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.

Let’s compare Ricky Muir with like candidates, who benefited from being in first position. Ricky Muir polled 479 votes, or 0.0142% of the formal vote in Victoria. Ranking the 202 candidates who headed up a group, Muir came 125th. Apart from the Sports Party’s Wayne Dropulich (who originally won in WA but missed out in the re-election), no other elected candidates were ranked as lowly. The next lowest was David Leyonhjelm, who polled 0.0364% of the NSW vote. Another twenty lead candidates were elected, and all twenty were in the top 28 lead candidates in terms of vote percentage.

Under the current system, all senators are elected based on above-the-line votes. It’d be nice if that changed, but that’s the current reality.

But there is a massive difference between a candidate who benefits from above-the-line votes cast for their own party, and someone elected on a mass of votes cast for parties other than their own. Voters for the Queensland LNP may not know Matt Canavan, but they can predict that their votes will go to elect LNP senators.

The proposed voting system still doesn’t require voters to know every candidate – but they need to know the parties, and choose to preference them, and then those votes can be used to elect those candidates on the party ticket – that’s honest, and it’s easy to understand. And if the voter wants to know which candidates will benefit from the party vote they cast, they just need to glance down below the line.

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  1. Hi Ben. Why are the Liberals/Nationals supporting the Senate changes? At the same time, why is the Labor Party opposing the Senate changes?

    I believe that you are looking at the minor players in the above scenario and therefore you are looking at the wrong figures. You should be looking at the overall first preference votes for each major party.

    At the 2013 Federal Election, the Liberals/Nationals received about 5 million first preference votes for the Senate. The Labor Party received about 4 million first preference votes. The Greens received just over 1 million first preference votes.

    Assuming that if the 2016 election results were going to be somewhat similar, then the obvious result would be that Liberals/Nationals will end up with more Senators. This is despite the fact that total votes for the Liberal/Nationals and the Labor/Greens are about equal.

    This is because, under the new changes, most of the Labor/Greens preferences will now be exhausted before they can be swapped. This the real reason why we have these proposed Senate changes.

    I also note that the LDP received about 1/2 million first preference votes and the PUP received about 600,000 first preference votes in 2013. Many of these primary votes will now probably flow to the Liberals/Nationals in 2016. This would allow the Liberals/Nationals to have even more Senators.

  2. John Flanagan, yes, let’s see what happens if only 1st preferences matter (no flow of preferences). Using the “Just Vote [1]” D’Hondt proportional system like other countries, the count of 2013 would have changed as follows: LNP +4 seats, Labor +3 seats, Xenophon Group +1 seat (S Griff), Greens –2 seats (S Ludlam & S Hanson-Young), Others –6 seats. All ‘Other’ parties and independents would have been obliterated (LDP, PUP incl G Lazarus & J Lambie, AMEP, FF). The current composition would be: LNP 37, Labor 28, Green 8, Xeno 2, J Madigan 1. Needing 39 votes for the government, Xeno Group alone would have the pivotal balance of power.

    > But there is a massive difference between a candidate who benefits from above-the-line votes cast for their own party, and someone elected on a mass of votes cast for parties other than their own.

    No Ben, this is the heart of preferential voting! It allows voters to split their primary votes among many alternatives but still count toward a winner. Even for major parties, it is quite normal for final winners to get elected with the vast majority of their quota coming from parties other than their own. This is what makes our system better than other countries, because we count votes for excluded minor parties toward the result instead of ignoring them.

  3. John, you are incorrect to assume that the Coalition will get an advantage from votes exhausting. We don’t know how many votes will exhaust, but there is just as many circumstances in which the Coalition would be hurt by having a single ticket while Labor and the Greens could have a chance of each winning a seat on less than a quota.

    It is true that whichever party is leading gets an advantage from OPV in a single-member electoral system, but in a multi-member system the race for a final seat isn’t always between two parties who have the same primary vote. And the Coalition will have problems getting preferences from the right-wing minor parties, which are much stronger than the minor parties on the left outside the Greens but have much weaker ability to get people handing out how-to-votes than the Greens.

    Instead of doing what JND did and imagining using an entirely imaginary voting system, we can look at how people actually voted and assume the system changed according to the proposed legislation, as Adrian Beaumont did here:

    He found that the last two elections would have seen the ALP gain three additional seats, the Greens keep their seats, and the Coalition gain one.

  4. JND, my point is not about where preferences come from, but about whether a voter can fairly predict where their vote will go. If you vote [1] above the line (under either the current or proposed system) you can be pretty sure your vote will help out the candidates in that group. You don’t have any of that information if your vote ends up electing some random person you’ve never heard of in another group.

    But since you’ve said that, it’s not true that it’s normal for major party candidates to be elected with a “vast majority” of their quota coming from another party. Look at Ireland, Tasmania, ACT, Malta, NSW Legislative Council, or even the major parties in the Senate – someone doesn’t stand a chance of winning unless they have a significant number of primary votes (or at least their party does).

  5. John, you are right that we should be looking at the total party votes, not the votes for individual candidates. I wrote this post to debunk the idea that those individual vote counts are relevant, because some minor parties have been posting about them.

    The Coalition will almost certainly gain Senators if there is an election under the new system (DD or half-Senate), but it’s much less clear whether they will end up with more than Labor + Greens.

  6. Senator Ricky Muir the uneducated timber worker seems to have legally outsmarted the Rhodes Scholar Lawyer Turnbull. HIs tactics of bringing on the ABCC Bill seems to have shot the wind out of Liberals sails.

    The meme that Ben talks about illustrates that all Senators barring a few independents get elected with preferences (or more accurately a mixture of transfer and preference votes)

    Currently only Senator in Parliament who was elected in own right (If one uses logic being used re Muir’s miniscule primary vote). is is Xenophon. All of the others were there by transfer votes or preference swaps.

    The liberal’s Senate change rules are being implemented because they believe that they have a “right to rule”. IN many ways they are as out of touch with democracy as King Henry VII.

  7. That is nonsense, Andrew. The vast majority of votes are cast for a party above the line – including for Xenophon. Every lead Labor and Liberal candidate in the country was elected with a full quota on the first count so the only way to say that Xenophon was elected “in his own right” is to include all of those other candidates in the same group.

    Nobody has a problem with preferences – they have a problem with preferences which are non-transparent and don’t reflect the voters will. If a voter votes ‘1’ for a party it’s not unreasonable to expect that vote to flow to the candidates of that party – it’s nothing like how Muir was elected.

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