How to vote in the Senate in 2016

Some people are confused about the new senate voting rules, this post gives a simple summary of how to vote – it’s actually easier than ever – and then follows up with much more behind the scenes detail on how it actually works for those who are interested.
While I personally advocate a vote for the Greens, the information in this post is neutral in that it equally applies regardless of who you want to vote for.

1. Basic Voting Instructions

The ballot paper will say to number at least 1 to 6 groups (essentially parties) above the line, or at least 1 to 12 candidates below the line. This is the very simplest description of what to do, either write in number 1,2,3,4,5,6 in boxes above the line, or 1,2,…,11,12 in boxes below the line, or more if you like.

You can see what the paper looks like here, along with the electoral commission’s instructions

These are just the technical requirements, but how should you actually vote based on what you think of the candidates or parties?

The first thing is do you want to vote for parties or candidates. If your choices are purely along party lines (which is perfectly reasonable) in the following ways:

  • You want to vote for party A, then B, then C and so on.
  • You are happy with the order of candidates within each party group

then voting above the line is the best options for you.

On the other hand if you want to order your preferences across party lines, for example you like one candidate from party A best, but your second favourite is from party B, or else you want to rearrange the order within a party group, for example you prefer the third candidate for party A to the first one and want to put them first, then you should vote below the line where you directly select candidates.

The next thing to consider is that you are selecting preferences. This is different to selecting which candidates you like, you may have preferences amongst candidates you don’t like that much but it can be important to express them. The best way to vote is to order as many parties or candidates as possible in such a way that you would always prefer a particular candidate to everyone else below them in your list.

Thus your list may include people you don’t particularly want to be elected, but who you would prefer to some other candidate. This is what your vote should be, you should number every one of these preferences on your ballot. The more candidates you can meaningfully give a preference for, in the sense that you know enough about them to know you prefer them to some other candidate, the better. This ensures that your vote counts as much as possible. It is quite likely that most of these preferences will never be counted, but by voting in this way, you’re not talking any risks, whatever happens in the count your vote will still be counting in a way that supports your genuine preferences.

Update: Immediately after posting this, I found that Antony Green has just posted a guide on Senate voting

2. How Does the Count Work?

This is a simplified version without the mathematical detail, so it isn’t an absolutely precise account but should give a good idea. If you want to get into the details of weighted inclusive gregory and all that then you can head off to read Antony Green and Kevin Bonham’s excellent psephological blogs.

For simplicity here I will assume all votes are for candidates, I will deal with the issue of above the line votes later on.

First a quota is calculated, this is the number of formal votes divided by one more than the number of vacancies. At the upcoming election this is 1+12, so a quota is about 7.7% of the votes. The rough idea is that at the end of the count there are 12 candidates elected on a quota of votes each, and one quota representing the remaining unelected candidates. (If this seems a bit strange, imagine a vote for just one vacancy, typically you require  50% of the vote to win, in which case the votes which don’t support the winner are left with unsuccessful candidates.) Of course for this idea to work in practice there would have to be exactly one quota worth of votes for 12 different candidates, in practice there are two problems, some candidates may get more than a quota, and there may be less than 12 who achieve a quota and so some remaining spots to fill with lots of candidates below a quota.
You could just pick the 12 most popular, but this is actually a terrible idea. Imagine an extreme scenario in which one single candidate got 90% of the vote. Then the other 11 candidates would be chosen from what just 10% of the electorate think, so instead it makes sense to consider further preferences of the 90% to get a better representation of what the electorate wants. This may not be a realistic scenario but the same principle still causes problems. This means we must distribute surplus, that is if a candidate has more than a quota we must consider the preferences of their voters.

Also there is a problem if you have two similar candidates who each get around half a quota. They may not be amongst the most popular, but perhaps all voters for either one would also really like the other, then a quota worth of voters would like one or the other of these candidates to be elected. So we also want to consider preferences of candidates who may not themselves be popular enough to be elected.

