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
- Above the line preferencing;
- Optional preferences, where the voters can exhaust their ballot where they like;
- No overlap between party memberships; the 500 names on registration to actually be checked off the roll by the AEC; and
- 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.