Parliamentary committee aiming to end group voting tickets

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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.

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