Victorian Election – Number As Many Preferences As You Can

This post is along similar lines to my last one on preferential voting, but it seems worth specifically addressing some issues that are arising in discussions about the upcoming Victorian State Election.

Optional Preferential Voting in the Legislative Council

The Legislative Council is an upper house like the Senate in Federal Elections. In Victoria you vote for candidates in your region, with a total of five being elected, so it is is very similar to voting for senators for your state in a federal election. Just as with the senate there is the option to vote above or below the line. When you vote above the line you vote just for one party, and your preferences are allocated according to a group voting ticket submitted by the party to the electoral commision. If you vote below the line you choose the preferences yourself. There is one important difference between Victorian and federal elections, Victoria uses optional preferential voting for voting below the line in state elections. This means you only need to fill in 5 candidates rather than all of them to cast a valid vote.

Should I Vote Above Or Below The Line?

It’s up to you. Above the line is perfectly fine as long as you agree with the preferences of whoever you wish to vote for. If this is the case then it makes voting easy. These preferences are not secret, they have been published by the Victorian Electoral Commission, though the best place to view them is at Antony Green’s site. If you don’t agree with the preferences of the candidate you want to give your number 1 vote to, then you should fill in your own preferences below the line.

Preference Deals

There is a lot written about preference deals. As all parties are required to submit a preference ticket then they have to decide on how to preference all other candidates. This is sometimes determined by deals they do with each other. If you vote above the line then your preferences will be distributed according to the ticket, which may be the results of deals, however be aware that it is always distributed according to the ticket which is already published in advance – it’s not that they trade votes backwards and forwards after the election. If you are happy with the published voting ticket then any deals involved in determining it are irrelevant. If you are not happy then you can vote below the line.

Preference Harvesting

One issue with preference deals is that because most people vote above the line, large blocks of votes are distributed in the same way en masse, in such a way that would not occur if there were no above the line votes as individual’s preferences would be much more varied. This can results in a candidate with a small initial vote picking up lots of preferences and winning a place in the election. The fact that a candidate can win with a small vote is not itself a problem if it is based on voters genuine preferences, but with above the line voting this is not the case and the whole process is often criticised as being like a lottery.

Voting below the line helps to beat preference harvesting, but even though it is only required to number five preferences, by letting your vote exhaust then you are giving more power to the preference deals. This is because if votes below the line exhaust then the remaining places are predominately determined by the above the line votes which follow the preference tickets. If you are worried about the effect of preference deals then it is worth voting for as many candidates as you can, not just five.

Get the Maximum Value From Your Vote

Consider a ballot which numbers only five candidates, and another with starts with exactly the same five candidates but then goes on to preference every other as well. These two ballots count exactly the same up until the point when all of those first five have been elected or eliminated. If one of those five is a candidate left with part of the unused quota at the end, then in fact the effect of these two ballots is indistinguishable from each other. Otherwise, the only difference is once those five are out. At this point the first ballot is exhausted, there are still other candidates to be elected but this voter has no say whatsoever. The second ballot continues to affect the outcome until the election is over, the second voter has gained more value from their vote, have given more information and had a greater say. In particular, by allocating extra preferences the second voter in no way weakens their vote for the first five candidates.

But I Don’t Want My Vote To End Up With …

A common comment is something like “I don’t want my vote to end up with the Liberals” or “I don’t want my vote to end up with Labor” or something similar. The objection here is purely psychological, not rational. If you allocate preferences in the genuine order in which you prefer candidates then there can be no problem, the only way your vote can count for a candidate is against one lower in your preference order, which is necessarily a good thing, even if you don’t like that candidate. If your vote had already exhausted then one of them still is going to win at this point due to the votes of everybody else, but it might be the one you like less. The outcome can only be worse for you, by preferencing you can only help the party you don’t like against someone you like even less, but by not preferencing the only possible different outcome is to effectively help the party you like less.

Splitting the Vote

It’s also important to realise that if everyone just votes for the minimum number of candidates then the election is approximately the same as one decided by first past the post. This allows vote splitting, which means that the votes of a group of people with broadly similar interests can be split between many candidates, while a less popular position might be represented by one candidate who then wins. Such situations are open to manipulation by people organising front parties to take away votes from their opponents. If preferences only take those votes back to the opponents then there is no motivation to do this.

The Right and Wrong Reasons For Wanting Optional Preferencing

The right reasons for optional preferencing:

  • It makes voting easier and reduces informal votes
  • For an election with a large number of candidates it can be hard for people to meaningfully preference all of them so it’s better if they don’t have to.
  • It can encourage below the line voting, though I would be much more in favour if it was used to do away with above the line voting altogether.

The wrong reasons:

  • It doesn’t necessarily reduce the power of preference deals, when above the line is still an option, then it can result in lots of below the line votes being exhausted and giving more weighting to preferences determined by deals.
  • To avoid your vote ending up with a particular party. As explained above, this is not actually a problem, and in fact exhausting your vote will only ever lead to the same or a worse outcome.

In summary, only having to vote for five candidates means that below the line voting shouldn’t be intimidating, but make the most of your vote by preferencing as many candidates that you can (ideally the only blank spots should be anyone who is equally last or that you know nothing about), including ones you don’t like as long as they are only ahead of ones you like less.

Finally note that the lower house is a different story, you have to preference all candidates, but the same principle applies, your vote will only ever count for someone against someone else you preference lower, so putting a number against every candidate, even those you don’t like, is not a problem.