How Voting For The Senate Works In Australia

How Voting For The Senate Works In Australia

Ever wondered why Senate voting papers are so large, or how minor parties are sometimes elected? Plus: a handy trick to avoid making a mistake if you don’t want to follow party preferences but are worried you’ll mess up by voting in every box below the line.

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The record large Senate ballot papers have probably already annoyed many early voters. Their great length — over a metre in NSW and Victoria — will soon annoy many more voters. However, the real annoyance will come if new senators with very little popular support get elected.

The reason why this might happen is a distortion of the Proportional Representation system, where, by voting “above the line”, it is the party — not the voter — that decides the preferences.

In this election, more than ever before, large numbers of parties that we have never heard of are on the ballot paper. Preference deal strategies might even lead to some of them getting elected. Back in 2004, Labor and Australian Democrat preferences in Victoria went to Family First ahead of the Greens. Almost no Labor or Democrat voters knew this when they voted above the line, but this led to Family First's Steve Fielding's election to the Senate.

This can happens because the above the line option -- where the preferences are decided by the party you vote for, not by you the voter -- was introduced for Senate polls in 1983. These preferences are listed in the Group Voting Tickets.

You can find out what the party you plan to vote for is doing with its preferences by looking at the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) website or by checking the Group Voting Tickets at the polling booth. However, most people don't look at them, and even those that want to might find it confusing, given that -- in Victoria, for instance -- there are 39 different parties and one group of independents on the ballot paper.

The reason for the explosion in the number of parties -- something that will continue if there is no reform -- is that the smaller parties can make deals with each other. With a very tiny percentage of first preference votes, it is possible that one of them can get elected to the Senate by picking up the preferences of voters that are not aware of where their preferences are going.

This is how it might happen in Victoria. Suppose the results in the Senate in Victoria was something like this:

Lib/Nat 37%

ALP 37%

Green 10%

Others 16%

The Senate voting works on a quota system, and with six senators to be elected, the quota is around 14.3%. By these figures, the Liberal/National Coalition and Labor safely win two quotas -- and two senators -- each. After their two quotas (28.6%) are used up, they have a surplus of 8.4%.

What happens next is that the candidate with the least number of votes is excluded and then next least and so on. Let's say that there are 25 "microparties" all with an average of 0.4% of the first preference vote, which totals to 10% overall. And let's say that some of the minor parties like the Palmer United Party, the Sex Party and Family First get around 2% each.

Now we know that many of these microparties have done deals with each other -- and by the exchange of these preferences, one of them -- maybe the Rise Up Australia, or Smokers Rights, or No Carbon Tax, -- might manage, after all the tiny parties' preferences are distributed, to get around 6% of the vote after preferences.

These parties can then pick up the preferences of the more serious minor parties, like the Palmer United Party or Family First or the Sex Party, and that might bring them up to around 9% of the vote. They would then be in front of the surplus of the major parties. Quite understandably, the Coalition have preferenced some of these microparties in front of the Greens and Labor.

There are methods voters can implement to stop this, beginning with checking the group voting ticket for your state. This will show you where your preferences will go. Alternatively you can vote below the line, 1 to 97 in Victoria. As a safety mechanism you can put a 1 above the line in the box belonging to the party of your choice, and that will be counted only if you make a mistake below the line.

In the long term, we need to change the rules of elections. This should be done by first abolishing above the line voting and the Group Voting Tickets. In its place, Partial Optional Preferential voting below the line should be introduced. Voters then only have to vote for as many candidates as there are positions to be filled for your vote to be formal.

Partial Optional Preferential already occurs in Tasmanian lower house elections, and is an option in the Victorian upper house. Full preferential voting dates only from 1934. And finally, the requirement for formality should be relaxed so that any sequential numbers above the minimum would be counted even if an error is made.

The effect of this would be that it was no longer worthwhile for the microparties to set up and deal in preferences. We would see an immediate reduction in the number of parties -- maybe from 40 down to about 10 in Victoria -- and those that are standing would all be genuine candidates.

Stephen Morey is affiliated with the Proportional Representation Society of Australia (Victoria-Tasmania) Inc. He is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, based at La Trobe University, studying less described languages in Northeast India. In writing this article, he has been assisted by other members of the PRSAV-T, Dr. Lee Naish and Mr. Geoffrey Goode.

The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • I live in “Labor’s safest seat”, so the Lower house vote for me is completely worthless. Labor will win no matter what I do.

    Senate will likely be similar. I’ll vote below the line. But I’ll be in the vast minority this election. I suspect all but the most devout supporters of a particular ideology will be completely turned off voting below the line when they see this sheet of paper and how ridiculous it is.

    • “I live in “Labor’s safest seat”, so the Lower house vote for me is completely worthless. Labor will win no matter what I do.”

      If enough people don’t want to vote for labor it will cease to be a “safe seat”. Everyone’s vote counts if done formally, that’s the point.

  • There are respects in which the manner in which votes are organised in general is pretty silly.

    As it currently stands, in the House of Representatives it’s possible for a party to win Government with around 26% of the vote (51% of the vote in half of all electorates). I sort of wish that the Senate system, or something similar, was used in the House of Representatives. This would force a minority government, but personally I don’t see that as a bad thing.

    There’s been a lot of fuss about polls lately and how badly Labor is polling. However, even at their worst they managed 40% support on a 2-party basis. A party with 40% support will win almost no seats, even though they represent two thirds the number of people of the “majority” party.

    Ideally we want the number of people in any party in the House to approximate that party’s support in the general population. The current system pretty much excludes that as an option. There are approaches that lack that weakness, but they’re too different from the current setup for implementation to be realistically likely.

    • Because no one trusts it. There’s something about physically writing a number on a piece of paper and putting it in a box that reassures people that their vote isn’t going to be tampered with.

    • Are you serious? Extremely risky. No paper trail. Can be hacked. Missing votes.

      They don’t do online voting anywhere in the world. A lot of places that introduced electronic voting (not online, but e-voting machines at polling places) have scrapped it after numerous stories of missing votes and vote tampering.

  • In general I understand how the preferential voting works, but I don’t know how ties are solved.
    Like if you needed 200 votes for a seat and
    275 people vote B,C,A
    275 people vote C,A,B
    275 people vote A,B,C

    4 seats would have to be handed out amongst the 3 parties, and I don’t know who would get it.

    • In practice this doesn’t happen, because the numbers don’t work out that evenly. When you’re distributing the votes of hundreds of thousands of people, a situation such as you describe is freakishly unlikely.

      There have been studies of the effectiveness of different voting methods in accurately representing the wishes of voters. There’s no system which represents the franchise perfectly, but preferential voting is likely to get closer to what voters want than most systems.

      If somehow a deadlock did happen, there would either be a new election or else the tied parties would come to some sort of agreement.

    • Ties are solved by the person in charge of the division(either a house seat or the state in the case of the senate) casting a vote. Otherwise the person in charge does not vote.

  • If you vote above the line – selecting one party only – they will determine who gets preferences. if you vote below the line you determine who gets preferences.

  • I completed a postal vote as I will be unable to attend a polling booth on election day. I fucked up on the senate form as I vote below the line, so had to number candidates sequentially 1 -110. I emailed the AEC and they assured me that as long as my voting intentions are clear then my vote would be counted.

  • So are you throwing away your senate vote if say, you vote for the pirate party knowing they won’t get in and they’ll give their vote to someone else ? There’s only so many seats available in the senate so why are there different amounts of people to vote for in different states ?

  • The same reason there are a different number of people running in each HoR electorate even though there’s only 1 seat available in each.

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