How many numbers is too many?


I wrote yesterday about the Queensland government’s slate of reforms to Queensland local government elections, most of which I think are excellent. I focused on the shift to proportional representation for undivided councils (which is mostly synonymous with small regional councils).

I would love for the government to go for PR for Brisbane City and other big councils, but recognise that’s a much bigger step which affects much more powerful forces and also would require a redrawing of ward maps. Another fight for another day.

But there is one proposed change that would be completely unworkable and set proportional representation up for failure: compulsory preferential voting (CPV).

Compulsory preferential voting means that voters must number every box (or close to it) for their vote to be formal. In the interests of encouraging voters to “make their vote count”, we punish them with complete informality if they don’t comply.

The Queensland government’s report justified many of its reforms on the basis of aligning local elections processes with state and federal equivalents. While it is true that CPV is used for single-member elections in Queensland and federally, there is nowhere in Australia which uses full CPV with a proportional representation system in Australia.

We used full CPV for the Senate from the introduction of proportional representation in 1949 until the Senate reforms in early 2016. From 1949 until 1983, voters did not have any option to vote ‘above the line’, so had to number every box correctly for their vote to count. As the number of candidates increased, the informal rate continued to climb. Eventually the problem was solved by allowing voters to outsource their preferencing to their party of choice using group voting tickets. This post from Antony Green shows the informal rate in the Senate before 1984.

It is not necessary to number every box under proportional systems in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania or the ACT. It is only required in Western Australia if you vote below the line, which few voters do. There is no proportional representation at a state level in Queensland. The only relevant example is the Senate, where voters are asked to vote 1 to 6 above the line or 1 to 12 below the line.

We have another recent example where requiring voters to number a large number of boxes can lead to a big spike in informal voting, even if they don’t need to number every box.

Voters in Tasmanian council elections are asked to number as many boxes as there are seats up for election, which can vary between councils.

Until the 2011 council election, half of each council was elected every two years for a four year term. Since 2014, the whole council is elected at once. This has doubled the number of boxes voters need to number to cast a formal vote.

At the 2014 election, all 28 councils had an increase in informal votes. The increase was over 50% in 22 councils, and more than doubled in ten. Statewide informal voting increased from 2.4% to 4.9%, and then 5.1% in 2018.

In 2018, more than one in eight votes cast in the Hobart City Council election (where voters needed to number twelve boxes) was informal. There is also strong evidence that all of the increase in informal voting came from voters either not numbering enough boxes, or making a mistake in their voting sequence. (Thanks to Kevin Bonham for his help with this research).

We also know that informal voting in the House of Representatives spikes significantly when we have a lot of candidates, say when 16 candidates run in one seat.

So what happens in, say, Toowoomba or Mackay, where ten seats are up for election. 37 candidates ran for Mackay Council in 2016, and 31 for Toowoomba. I can’t see the informal rate staying under 10% in either case.

Even for those voters who can successfully navigate this voting system, it will be a lot harder. How-to-vote cards will become crucial for people who could otherwise make up their own mind.

All of that is a problem without mentioning the morality of asking voters to express preferences possibly between dozens of unknown candidates in order to cast a valid vote for the candidates that they do know.

The Queensland government has an opportunity to fix this. You could legislate instead to require voters to number just 1 to 5, or (even better) tell voters to number as many boxes as there are seats, but count any vote with a valid first preference.

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  1. All Victorian Council elections have full compulsory preferences, even for multi-member wards. However most Victorian Councils are either divided into wards or are small enough to have an STV electorate sized Council (e.g. the Kennett municipal amalgamation escapee, the Borough of Queenscliff, Victoria`s last remaining Borough), and the 9-member undivided Melbourne Councillor electorate (with separate Mayoral election) has Group Ticket Voting with compulsory preferences for BLT votes (and presumably ATL tickets), unlike Legislative Council elections.

  2. The whole thing with aligning local govt voting with state and federal is a complete joke! We only got CPV at the last QLD election with 18 MINS NOTICE! Really, it is federal elections that are different because QLD elections should still be OPV!

    These ‘reforms’ are only politically motivated because the state govt/BCC opposition cannot bear not being in control… it is disgusting that Labor keep gaming the system and get away with it!

  3. I’d be in favour of changing to the Senate style partial preferential system where there is a minimum. However, I’m not really a fan of the savings provision to just allow any first preference to be a valid vote, mainly because then I see no reason to do partial preferential when fully optional preferential can be used anyway, and I would expect that at some point one day, it would be exploited, just like how Group Voting Tickets were introduced with good intentions, only to be exploited later on.

  4. The only democratic way of selecting members of legislatures, at any level, is First Past The Post Voting, and, using single member electorates.

    The “Preferential Voting” (refer to it by whatever name you want – “A turd by any other name, smells the same”) method, is gangsters rigging elections so that they are won by gangsters.

