What Is Preferential Voting and How Does It Work in Australia?

What Is Preferential Voting and How Does It Work in Australia?
(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

As you may have noticed by now, a Federal Election is on the way. And as we tend to see with most political events, there is a lot of information swirling around right now. To assist with the (sometimes confusing, often overwhelming) barrage that’s being thrown our way, we’ve gone ahead and broken down commonly asked questions like where can I vote and what happens if I have COVID on the day? Now we’re exploring the more logistical side of your Federal Election vote: preferences and the question of whether your vote can be wasted.

What is preferential voting?

As we have covered before, when you are called to vote in a Federal Election there are two key parts to the process: voting for representatives in the Senate and in the House of Representatives.

When voting for members of parliament in the Senate, Aussies can elect to either vote above or below the line, depending on what they’re comfortable with. Very briefly, voting above the line here means you’ll number parties or groups from 1 to 6 according to your preference. Below the line is slightly more involved as you are asked to number at least 12 boxes featuring individual candidate names from 1 to 12 (you can fill out more if you like).

When voting for members of the House of Representatives, you’ll need to mark a preference for every candidate by numbering them from 1 to 8 on your ballot paper. (You must number all eight boxes.)

The AEC has a whole guide on how to vote here if you’d like to read further.

In a nutshell, both ballot papers ask that you select the candidates or parties/groups that you would like to represent you in parliament according to preference order.

Ultimately, once a candidate receives 50 per cent of first preference votes, they win. Simple, right? Well, there’s a little more to it.

Is preferencing the Greens or Independents a wasted vote?

There’s long been a belief held by some that voting for anyone other than the leading party candidates is a wasted vote. So, what’s the deal?

The AEC has a useful video guide to preferential voting for both the Senate and House of Representatives which we will share with you below. But in a nutshell, the way it works is that if your first preference does not end up with enough votes to be elected, that vote will be redistributed to another candidate (your next preference) until someone reaches the finish line.

Long story, short: Your vote ends up somewhere even if your first preference is not elected.

This opens up space for deals between parties when it comes to suggested how-to-vote cards on voting day. As an example, The Greens is stating it will recommend preferencing Labor ahead of the Coalition at the 2022 Federal Election.

The ABC has a great write up on how all that works, and if it even makes that much of a difference, here.

Check out the AEC’s guide to preferential voting for the House of Representatives:

You can find a written rundown here, also.

And the AEC’s guide to Senate preferential voting here:

A written rundown is available here, also.

Can you waste your vote, generally?

Well, yeah. But that’s related to voting properly, rather than the preferences you choose.

The AEC writes on its website that “When a ballot paper is marked correctly and completely, it is known as a ‘formal vote’, and will be counted toward the election result.”.

“When a ballot paper has not been fully completed, is completed incorrectly or you can identify the person who voted, it is known as an ‘informal vote’, and will not be counted toward the election result. At federal elections, nationally around 5% of votes are informal.”

So, if you decide to draw a penis on your ballot paper (don’t) that will obviously not count.

If you’d like more information on the Federal Election for 2022, you can continue reading here.

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