track to win the tenth seat at the point where there were 24 candidates still racing for the last four seats.

Neither Colbeck or Singh received a single above the line vote. Not one. Colbeck was knocked out before Bushby was elected, so he wasn’t able to receive any. Singh was elected just before Bilyk, on preferences from Colbeck.

Colbeck was successively overtaken by Bushby, then Bilyk, then McKim, then finally McCulloch. Singh only survived because she was close enough to a quota to stay ahead of the pack, and to limp across the line with below-the-line preferences.

As long as we have above-the-line voting, this will remain a significant hurdle for any insurgent candidate. Ideally, they need the candidates ahead of them to drop out of the race early to open up room for them to gain preferences, because it’s hard to see any candidate getting close to the much higher half-Senate quota on their own steam. Singh wouldn’t have won a seat if this was a half-Senate election.

The second thing to note is that preferences are critical. Before this election we relied on tremendous speculation about how an election might work under this new voting system. Some suggested that all votes would exhaust, and it would become a “first past the post” race. That has well-and-truly proven to be wrong. I’m personally surprised by how few votes exhausted in Tasmania, and how close the final seat was to a full quota.

Less than 2.8% of votes exhausted. The last seat went to a candidate on more than 80% of a quota. Over 85% of above-the-line votes were numbered 1-6. It appears that a similar phenomenon is taking place in other states, although you’d expect that more votes will end up in the exhaust pile in states with bigger ballots.

Considering this information we have, we need to assume that a lot of preferences will decide the last seats in every state.

Gee wouldn’t it be nice to have daily interim distributions of preferences, as they do in ACT territory elections!


The anti-democratic alternatives to Senate reform

Until Labor’s recent cynical turn against reforming the Senate, there was general agreement amongst the main political parties and electoral experts that something needed to be done to deal with the Senate. The number of candidates running for the Senate has skyrocketed, which has made it significantly harder for voters to vote (by making ballots bigger and making it harder to find who you want to vote for) and made it significantly harder for the ballots to be counted (as seen in the 2013 WA Senate count). It has also allowed minor parties on tiny votes to pile up votes and become viable candidates for election.

These aren’t the only reasons why Senate voting reform should happen, but they are the reasons why it’s so urgent and part of the reason why this issue has finally gained support from a major party after decades of major party indifference.

Apart from the current proposal, there have been a number of other “solutions” to these problems which, unlike the current proposal, do nothing to reduce the power and control of the major parties while making life harder for all minor parties, and would genuinely be bad for Australian democracy.

They should give fans of minor parties pause: there are alternative reforms which would make life much harder for small parties, and could be back on the table if the current proposal fails.

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Senate reform – does exhausting votes help the party leading?

There’s been a lot of attempts by various people to predict the impact of Senate reform in terms of which parties will win and which parties will lose.

Some of this has been smart, and some of it has been quite dumb. Some has focused on the long-term tendencies, while others have been obsessively focused on the outcome under one narrow scenario where the Coalition wins a double dissolution comfortably, or freak out about outcomes that are just as likely under the current system.

I’ve generally tried to avoid getting too much into these questions. In general, I expect that party behaviour and voter behaviour will change in ways which are difficult to predict, and overconfidence in any particular outcome suggests that a person has an agenda to push (usually an anti-reform agenda).

(If you really want to have a better sense of likely outcomes, I can point you to Kevin Bonham, Antony Green and Adrian Beaumount‘s analysis. In short, both major parties and the Greens would have gained seats, in proportion to their vote, but the chances of a Coalition majority are not much greater than the current system.)

I wanted to specifically address a question raised in a bunch of places: does the left “splitting” its vote between Labor and the Greens disadvantage them relative to the Coalition, who run as a single ticket.

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JSCEM Senate reform inquiry – video highlights

I watched some parts of today’s JSCEM inquiry, and cut together a few short clips of interesting parts of the day. I thought I would post them on Youtube and here – if you have a section which you think was particularly interesting, let me know in comments and I’ll cut it and upload it.

Firstly, this 42 second interaction between Antony Green and Stephen Conroy about whether voters actively choose to vote above the line, or are ‘herded’ into it by a voting system that makes it much much harder to vote below-the-line. This is related to my blog post on informal rates amongst below-the-line voters.

Go below the fold for three more videos.

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How much does an individual candidate’s vote matter in the Senate?

There’s a meme going around from a supporter of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party claiming Senate reforms are illegitimate because Ricky Muir polled more votes individually than a handful of other elected Senators.

