Why do parties hand out how-to-votes?

On the afternoon of the election I had a discussion on Twitter about why parties hand out how-to-vote cards and the significance of their preference decisions. I thought people might find it interesting to have the perspective of someone who has handed out thousands of how-to-votes (HTVs) for a political party on why they are so prevalent.

The primary reason for this practice has little to do with political parties wanting their voters to follow their preference instructions, beyond voting for their party.

The primary reasons for HTVs is historical, and related to party exposure. Election campaigns in the United States and the United Kingdom do not focus on handing out pieces of paper to voters on election day, instead focusing on get-out-the-vote efforts. There are efforts made to put up signs and have a presence at polling booths, but the primary aim of the campaign is not to hand a particular new piece of election material to voters as they come to vote. Even in Ireland, the country closest to Australia using a system of preference voting, I don’t believe they hand out how-to-votes.

It was previously the case that it could be quite difficult to fill out a ballot paper without the help of your political party. For much of the twentieth century, all mainland state and federal elections were held using compulsory preferential voting, and with no identification of a candidate’s political party on the ballot. Voters for a major party would need to number every box, and may not be able to identify little-known candidates for such parties as the Communist Party. A how-to-vote would allow voters to number every box, even if they had no idea about a number of the candidates.

This is less of an imperative now. In state elections in New South Wales and Queensland, optional preferential voting means that voters can cast a formal vote without numbering many boxes. In most electorates the major parties advise voters to “just vote 1”. In other states, and in federal elections, party labels on the ballot paper make it easier for voters to number every box. Ballot papers also make it clear when voters need to number every box. Of course, many voters may lack the confidence or intelligence to work this out for themselves, but it remains the case that it is much easier to vote.

The main reason why political parties focus on handing out how-to-vote cards is exposure. It is the last opportunity to have contact with voters, and everyone else does it. It becomes a kind of arms race, with parties in marginal seats focusing on trying to have more workers than the other party, even if they are not all necessary to reach every voter. While it wouldn’t have a serious impact on elections if no party were to hand out cards, it would likely be detrimental for a political party if they stopped doing it unilaterally.

I’m sure it is true that a secondary reason for handing out HTVs is to ensure all of your voters do cast a formal vote. This would particularly be an issue in areas with low literacy rates or language diversity, where many voters may not be fluent in English. A how-to-vote can allow them to copy out their vote without understanding the instructions and can also help with confusion in states where the rules vary between federal and state elections.

If a party is one of the top two polling parties in a district, their preferences will not be distributed under any circumstances. Except for rare three-cornered contests such as Balmain, it is usually clear who will come in the top two well in advance, so the major parties know their preferences won’t be counted.

In some cases, preference decisions are part of a deal with another party. A party might swap preferences between a district where they won’t win and a district where they could win, or for preferences in the upper house. Even if preference decisions are made based on principle, they are usually not the primary motivation for handing out HTVs.

Discussions on preferences often dominate airtime for smaller parties, and in some places can be the only media a small party can receive. Rather than being an opportunity to influence politics, it can often prove a distraction, preventing the party from discussing policy issues that may have motivated them to run in the first place.

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  1. There is another reason why parties hand out HTVs, especially in unwinnable seats. That is to pick up upper house votes. If there is no party rep at a booth then a percentage of voters will ignore that party on the ballot as they think the party is not interested in them, or their vote. Even when a lower house seat is unwinnable, upper house votes from that seat can have have an effect on the statewide upper house result. One can only guess how many upper house votes the Labor Party missed out on after their booth workers deserted the booths on the day of the NSW election.

  2. It may be very interesting to see whether there is a proportional increase in the Greens upper house vote to the number of booths manned by the Greens.

    For example, in the electorate at Strathfield, the booths of Chalmers Rd School and St Johns Strathfield were manned by the Greens, but St Patricks College was not. These booths are very close to each other.

    Chalmers Rd, where I was at, had a very strong effort from the Greens to stuff HTVs in as many voters hands as possible. St John’s Strathfield was not as strong, I believe.

    The outcomes for Greens vote in the LC were:
    Strathfield: Chalmers Rd School 8.17%
    Strathfield: St Johns Strathfield 6.82%
    Strathfield: St Patricks Cllg Strathfield 5.62%

    So that’s a 2.5% difference.

    This isn’t very scientific but may be indicative of the returns that handing out HTVs gives.

  3. It’s an interesting question, and further research along the lines of what deconst said would be interesting e.g. where a party or candidate had a staffed booth compared to where they didn’t. There is also an argument as to how pushy the rep is.

    I believe that those of us that were simply there with the info (and only a few signs) and were not at all pushy about it did better than the booths that had a frenzy of activity with pushy reps fighting each other for space and to “speak” to the voters. The booth I worked on for the Greens was (I think) second highest in percentage for green primary votes in the electorate and it was a very much Labor-biased booth. I must say that only the Nationals rep was at all pushy (and not very much so) and the voters respected this and generally took material from all reps.

    I do think it’s time for a standard set of How To Votes top be posted equally weighted (printed by the Electoral Commission) IN each private booth so that the voter can make their mind up in private, and we stop wasting a huge amount of paper and volunteers time.

  4. In the ACT (and Tas?) handing out HTVs is abolished and Greens get elected. I have handed out HTVs for 36 years and I think a booth presence is very necessary for a small party, but influencing the vote on the day is very small. It was very noticeable that the Libs Federally in Gilmore enginneered a massive effort to push uninformed and uninterested voters forming voter intention on the day. Did it work? Not really. I think the Greens and other minor partied could radically reengineer what they do on election day and be much more effective. It is funny to me that Greens, as a progressive party, always say ‘but we always do it this way’ on HTVs. I think in a general election, you could pick one or two seats that campaign completely radically, and see what the results are!

  5. Well, I remember from a couple of similar trials like deconst mentions that the difference was about 2% between staffing and not staffing – if the vote was under 10%. This might be higher if the vote at the booth was in the 20%+ range. I agree with Mark from Kiama that having perhaps the HTVs stuck up in the individual voting booth (I think this is how its done in the ACT and TAS) frees up campaign workers to do things like canvassing (ie; doorknocking), even if its just around their local area. Or extra leafletting (turn the HTVs into a leaflet and get the freed up vollies to deliver instead). Or anything else for that matter.

  6. I agree with Stewart and Peter. I’d prefer to see campaigning on election day banned. We spend so much time and resources on organising our presence at polling booths that would be much better directed into other campaign activities such as doorknocking which might be more effective, and involve more genuine engagement with the electorate.

    The other issue with handing out HTVs is the potential for intentionally deceptive and misleading material to be handed out, and the small but significant impact this can have, coming at the last moment before people vote, without others having the opportunity to counter it. We see this quite frequently in jurisdictions which don’t regulate what can be handed out in the way Victoria and NSW do. Here for instance is an example from the last federal election.

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