What if Senate papers were ordered according to party vote?

This is part of a Victorian Senate ballot at last week’s election:

You’ll notice that the party called “Labor” on that first page is not the ALP. If I’d included the second part of the paper you’d see there were several parties called “Liberal”. And a whole heap of other smaller parties with similar names to each other and the bigger parties. Parties with names that may well be descriptive but are also clearly confusing and misleading to certain voters.

Many voters understand enough about the election to perceive which of the big parties they prefer, whilst – for whatever reason – not really understanding that there are multiple “Labor” parties, multiple “Liberal” parties, and – probably, now that the Greens are the third biggest party – potentially multiple “Green” parties.

For example, I strongly suspect that the DLP’s good showing in Victoria this election owed a fair amount to it being the only “Labor” party on the front page of the Senate ballot. With the potential result that this far-right effectively anti-Labor party will get a seat in parliament (for the next six years!) on votes that were never really intended for them at all.


John Madigan, Democratic Labor Party candidate who may become a Senator because of “Labor” voters thinking he was one of Julia’s mob.

It seems to me that the confusion this generates is not a particularly democratic thing. So I have a suggestion for reform on this point: order the ballot with the party that received the largest first preference vote last time first, then the party that received the second, then the third, and so on. Parties on equal prior vote (eg those standing for the first time) to have order between them decided randomly, as at present.

The fact of the matter is that the present situation:

  • Encourages big parties to set up minor parties with deliberately misleading names to funnel preferences (because it’s random, your best chance of getting up the front of the ballot paper is to put up more “parties”), and therefore increases the size of the paper and the likelihood of voters being duped;
  • Confuses voters
  • Makes it less likely that voters will actually issue preferences, instead being so overwhelmed by the whole process that they just vote for a ticket despite having no idea where those votes are going.

Obviously I also think we should have above the line preferencing, as a compromise between almost control (group tickets) and the ridiculous requirement to number some eighty boxes below the line. (Better not make a mistake or your vote’s invalid!)

But I think this would really help those voters not as engaged as you or I in having their choice accurately represented. I also think it would ultimately reduce the size of the ballot paper, as feeder parties became less relevant.

And although technically this sounds like it’d give an advantage to bigger parties, realistically the main difference it would make would be helping those who intend to vote for one party but get tricked by similar naming into voting for someone completely different. I think it’d be a positive step forward.

PS: We can talk about my third proposal, which is actually my main one – multi-member electorates in the lower house, a compromise between proportional representation and local representation – another day. CAN YOU NOT WAIT FOR THAT.

UPDATE: Keri and @kyna62 on twitter suggested the ballots including party logos. I suspect black and white would not be enough to remove confusion, and colour would be very expensive, and I’m not convinced it would be enough to override the benefit of running feeder parties with misleading names in the hope they’ll get up first on the ballot and trick opposing parties’ voters.

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11 responses to “What if Senate papers were ordered according to party vote?

  1. “I also think we should have above the line preferencing”.
    Yes. DO WANT! And we only had 42 candidates here in SA.

    I do think the ballot order needs to remain random, due to donkey voters. If the party with the most senate votes is always the first column, then that gives them an advantage in maintaining that majority.

    Perhaps there could be a way to compromise, some degree of randomness and some degree of order. If a party achieved a quota (or a decent part of a quota – say .8?) on first preference votes last time then they are in the first few columns – but the order is random within those columns, determined by AEC draw. Then the rest of groups could also be random after those first few columns.

    Another possibility is to include the party’s logo next to the party name (in black & white, since colour would draw the eye & possibly the pencil, too strongly). We all see the logos – for the medium to larger parties, at least – plenty of times during the campaign, on tv, on billboards, in the papers, we even see them as we’re walking into the polling booth.

  2. ATL preferencing is obviously best practice. In this as so many things, NSW leads the country!
    Jeremy, I think you’re solving problems of political organisation with a technical solution that threatens the integrity of the ballot. In NSW after we had the 1999 tablecloth upper house ballot, and more importantly after there were public scandals about micro-parties rorting the system, we introduced reforms to make it much more difficult to gain Party registration (more signatures required, more time, more strict rules about Party structure etc.) and it’s worked to make the ballot a fraction of its previous size. Here’s Antony Green on the matter.
    Non-random balloting introduces unavoidable structural bias. There’s no way you can get away from that problem.