An initial count of everyone’s number 1 is done, and then the candidates with over a quota are elected. If there are still vacancies (which their always are but it doesn’t have to be the case in theory), then starting from the most popular, the surpluses are distributed. Now a way that this used to be done was, suppose someone gets 1000 votes over a quota then you randomly pick 1000 of their ballots, and move them on to their second preference. This is not a great way to do it, the overall result could depend on which ones happen to be chosen. Instead all of them count, but at a reduced value so that only 1000 votes in total are passed on.

Let’s take an example with small numbers. Suppose a quota is 21 and Candidate A gets 31 votes. Then we need to count 21 votes to their quota that elects them, and 10 to go on to preferences. In practice we take all 31 ballots and transfer them to their next preference at a value of 10/31 = 0.32…, so that in total, when we sum up all the fractions, we still have the same total number of votes. For the individual voter you can imagine that about 2/3 of your vote has been used up in electing your favourite candidate, but because they are so popular we need to know who else their voters like so about 1/3 of your vote is moving on to lower preferences.
This procedure is repeated for all candidates above a quota. Also it is possible for the surpluses to immediately put further candidates above a quota and hence get elected.
If a ballot at reduced value is used electing another successful candidate with surplus then its value is reduced again accordingly (this is where the detail gets messy though).

Once surpluses have been distributed we see if enough candidates have been elected, chances are they haven’t, so the next step is to eliminate the least popular candidate and then redistribute their preferences at full value (because none of the value has been used up in electing anyone).

This process continues until the required number of vacancies have been filled by candidates achieving a quota. As we no longer have full preferential voting it is possible that some votes will exhaust, which means they show no further preferences. As a result it might not be possible to fill all vacancies on a quota, so if the count gets to a point where the number of candidates remaining equals the number of vacancies then they are elected. This brings up the issue of how the system has recently changed so this is the next topic.

3. Changes in the voting system

First let’s go back to 1984, because this is where the story of the recent changes starts. Before then Senate voting was full preferential and there was no line (so no voting above or below). Just candidates were listed, and to vote formally you had to preference every single candidate.

In theory this is a good system, it means every voter gives as much information as possible about their preferences which should give a fair outcome, but in practice the problem is that as the number of candidates becomes larger it becomes a more difficult a task to complete without error and the number of informal ballots increases. Furthermore with a large number of candidates the allocation of preferences becomes less meaningful as voters might not know enough about all of them to have genuine preferences.

To deal with the high informal vote the 1984 reforms brought in the line. If you voted below the line it was exactly the same as the old system, but above the line there was a list of party groups and the voter could just select their favourite party. Their vote still counted as a full list of preferences but it was determined by the party they voted for according to a Group Voting Ticket (GVT). This maintained full preferencing but reduced informal voting, while still allowing the voter to take full control of their vote if they wanted to.

The shortcoming of this system was that voters were not in control of their own preferences. In theory you could look them up, but most people did not. Rather than expressing genuine preferences of other parties, GVT began to involve complex networks of deals. Quite often this meant that parties bet on letting their preferences help a party they have little in common with to have a chance at winning themselves, a sort of all or nothing approach. More and more so-called micro-parties started appearing because by getting involved in the deals you might get lucky and get elected, even though you have a very small primary vote, and this only made voting more complicated as ballot papers expanded. This compounded problems with confused voters choosing a parties with similar names to more well known parties by mistake. There was also the possibility of front parties, who would have a name attracting voters on a certain issue and then send their preferences off in other directions. All the signs were that the gaming of the system was only just getting started and there was much more to come.

The reforms abolished these group voting tickets so that preferences are now determined by the voter. To avoid the old problems with informal votes we lose full preferencing and get an optional preferential system. In general I prefer full preferential, as optional preferential tends towards the terrible first past the post system, however in a multi-member electorate like the senate this is not such a problem. In particular, to avoid problems with exhaustion of votes, the ballot papers specify to number at least 6 above the line or 12 below the line (note that there’s no particular reason for these numbers to relate to the number of vacancies though). A potential problem with this is that since 1984, it has been valid to vote just 1 above the line, so the saving provisions allow votes with 1-6 above the line, or 6-12 below the line to still be counted. This is a compromise to prevent a rise in the informal vote which I think is quite reasonable.