    Australia, at the federal level, itinially had First Past The Post voting, for both the chambers of the federal parliament. Then, what has evolved into the LNP, decided to form a coalition of gangs, to prevent the ALP from getting elected, and, at that time, their gangster method worked, and, as a union of gangsters, they took government from the ALP. Then, some cdecades later, after having observed how effective the gangstert method of selecting members of the lower chamber of the parliament, was, the ALP decided that the sole objective of the senate, shouldf be to usurp whatever government came to be, so, the ALP chamnged to the unwieldy and even more corrupt, gangster method of selecting members of the senate (for when members of the senate, actually had to go throiugh a pretend “election”.

    So. the degree of democracy, that had existed, was abolished, and, it wasd all changed, so that the federal parliament became an institution much like a meeting of families, in the gangster federations.

    A gangster method of selecting unaccountable gangsters, to rule the people, for the benefit of the gangsters.

    It is unfortunate that the Qld ALP is turning local government into a ganster hierarchy, like the pasrliaments.

    But, then, local government is subordinate to state parliament, so, when the higher level is run by gangsters, the frestering pus will drip down anf infect the lower level.

  5. WL, the advantage of using partial preferential with a savings provision is that you ensure votes count while still encouraging more preferences. Best of both worlds! This is the reason why we’d use PPV when we could just OPV.

  6. So Much for Democracy, do you actually have any arguments about why you like one voting system or another or just a bunch of mindless insults?

    First past the post is the simplest model, but that doesn’t make it democracy when huge proportions of the electorate have no say over who gets elected.

  7. The fundamental difference between First Past The Post voting, and, the corrupt “preferential” voting, is that, in the case of First Past The Post voting, the voters cast a single vote, FOR the candidate of the voter’s choice, and, the candidate who gains the most votes FOR the candidate, wins, whereas, the “preferential” “voting” involves casting votes AGAINST candidates, and, the candidate who gets the LEAST “votes” AGAINST” them, wins.

    First Past The Post voting is the most democratic, efficient, cost-effective system for selecting members of legislatures, and, “preferential” “voting” is the most obstructive, costly, and, anti-democratic and corrupt, system.

    “Of particular note, regarding the federal parliament of Australia, is the declaration by the then Chief Judge of the High Court Of Australia, Murray Gleeson, at The Ninth Lucinda Lecture, Monash University, 24 July 2001, “The Shape of Representative Democracy”, where he said, of the Australian Constitution that the Constitution does not provide any right “that all voters can please themselves whether to vote and whom to vote for”. So, as stated by the then Chief Judge of the High Court, the Australian people do not get to choose the members of the federal parliament of Australia. We do not get to elect them. We are prevented from having a democratically elected government.”

    It is of significant note, that, in Australia, in no jurisdiction, have the people been allowed to make the decision as to how the members of the legislature, are to be selected.


    Preferential voting is just a more efficient form of multi-round systems, such as that in France, where voters vote in more than one round (in France and most jurisdictions with this system, two rounds) where choose one candidate each time and low voting receiving candidates in the earlier round(s). All votes, within each seat, remain equal under both systems. These systems ensure that a majority of voters (in compulsory preferential voting) or as near as possibly a majority of voters (in an optional preferential system) support candidates elected, rather than the majority being defeated by a more united minority of voters. First Past the Post, also leads to people voting against candidates rather than for the candidate they voted for, it just hides them in with the voters voting for candidates because that is their favourite candidate.

    The first past the post system for the Senate lead to an often lopsided Senate (at one point there was only 1 ALP Senator and 35 Government Senators). Single member electorate for the Senate would have helped a bit, but would have left it lopsided as the electorates would have been mostly over quite politically diverse areas and often subject to national swings.

    Preferential voting in the Senate lead to less diversity in the representation of each state in the Senate, through all states electing a group of 3 Senators of the same Party/Coalition (leading to it being described as the Windsrceen Wiper Senate), except for a single incident of there being only 2 Coalition candidates and thus one of the ALP candidates winning by default (there were only 5 candidates), although it did prevent the number of opposition/new government Senators dropping bellow 3 at any point the system was in full operation.

    The introduction of proportional representation for the 1949 election was a reaction to the Windscreen Wiper Senate system and has ensured that the Liberal Party and ALP are both represented in each state, at every election. It was, apart from the compulsory preferences, the system that the Barton Government had sought to introduce for the 1903 elections but was prevented from doing so by the Senate. When it was introduced in 1949 Australia still had a 2 parties in the big cities, 3 parties in the regional areas system (the CPA polled under 4% everywhere (mostly well under) and the were a couple of independents in the House of Reps going into the 1949 election (one of whom was Jack Lang, who did run in the Senate election of 1951 and came within 3% of winning) defeated after the Liberals changed to preferencing the ALP, unlike 1946) and that only changed in 1955 with the Split of the ALP creating the DLP.

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