There seems to be a number of people lately advocating an informal vote in the upcoming election, most famously Mark Latham on 60 Minutes (which should already be a giveaway that it might not be the most well-thought out position). The motivation seems to be a disillusionment with both major parties, which I can understand, but even in that situation voting informal is simply a stupid waste.
In first case, I want to consider a particular subset of those talking about voting informal, which are the ones who I’ve seen make comments like “I’ll vote Green in the Senate and informal in the lower house”. This is really, really stupid. It shows a complete failure to comprehend the way our voting system works. If you dislike both major parties, but there is actually a party you do like it is lunacy not to vote for them. People seem to think that voting informally is going to make some grand statement that will make the majors take notice. Well it won’t, it will just look like one more idiot who can’t follow the instructions. Lets even take it to the extreme, suppose 50% of an electorate deliberately voted informally. One of the majors will still win based on the two party preferred vote of the other 50%. There is no allowance for the result not to count. Now consider on the otherhand if those 50% voted for other candidates. Would this not make the majors take notice since they would be in danger of actually losing their seats. Voting informally does not make a statement, it’s abstaining from saying anything at all. Voting for a party whose policies you believe in is making a statement. This means that one of your preferences has to go to one of the major parties – well so what? If you really don’t prefer one over the other then toss a coin. It’s still better than voting informally. The fact that your preference may end up with one of them does not make them any more likely to win the seat – they still will if you vote informal. The only way you change this is by building up other options. For example the people who voted for the Greens in Melbourne 2007 helped to put them in a winning position this time. If they do win it, then I think it will make it even easier for them to win more seats next time as people realise that iti is a very real possibility. Also as I’ve pointed out before, a vote for the Greens gives them public funding to allow them to build the party to the point that the majors can be seriously challenged, and also rather than a say nothing informal vote, a vote for the Greens actually does give the majors some idea of why you didn’t vote for them and can lead to a change in policy. All of this applies just a well if there is some other candidate other than the Greens who you prefer as well.The fact that you have to choose preferences for every other party is a good thing – it actually reduces the power of the major parties as it allows for people to vote for other options without “wasting their vote”.
About the only case I can imagine where someone might make a serious case for an informal vote is if there is absolutely no candidate in their electorate that they like at all. In that case, I’d still advocate voting for them in order of least worst, but there’s more as well. We live in a democracy. If you don’t like the options then start your own party, run as a candidate, or if there’s a party you like but you don’t like some features or their particular candidate then join the party and get involved in policy development and preselection. There are lots of people getting out there and doing hours of unpaid volunteer work (and donating money) for parties and candidates who are unlikely to win at this election, but at least they are engaging in democracy and trying to build viable alternatives to the major parties. In some ways I have more respect for the person who puts in work for a party I strongly disagree with than the person who says “it’s hopeless, I’m voting informal” but has similar political leanings to me.