Candidates were announced today for the forthcoming Bradfield and Higgins by-elections, and an amazing twenty-two candidates have nominated in Bradfield. In Higgins, a more reasonable ten candidates have nominated in Higgins.The field in Bradfield includes nine Christian Democratic Party candidates after the party threatened to nominate as many as eleven. This must surely be a record for the most candidates nominated by a party in a single seat.
In addition there are candidates for the Liberal Party, Greens, Australian Sex Party, One Nation, Liberal Democrats, Democratic Labor Party, Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, Climate Change Coalition and five independents.
The implications of this are dire for the conduct of the by-election. Compulsory preferential voting means that all voters will need to express a preference for every single candidate, including expressing a candidate between all nine Christian Democrats and many independents and political parties that few Bradfield voters would have heard of.
Voters who failed to express 22 preferences or make mistakes can have their votes declared informal, even if they express a clear preference. These voters may have voted for the Liberals or Greens, and their votes would never be passed on to another candidate, yet these votes would be thrown out for an irrelevant error.
I believe there is a rule which allows 10% of preferences to make mistakes, which would allow a voter to make two mistakes in the Bradfield by-election. (Update: turns out you are only allowed to make one mistake. The 10% rule only applies to the Senate). Even still, you can expect a huge informal vote.
At the 2005 Werriwa by-election, there were sixteen candidates, and this election produced an informal vote of over 13%. The informal vote was higher than all candidates other than the winning ALP candidate, Chris Hayes, who polled 55%. No other candidate polled over 10%.
It’s not unreasonable to think that the informal vote could break 20% in the coming by-election. In addition, it will be extremely difficult for parties to produce how-to-votes that allow people to vote easily. Take the Greens for example. Do you use principle in preferencing, by putting One Nation last and trying to distinguish between all of the right-wing minor parties and independents, or do you simply produce a donkey vote HTV to ensure your voters have their votes counted?
The solution is very simple: some sort of optional preferential voting. I personally think that there is no justfication for tossing out a vote for expressing an invalid lower preference. If we cannot achieve full optional preferential voting, there should be at least a cap on the number of preferences that need to be expressed.
If it was said you had to number at least five preferences it would encourage parties to preference and would ensure preferences flow when there are a small number of candidates, whilst avoiding high informal votes in situations like Bradfield and where large numbers of candidates run in a general election (fourteen candidates ran in Greenway in 2007).
In addition, of course, another reform suggested by Antony Green should be adopted. This would be that, while parties are permitted to nominate multiple candidates, any additional candidates would be required to go out and get signatures from voters, just as independents are required to do.
I haven’t really delved here into the question of whether it makes sense for the Christian Democratic Party to run nine candidates. While it could result in a slightly higher total CDP vote due to each candidate getting the support of their own community, it’s undoubtedly going to hurt them.
They would have needed to spend $5500 $4500 on nomination fees, and it seems impossible that any candidates could individually poll the 4% needed to qualify for public funding. In such a large field of right-wing candidates, all of whom will be competing with an official Liberal candidate, you can’t see any of them doing particularly well.