Here’s an example:


I’ve previously discussed how difficult it is to cast a vote below the line. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of voters vote above the line. In 2013, 96.83% of formal votes were above the line – in other words, they were cast for a party’s preference ticket, not for any individual. A further 2.73% voted for candidates ranked first in their column. Only 0.436% of voters decided to cast a primary vote for any candidate not ranked first.

Since others seem to think there is value in looking at candidates’ individual below-the-line votes, let’s see what the data tells us. Read the rest of this entry »


Senate voting reform – the bill drops

So we now have the government’s legislation for Senate voting reform. You can read it here.

The key points are as follows.

Abolition of group voting tickets

From now on there won’t be any distribution of preferences beyond a single party group unless the voter marks it themselves on the ballot.

Introduction of optional preferential voting above the line

From now on you will be allowed to number as many boxes as you want above the line, and your vote will flow through each party group in ticket order.

The ballot paper will carry instructions saying the voter must number “at least 6” boxes above the line, although that would revert to being full compulsory preferential voting if six or less groups nominate.

Having said that, votes just containing a ‘1’ above the line will be formal, and there is no “Langer clause” which would prevent parties or other groups advocating for a person to number less than six boxes above the line.

No major changes to below-the-line voting

Despite JSCEM recommending optional preferential voting below the line, this bill only slightly loosens the requirements for below-the-line voting. You’ll still need to number most boxes for your vote to count, but you’ll be allowed up to five sequencing errors, up from the current three.

Party logos on the ballot paper

This one wasn’t expected! Presumably this is motivated by Liberal concern about confusion with the Liberal Democrats. It’s not unheard-of: New Zealand has party logos on the ballot.

Prohibition on being Registered Officer of multiple parties

This is to address the concern about David Leyonhjelm being the registered officer (who is the official who liaises with the AEC and nominates candidates) of multiple parties.

I will have some more commentary this evening about the political impact of the reforms, but feel free to use this post to discuss the reforms as they unfold today.

Update: No counting of Senate ballots

Unfortunately I missed one major change. The legislation proposes that Senate ballots are no longer counted and recorded in group totals on election night. Antony Green has looked into this.


How hard is it to go your own way voting in the Senate?

In the last few days, I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions about Senate reform, and many times I’ve had people insist that voters make a choice to hand control of their vote to their party, and any voter should be able to vote below-the-line if they wanted to. These arguments often insist that below-the-line voting is easy, and stray into elitist arguments about ordinary voters being lazy.

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Now there are multiple different reasons why voters lack informed choice when voting in the Senate, including how difficult it is to understand the impact of a GVT even when you’re an electoral expert, but I’m just going to focus on the idea that it’s easy to vote below-the-line, and thus voters have a reasonable option if they wish to opt out of the parties’ preference machine.

In short, approximately 30% of below-the-line votes end up in the informal pile, and as the number of candidates increase there is a corresponding increase in the overall informal rate, and a decline in the below-the-line rate. Read the rest of this entry »


Refuting self-interested garbage in the SMH

In yesterday’s Herald, Heath Aston ran an ‘exclusive‘ publishing supposed modelling from a couple of so-called “veteran players in minor party preference negotiations” claiming that Senate GVT reform would deliver the Coalition a majority in the Senate.

There’s a lot of massive problems with this prediction, and I’ll try to lay them out.

At the end I will apply some of the same logic, but using real polling data and come up with my own less sensationalised conclusion, which suggests a Coalition win would lead to Xenophon balance of power, but if Labor recovered to a winnable position then the Greens would likely win the balance of power.

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Senate voting reform looks set to go ahead

According to a report in this morning’s Guardian, the Coalition, the Greens and Nick Xenophon appear close to an agreement on Senate voting reform. There’s also an accompanying media release from Lee Rhiannon.

The proposed plan, put to the government by the Greens, would abolish group voting tickets (the mechanism whereby preferences flow according to pre-lodged party preference decisions when voters vote ‘1’ above the line for a party), and would allow voters to number their own preferences for parties above the line or for candidates below the line.

This proposal is very similar to that proposed unanimously by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM), with a few exceptions:

  • Voters would be expected to number at least six boxes above the line or twelve boxes below the line. As I understand it, there would be a savings provision so votes that don’t number enough boxes would still count.
  • The Greens don’t propose any changes to party registration rules, whereas JSCEM had proposed raising the threshold for party registration from 500 members to 1500 members.

While the article is written as if agreement has been reached, it’s unclear whether the Coalition has agreed to the Greens’ demand that party registration be taken out of the package. It’s also unclear where Labor stands on the proposal – while some senior Labor senators are opposed, there are others in the party who support Senate reform.

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