Why you shouldn’t do a “Langer” vote in the Senate

A “Langer” vote, named after Albert Langer is a method for casting an optional preferential vote which is not normally formal in our voting system. Lately I’ve seen a few comments around the place from people advocating this kind of vote, I think that it is not a good idea since mostly it only serves to deal with a non-existant problem and may achieve an outcome that is not what you actually want. I’ll explain why below, but first I want to make it clear that this is not a criticism of Langer, he simply advocated a way of effectively doing optional preferential voting, I do not condone his imprisonment or have any problem with people talking about this type of vote, I just think there are good reasons not to use it. Note that this is only being discussed with regard to the Senate, this method no longer gives a valid vote for the House of Representatives. Even with the Senate I’m not entirely sure it counts, and an error could easily result in it being counted as informal.

  • Optional Preferential Voting (OPV). Our voting system is full preferential (FPV) in both houses, meaning that to cast a formal vote you must preference all candidates. By contrast, in an optional preferential system you do not need to preference all candidates, most commonly you can preference as many as you want, though conceivably there could be systems involving a minimum required number of preferences. OPV is used in some state elections. In a previous post I described why I think preferential voting is better than first past the post (FPP). OPV lies in between these two extremes. If everyone decided to preference every candidate then it is indistinguishable from FPV, and if everyone decides to only allocate a first preference then it gives the FPP outcome. At the most basic level I dislike it because it pushes along the continuum from FPV which is good, towards FPP which is bad. In more detail, the advantage of FPV is that everyone gives the maximum amount of information about their preferences for the candidates. In OPV, once people stop allocating preferences then their votes exhaust, so potentially the final candidates are elected from preferences of a subset of the electorate rather than everyone, I believe that this is less democratic, it is better for everyone to have their say at every stage.
  • FPV does not help the major parties. The reason given by many people who want OPV is that they think that FPV only helps the major parties. The major parties do not win because people who vote for other parties have to allocate lower preferences to them, they win because of all the people who give them their first preference. It’s that simple, they win because people vote for them. If you don’t like them, then at the point when your preference goes to one of them, everyone you do like has been elected or eliminated – taking out your vote at this stage does not make them any less likely to win, unless they are going to lose to someone else you didn’t preference. The only way your exhausted vote can stop the major parties being elected is by allowing someone you like even less to be elected instead. By exhausting your vote you don’t get to say you like the majors better than say Australia First, or One Nation for example. You might not like the Liberals, but if it comes down to a race between the Liberals and One Nation then by exhausting your preferences you’ve just decided to sit that one out, you have no opinion. You have to ask yourself whether that truly is the case. Keep in mind that for the Senate it is very difficult to know for sure who has a realistic chance of being elected. Instead I suggest it is much better to have your say over who you prefer at every stage when your vote might still be counted.
  • OPV does not stop candidates being elected on a small vote. There are numerous instances of candidates getting elected to the Senate on a small primary vote, for example Family First’s Steve Fielding or the DLP’s John Madigan in Victoria. In principle I don’t have a problem with this, if everyone’s ballot papers are a true representation of their actual preferences then it is quite possible that someone who is not a first choice of many, but who many prefer to the other candidates who are not their first choice, can be quite reasonably be elected (for example, most people like A or B, but neither has a majority, the people who like A hate B and the people who like B hate A, so third choice C, even with the smallest primary vote, may be the most acceptable to the electorate as a whole). The problem is that due to above the line (ATL) voting it is not necessarily the case that ballots do truly reflect actual preferences. In theory this needn’t be a problem, if people take some responsibility for being informed then you can have full control over your vote, you can view preference tickets in advance and decided whether an ATL vote really does reflect your preferences and if not then you can vote below the line (BTL). In reality however not many do this, and it seems likely that many voters end up with preferences allocated in ways they wouldn’t do themselves. OPV has been proposed as a way of avoiding the problems with ATL voting, either by allowing some sort of ATL preferencing, or allowing OPV below the line, this would deal with the problems of “preference harvesting” to some extent, and I would consider OPV as potentially worth considering to deal with these issues, but as an individual casting a vote, OPV (and particularly using effective OPV due to the Langer method when it is not used by most of the electorate) is not a good method of taking control of your vote, allocating preferences to everyone yourself is much better. If your vote exhausts then it means that all of the other votes in the preference flows directed by deals are actually counting for more since the exhausted votes have been taken out of the picture. Once again as above, if lots of people decide the Labor and Liberal parties are as bad as each other and exhaust their votes then it opens the door for others to get in on small votes, others who presumably you like even less since you didn’t give them a preference.

So in conclusion, the most likely reason for wanting your vote to exhaust at a certain point is because you don’t want any of the remaining candidates elected, yet there is no mechanism whatsoever for you to achieve this, all it actually achieves is stopping you having a say in who gets elected amongst those candidates. Furthermore, if you do it because you dislike both major parties, then it is possible that it will allow someone you like even less to get elected in their place.