  3. That’s true, but I think it’s the lesser of two evils.

    There are already much more significant benefits of incumbency we should tackle:

    * Incumbent governments picking the date to their best advantage (could be solved with fixed three year terms)

    * Incumbent parties having access to taxpayer funds during the campaign until their “launch” (rule should apply from date election called)

    * The two big parties that have previously formed government receiving huge amounts of money from corporations and unions (fixed by banning donations from anyone but actual voters and putting a cap on those donations, as Turnbull suggested the other night and the Greens have been saying for years.

    I honestly don’t have that much of a problem with the benefit of ordering flowing according to previous merit as demonstrated by receipt of votes – in the same way as funding is based on previous election performance.

    But if you do, what do you think of Kyna’s suggestion of say the first page being for the top parties last time, ordered randomly within that page? So if ten parties per page, top ten on first page, random order; next ten on second page, random order; etc?

    I can see that as a good compromise.

  4. That’s true, but I think it’s the lesser of two evils

    We’ll have to agree to disagree about the importance of the perceived integrity of the electoral process, then, J.

    what do you think of Kyna’s suggestion of say the first page being for the top parties last time

    I love it, as it introduces vast, powerful incumbency bias—but then I’m a member of one of the major Parties. I might not think the same if I were, or if I supported, an upper house Independent candidate.
    I agree about fixed terms, by the way.

  5. Random ordering is best I believe. But there was a similar deal a while ago with the “Liberals for forests”. I knew heaps of people who voted for them because they thought they were an environmental group, but were really just farming preferences for the conservatives. Either that or non-universal suffrage where to vote you have to pass a test to vote which tests your basic political knowledge like who the hell the DLP are and how they are related to the ALP. (Not that I’m supporting it, I’m just repeating what other people tell me).

  6. “We’ll have to agree to disagree about the importance of the perceived integrity of the electoral process, then, J.”

    Hey. We’re both saying the integrity of the electoral process is important. We’re just disagreeing on which damages it more: an order which, to be honest, clearly reflects what most such voters would intend (kind of by definition), or a system that encourages misleading feeder parties in the hope of getting higher on the ballot – and that tricks people into voting for a party they dislike.

    Although I agree with you about the NSW system, it wouldn’t solve the problem of say the DLP and the LDP. (Hey, I never realised their acronyms were so close before…)

    Fact is, most minor party supporters and independent supporters know precisely who they’re voting for and are not going to have a problem with coming later on the paper. It’s the disengaged big party supporters who are confused in the present system.

    I support a minor party, and I still think this is a good idea.

  7. That random from ballot to ballot. Not just one ordering for all ballots.

  8. Fact is, most minor party supporters and independent supporters know precisely who they’re voting for and are not going to have a problem with coming later on the paper

    Well, indeed. Brian Harradine was re-elected that way for years. So… I’m not sure what the problem is with randomised ballot orders.
    Confusing and misleading name changes (the libertarians and zombie Santamariaists, I’m looking at you) are best dealt with by the electoral commission at the point of Party registration, not by working the ballot.
    Ballots only really work fairly when everyone has an equal share of however much confusion there is.

  9. But you can’t rule out people using words like “labor” and “liberal” that have long-standing meanings. You can’t force the DLP or LDP to rename themselves.

    Random random ballots appeals more than fixed random ballots – but it doesn’t address my concern in the post.

  10. maybe they should make the voting forms waterproof and chewable-proof too?

    random order seems democratic to me. if voters are too dumb to know the difference between the Labor party and Democratic Labor Party, dont they get the representation they deserve?

  11. Ah, but Jeremy, the DLP is a longstanding Party with a history. I’m quite prepared to believe that there are enough of Santa’s Little Helpers left alive in Victoria for their high vote to have been relatively legit.
    The AEC can already refuse registration to a Party if their name “closely resembles the name or abbreviation of an unrelated recognised party”. It’s simply that the AEC don’t judge the Democratic Labor Party (and for that matter, the Liberals for Forests and the Climate Coalition) as being primarily names designed to mislead. For that matter, neither do I.
    I don’t agree with the implication in your post that “feeder parties” really have any role in the current elections to Senate. It’s not a university SRC election.

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