How to solve the long Senate ballots problem

Have you seen this year’s Senate ballots?

A metre long? Are you kidding?

And why? Who are all these micro parties that you’ve never heard of that appear to stand for the same thing as existing parties (“No Carbon Tax”, “Stop The Greens”)? Why would anyone vote for them? What possible purpose do they serve?

Well, because being up at the front of the ballot is worth a few percent, and if you just run one party then, because the AEC selects the order randomly, you only have a one in however-many-candidates chance of getting up the top. For every dummy feeder candidate you run, you increase your shots of being up the front that many times.

So if you’re an unscrupulous big party, why not run some dummy preference farming candidates? Because you’re concerned about the effect on poor old voters having to deal with a metre-long ballot?

Yeah, like you care about inconveniencing voters. The longer the ballot, the more it forces all but the supremely bloody-minded into just numbering one box above the line, and thereby giving you more power in directing their preferences. Remember – if you stuff up numbering the 110 boxes in the NSW Senate paper, your entire vote is discarded. So if you’re not going to put 1 above the line and leave your preferences in the hand of a “faceless man” (who might transfer your vote to a fringe religious nutcase like Fielding, for example), you’d better put aside some time to make sure you don’t make any mistakes. (In 2010, around half the informal votes were caused by numbering errors.) Most voters who want to be sure their first preference vote isn’t ignored because of a minor error, or who look at the idea of trying to choose between a dozen or so micro parties they’ve never heard of as a ludicrous waste of their time, simply vote 1 above the line. And hope their preferences aren’t sent somewhere bizarre.

We could let voters preference above the line – so they’re ordering the parties, just like in the House of Representatives, but don’t have to go to the detail of numbering each indvidual candidate within.

But we don’t.

So we get ever-increasing numbers of micro parties that don’t stand for anything but preference feeding to the majors, and voting becomes more of a hassle citizens resent, encouraging them to further tune out etc.

Four solutions that don’t involve increasing the barriers for new parties but do involve decreasing the reward for big parties to abuse the system

  1. Above the line preferencing;
  2. Optional preferences, where the voters can exhaust their ballot where they like;
  3. No overlap between party memberships; the 500 names on registration to actually be checked off the roll by the AEC; and
  4. Order the ballots according to the first preferences received last election.

The first gives voters reasonable control over their preferences again. If you don’t care about the order of the half dozen candidates within a party, and just want to choose between parties, then you can do so and number a dozen or so boxes instead of over a hundred.

The second ends the undemocratic practice of simply discarding votes that are CLEARLY cast for a candidate just because the voter didn’t want to preference the rest. A vote that numbers half a dozen boxes consecutively and leaves the rest should not be discarded. It should count as a valid vote. That’s one person, one citizen, who has made it clear which candidate they choose. Ignoring them is profoundly undemocratic.

Third, make sure that the same people can’t run multiple parties. There’s been a bit of that this election. It’s just asking for ballots filled with dummy parties.

The fourth might seem a bit odd, since I support the Greens and not either of the two biggest parties. But it’s the order voters actually expect it to be in. I’ve handed out at elections where there’s a candidate with “Labor” in their name in the first few parties on the ballot that gets a whole lot of votes from people who meant to vote for the ALP and didn’t realise that not all parties with “Labor” in the name are the ALP, or even preference the ALP.

Ordering the ballots according to last election’s vote ends the advantage for running dummy micro parties as preference feeders. It makes the ballots less confusing to voters, and accordingly helps them exercise their democratic choice.

If we don’t do these, the ballots will get longer and longer until momentum is created to make it harder and harder for legitimate new parties to arise and compete. They’ll keep raising the barriers to entry so that no-one but the big parties can afford to run – which won’t, by the way, remove the micro parties that are actually funded by the big ones.

Or worse, people will continue to disengage with politics and the informal vote will keep rising.

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13 responses to “How to solve the long Senate ballots problem

  1. You said “Three solutions” but listed four.

  2. Fixed.

    Imagine how many more mistakes there’d be if there were 110 items in the list!

  3. narcoticmusing

    When the local governments do it, it is considered bad (http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/review-targets-council-election-dummy-trick-20130814-2rwxi.html) but when the two major parties do it, it is a-ok.

    I think it is a valid question to be able to ask – who is this person asking to be elected and what do they stand for? If they cannot submit that and demonstrate that, then they should not be on the ballot. Further, one should only be able to put the party and/or candidate on the ballot once.

  4. Really good article Jeremy. Well done!

  5. You’re right the problem needs to be fixed and broadly speaking how it should be done, but there’s a few things I think should be pointed out..

    [Full Disclosure: I'm director of the Future Party]

    A) The majority of small parties this time around are not set up to be feeder parties, and the ones that are known to be have actually been set up by other minor parties, not the majors (e.g. “Stop The Greens” was set up by a guy called Glenn Drurey originally in the notorious tablecloth upper house NSW election; “Smoker’s Rights” is a feeder for the LDP in a rather transparent fashion, sharing pretty similar policies etc, but they actually hope to be elected ahead of other libertarian fringe groups in Qld.)