4. Why you shouldn’t vote for less than the required number

The savings provisions seem to have caused some consternation, sometimes verging on conspiracy theories involving the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) trying to keep some great secret from us. It’s simple as far as the AEC are concerned – they have to advise according the the legislation. The legislation does not allow voting just 1 because it leads to a less democratic outcome with issues with vote splitting (where you can win by introducing new candidates similar to your opponent to take away their vote), and ballot exhaustion (where ballots drop out of the count allowing for candidates to be elected on much less than a quota).
A competing concern however is the issue of informal ballots, a danger in any change of the system. As a compromise, ballots with less preferences than specified as formal still count. There is no perfect voting system, and all voting systems involve compromise to balance competing factors.

Some people are getting very excited about being able to just vote 1, or perhaps a few more and before letting their vote exhaust. It’s actually not a good idea, because it does not give you a better outcome. If you vote 1, and your party gets elected with no surplus distributed outside the party, then if you had expressed preferences your vote would have counted exactly the same, it never would have been transferred to lower preferences. If you vote 1 and your party gets eliminated, or gets elected with surplus and there are no candidates of that party left, then your vote gets put aside and you have no say in the rest of the election.

In particular, you in no way improve the chances of your party by withholding lower preferences, your vote for them counts exactly the same. You also do nothing to stop all of the other parties. At the point at which your vote exhausts, some of the remaining candidates will be elected. That is already certain because enough other people voted for them, there is nothing you can do about that, but by giving further preferences you can help decide which one gets in. More on this below.

5. Why you should vote for more than the required number

You are allowed to vote for more than 6 groups above the line, or more than 12 below the line and in general you should. The more information you give about your genuine preferences the better.

As an example, suppose in a smaller election there are only 7 parties contesting and you only have to number at least 3 of them. The parties are: Brilliant party, Good party, OK party,  Incompetent party, Evil party, Mystery party 1, Mystery party 2. For simplicity we’ll just assume 1 candidate per party as well.

You really like Brilliant but would also happily see Good elected. The OK Party is inoffensive but you aren’t too enthusiastic, the Incompetents are a party you don’t want to see get in because you think they’ll do a bad job at it, but the Evil Party are even worse because they’ll do a good job at implementing policies you absolutely disagree with. You know nothing about the last two.

Some might grumble about having to allocate 3 preferences before settling on giving number 3 to the OK Party, but actually the most sensible way to vote in these circumstances is

1 Brilliant, 2 Good, 3 OK, 4 Incompetent

You might object to giving a preference to the Incompetents, but the fact is that this preference will only possibly count if all the better parties are eliminated, in which case your vote can help stop the Evil party, not preferencing the Incompetents does nothing to help your preferred parties but opens the door to letting Evil Party win.
You may choose to take your chances on giving preferences to the Mystery parties as well, this might not be unreasonable if you are really sure there would be nothing worse than the Evil party, but an even better option would be to find out who they are before you vote so that you can actually work out your genuine preferences for them.

Let’s consider the differences between three voters who we assume to all have genuine preferences as described above but who don’t all express them:

  • Alan votes 1 Brilliant and it’s allowed by savings provisions
  • Betty votes 1 Brilliant, 2 Good, 3 OK following the instructions
  • Clem votes 1 Brilliant, 2 Good, 3 OK, 4 Incompetent

Suppose Brilliant gets elected at some point. Then all three ballots A,B,C stay with Brilliant until this point, they all act in exactly the same way. If Brilliant is last elected then that’s the end of the count and all the ballots were effectively the same.

On the other hand if Brilliant is elected, and there are still other spaces to fill then Alan’s ballot is put aside and no longer counts. If the last spot is between say Good and Incompetent, then Incompetent might win because Alan’s ballot isn’t there – but he didn’t any way increase the chances for Brilliant, and he didn’t do anything to stop incompetent. In fact the opposite, the only possible difference withholding his preferences makes is to allow an outcome he likes less to occur.

