New South Wales elections are different to the rest of Australia. In all other federal and state lower house elections featuring single-member electorates, we use compulsory preferential voting (CPV) – you need to number every box for your vote to count.
For NSW state elections, we use optional preferential voting (OPV). You can number multiple boxes if you wish, but a ‘1’ is sufficient.
Preferences matter under both systems, but they operate differently. In New South Wales, voters have the option to opt out of the preferencing game, which means that minor party votes can have less of an impact on the result – if those voters choose to opt out.
There is a long history of parties encouraging “just vote 1” tactics, but the purpose is often not to encourage their own voters to exhaust, but to promote the tactics to other voters who might otherwise preference against them.
In this post I will run through the history of this campaigning and how it might play out in NSW.
New South Wales switched from CPV to OPV for the 1981 election. Queensland then switched for the 1992 Queensland state election, as one of the recommendations of the Fitzgerald inquiry. Queensland subsequently reverted to CPV in 2016.
At first, parties continued to recommend that voters number every box on the ballot. This changed at some point in the late 1990s or early 2000s. It’s not clear to me if there was a shift at the 1999 NSW election, but definitely by the 2001 Queensland election Peter Beattie’s Labor party was deliberately running a strategy of encouraging voters to ‘just vote 1’, which helped deliver a landslide victory in the face of right-wing opposition splintered between National, Liberal, One Nation and the City and Country Alliance.
This 2015 article by Antony Green includes statistics on the proportion of votes which did not include further preferences from the 1992 Queensland election to 2012. Just over 20% of votes were ‘just vote 1’ in 1992 and 1995, but this jumped to almost 60% in 2001 and then climbed to almost 70% by 2012. The 2015 election isn’t included in this table, but there was a drop in exhaustion that year.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, OPV was helpful to Labor, since One Nation took a big chunk of the Coalition vote and this did not flow reliably as preferences. By the late 2000s this had shifted, with Labor relying a lot more on preferences with the rise of the Greens.
The Greens in particular have a lot more power under an OPV system, since they have more options for their how-to-vote. Recommending that voters preference the Coalition is not realistic for the Greens, leaving them no other options at a federal election other than either preferencing Labor or not indicating a preference (which leads to similar rates of preferences flowing to Labor). But under OPV the Greens have the option of simply exhausting, which was particularly popular at the 2011 NSW election when the Greens refused to negotiate any preference deal with the unpopular outgoing state Labor government.
This explains why the Queensland Labor government legislated in 2016 to switch back to CPV after a quarter-century of OPV (and they are now proposing the same for Brisbane City and other Queensland councils).
The main point of this meandering blog post is to focus on the concept of running a ‘just vote 1’ campaign. After being a popular tactic for the Beattie government it became a tactic of the Liberal National Party as early as 2009, and it appears that it may make a resurgence on Saturday in New South Wales.
The point of a ‘just vote 1’ strategy isn’t to influence your own voters. If you’re a major party it doesn’t really matter if your own voters mark preferences, because those preferences won’t flow. Instead you want to influence minor party voters who you calculate are more likely to vote for the other major party.
In the early 2000s, it was Labor parties trying to encourage One Nation voters to exhaust their preferences. Later it was the Coalition targetting Greens voters.
It’s a fundamentally dishonest tactic, which you can tell because ‘Just Vote 1’ corflutes are never branded. You have to look at the fine print to work out who produced them. This Sydney Morning Herald shows a Liberal poster from the 2017 North Shore by-election which features no branding at all.
Of course, you are welcome to just vote 1 if you wish, but the logic never stands up. There is an implication that numbering more boxes is bad, and could damage your vote in some way. But that is never the case. Your vote will only flow to another candidate when your preferred candidate is eliminated.
I have been made aware of an even more blatant Coalition attempt to discourage people from voting for a minor party by sowing doubt about preferences.
This leaflet was distributed in western Sydney, and quotes a statistic about how many minor party votes exhaust. Instead of explaining how you could make your vote count while voting for a minor party, instead it tells you to vote Liberal.
The common theme here is misleading voters by creating fear about the voting system. If the Liberal Party was actually concerned about preferences exhausting they could encourage voters to number the boxes on their ballot, but instead they are encouraging ‘just vote 1’ in almost every seat.
And in at least one place they have registered a plain ‘Just Vote 1’ piece of material for election day (for the Nationals in Cessnock).
It makes sense that the Coalition would be pursuing a strategy of discouraging preferences. The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers and Greens are both encouraging preferences for Labor, as are a number of minor progressive parties.
What is more puzzling is that Labor appears to be doing the same! They have registered a reasonably plain leaflet statewide (admittedly with the Labor logo) encouraging a ‘just vote 1’ and are encouraging an exhausted vote in at least 27 electorates.
Many of these seats are in multicultural electorates in Sydney, suggesting that it’s a strategy to simplify the voting method in places like Holsworthy. But this could come back to bite Labor at the federal election in May, when these same voters will need to number every box.
Keep an eye out on Saturday and please post a comment (with a photo ideally) if you see a ‘Just Vote 1’ corflute.