    For better or worse, many people have genuinely thought “the four big parties suck especially badly at the moment” and founded their own, for all sorts of reasons. Of course the end result is still the same; but the Big Parties aren’t especially advantaged by the proliferation of micro parties, no better proof of which is the reforms implemented in NSW by the major parties after the tablecloth.

    B) While its right to call the ALP out over the Fielding debacle, its worth noting that this time around the worst offenders on preferencing are probably the Sex Party, who have preference One Nation in NSW and given Pauline Hanson a decent shot at being elected(!) (LDP guilty of the same thing but I guess fewer readers here are likely to vote for them), and Wikilieaks, the debacle of which I’m sure everyone has read about by now. Don’t vote 1 above the line for these guys!

  6. C) In terms of your policy suggestions, 1 and 2 are excellent ideas and its a shame the Greens weren’t able to push them through while in minority government. Hopefully if they keep advocating them we’ll see a tightening of the system Federally in response to these huge ballots just as NSW did.

    However I don’t think much of 3 and 4. On 3, The AEC takes a relatively long time processing party verification as is (which has to reoccur periodically, not just at time of registration) under its current technique of just having to contact a dozen members or so. Presumably . And while getting the 500 members isn’t trivial its not so hard in the modern era that these parties have much to gain using shared rolls (as I said, most of them AREN’T feeders) . A party like the LDP that does have more or less three feeder groups also has a primary vote in the order of 2% – that means they EASILY can get 2,000 distinct members across the nation. (we’re one of the newest parties around, we’d be thrilled to get even 0.5% of the primary vote, and we’re probably up to in the order of 700 or 800 members on the electoral roll).

    Whereas ordering the ballots by first preference really is raising the barriers by gifting some of the primary vote to the ALP or the Coalition. What we need to do is stop one party getting an essentially random advantage on this front by having genuinely randomised ballots – i.e. a different ordering on every sheet..

    So I don’t think either of these are particularly necessary or effective. Implement 1 and 2 and maybe also take the other measures NSW did (we need more members in NSW to contest the state election there than we needed across the entire country for the Federal election!) and I think we’d soon see a sane number of microparties.

  7. narcoticmusing

    Frankly, parties should not be able to direct preferences period. It should be up to the voter. Place a 1-3 minimum and there you have it, the first, 2nd and 3rd preference. You are done.

  8. Agreed narcotic. The group ticketing system is undemocratic and ethically dubious at best.

    A better system would for instance see a truly proportional upper house: 38 senators elected directly across the nation. At this point you can even maintain simplicity and transparency by doing away with preferences altogether and moving to, of all systems, first past the post: each party gets one senator for each quota (~2.5%) it achieves of the primary vote, and then remaining seats are simply filled in order of how many votes each has leftover. The ALP, Coalition and Greens get representation that closely reflects their overall level of support, and small but relatively popular groups like One Nation, the LDP, the Sex Party have a decent shot of being elected, but there are no parties with 0.1% of the primary vote getting in by the lottery of preference flows (whether as negotiated by the parties or determined by the voters.)

    Or you can stick with a preference system, but in that case a better one than our current STV is advisable.

    Of course such a change would require a referendum, so measures like above the line preferences to replace group ticketing are much more practical in the short term.

  9. narcoticmusing

    I’m not sure referendum would be needed – I don’t recall a party having a right to direct preferences as being in our constitution (which is the only document that requries referendum to modify).
    Further, any referendum on this would be dubious at best as it would likely be self serving (which the Australian public seems extrodinarily talented at sniffing out given the success rates of referenda). Likely either major party that introduced/supported referenda relating to voting would be voting for gerrymandering inconvenient parties like the Greens and your budding party out of the picture.

  10. Sorry, I should have been clearer. A truly proportional Senate where the nation forms a single electorate rather than dividing on state/territory lines is what requires a referendum.

    Ending the group ticketing system for above the line preferences most definitely doesn’t, the precise electoral mechanics used have changed by act of parliament several times since federation.

  11. narcoticmusing

    But again the issue beceoms how it would be determined – neither of the major parties would propose a referendum that was against their self interest regardless of if it were in the national interest. Even if it could be demonstrated without any subjective doubt it was the best for the people, those in power like one thing more than anything else – power.

  12. “… there are no parties with 0.1% of the primary vote getting in by the lottery of preference flows”.

    Oh dear!

    Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party (Vic) 0.52%
    Australian Sports Party (WA) 0.22%

  13. Tickets need to be abolished full-stop.

    A 1 above the line should be a vote for that group, and that’s all. The only way to preference should be to actually number those boxes of the parties you intend to preference, whether above or below the line.

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