Now, let’s say that after Brilliant is elected the Mystery candidates are knocked out early, and so unfortunately is Good. Once again, our friend Alan might have been able to prevent this but he didn’t. Betty and Clem have done all they could though, but now their votes move on to OK and they get elected. Now there is one spot left and Incompetents and Evil are left. This might seem like some terrible failing of the system, but it has happened because lots of people voted for them, otherwise they would have been knocked out sooner instead of Good. In particular, none of our voters A,B,C can help this, it is because of how everyone else voted.

At this point Betty’s vote also has been set aside. In fact, because there are only two candidates left and one position, whoever has the most votes wins. Clem’s vote (or whatever proportion of it remains) counts against Evil, but Alan and Betty’s don’t and this might be enough to let the Evil Party win.

Similarly, if Brilliant get knocked out early then Alan has no say. 3 candidates are still getting elected from those left, Alan’s vote exhausting does nothing to stop that. At this point Betty and Clem’s votes move on to Good, and so on. There is no risk in giving more preferences because any preference can only ever count if everyone higher in your list is already out of the count, and counts against someone lower in your list.

So my advice is to keep numbering as much as you can, not just candidates you like but any candidate you prefer to some other candidate. Personally I will number very close to all of them.

6. Find Out About the Candidates

A consequence of the previous point is that it is best to be able to genuinely preference as many parties or candidates as possible so you should find out about them before hand. You need to do this before you vote, on polling day there will be volunteers handing out how to vote cards, but only for the larger parties, and most of these will only show the minimum of 6 preferences because they want to get people to vote for them in the simplest way possible. So do your research earlier.

As well as weighing up your order of preference for parties you might want to find out if there are some individual candidates which you particularly like or dislike, if this is the case you may then choose to vote below the line so you can preference accordingly.

The ABC elections website is always a good resource:

here you can see all the candidates for your state with links to their websites.

Cluey Voter was a useful resource in the old system as you could use it to generate a personalised below the line preference ticket. I find it of less use now because if you don’t want to reorder candidates within a group then you are much better off just voting above the line in the new system, which will achieve the same result in a much easier fashion. Some people are really stuck on the old advice that you have to vote below the line to control your vote which is just no longer true. Anyway, it may still be of some use

A new one that has turned up recently is DonkeyVotie which has an irreverant, but in my view mostly quite accurate, view of all the Senate parties

Another source of information is that many organisations issue scorecards at election time rating the parties on lots of issues, though they tend to concentrate mostly on the larger parties. Google “election scorecard” (possibly it might help to restrict to Australia) and look for any relating to issues that you think are important.

One other thing you can do is look at what parties are recommending on How To Vote cards. Most parties are issuing HTVs with the minimum 6 preferences, which makes sense since they want to make it as simple as possible for someone who wants advice on how to vote for them, but with the limit of 6 they mostly are choosing like minded parties (rather than the complex deals of the old system).

Antony Green is keeping track of them here

Update: I’ve just come across this blog which reviews all the micro parties. It is from the point of view of a Greens/Labor voter, so if that’s you then it might be useful, I find that I’m in agreement with everything there (including a couple of posts about the merits of the voting changes and the need to allocate as many preferences as you can)

7. The Lower House

Note that voting has not changed in the lower house (or House of Representatives). This is the smaller paper where you vote for candidates in your local electorate. On this ballot paper you still need to number every box for your vote to be counted. Yes this means putting numbers next to people you don’t want to be elected, but as I explained for the Senate, this shouldn’t bother you as long as you put down your genuine order of preference, your vote can only count for someone if your preferred candidates are out of the count and it is against someone you like even less. I wrote much more about this previously here

8. Psephologists

Interested in more intricate details of how voting works? The study of voting is called psephology, some of my favourite resources on this are

Antony Green’s Blog

Dr Kevin Bonham’s blog

Ben Raue’s blog