The Major Parties Do Not Win Because Of Preferences

The purpose of this post is to explain why a common misconception about voting is actually false. The heading is rather general, and by certain interpretations not necessarily true, so I will start by clarifying what I mean precisely. Firstly by “major party” in this post I mean Labor or the Coalition. When I say they don’t win on preferences, I mean that collectively, in the sense that most seats are won by one or the other of them. It happens quite often that preferences will decide which of them will win, but I am saying that preferences are not making it inevitable that one of Labor or the Coalition will win.

I will talk about the House of Representatives (or Lower House), as the counts are easier to discuss, but essentially the same principles apply in the Senate as well.

1. The Source of Confusion

There is a simple reason why people think that preferences make the major parties win. An individual who votes or any other candidate has to provide a full set of preferences (i.e. number every box on their ballot paper), and typically their vote will flow on to one of the major parties as a preference. Often results of seats, or the entire election are shown as Two Party Preferred counts.

Actually, to infer that this means that preferences favour the majors is really a case of putting the cart before the horse, it is their success in getting the most votes which means that they get the preferences, and which is why outcomes are measured in terms of two party preferred counts.

2. Ignore the Two Party Preferred Count

First let’s dispense with the unnecessary distraction of the two party preferred count, it is a red herring that actually plays no role in how votes are counted to determine the election of candidates.

To make a two party preferred count other candidates are progressively eliminated until Labor and Coalition candidates remain. This is not how the vote to determine the winner works, though sometimes they coincide. This is purely a way of determining the relative popularity of the two parties who currently have by far the biggest numbers in parliament.

In many of these seats, in the actual vote count, no preferences are distributed because one of the candidates gets over 50% of the initial count. In others, some but not all preferences need to be distributed before someone wins. In some, the most popular two candidates are not Labor and Coalition, for example there are seats won by independents, or Labor vs Green or Liberal vs Green and so on. In these seats there is often a two candidate preferred count given (similar to two party, but the two most popular candidates), but once again, this isn’t necessarily the actual count.

So when it comes to the voting system, ignore the two party preferred count, it is not part of the voting system and does not determine who wins seats.

3. If they win with your preference, they’d still win without it

Consider a typical lower house electorate, I’ll choose my own electorate of Adelaide. The number 1 votes gave the following results (to the nearest percent, ordered by actual vote numbers):

Labor    —————- 42%
Liberal —————– 42%
Green —————— 10%
Family First ———–   2%
Palmer United ——-   2%
Socialist Alliance —-   1%

The first thing you should notice is that there is absolutely no way any remotely fair voting system would have anyone other than Labor or Liberal win this seat on those numbers. It is by no means clear which one should win it, but nobody else is anywhere close to being supported by a majority of voters.
They aren’t winning because the voters of minor parties have to give preferences to them, they are winning because they have the most number 1 votes by a large margin. This is the reason why most preferences are ending up with them, because they are the most popular so they survive to later stages of the count.
In fact for this one, being so close, it takes the distribution of all preferences to determine a winner (so in this case the actual count is the same as the two party preferred count), and the Labor candidate stays in front, crossing the 50% threshold with the preferences after the Green is eliminated.
As a Greens voter, being able to withhold my preference from the major parties would achieve nothing for the Greens candidate in this count, they just don’t have enough votes, and nothing I do will stop one of Labor or Liberal winning – not because it was predetermined, but because of how all the other voters chose to vote. If I didn’t give preferences though it would mean that I get no say in the outcome between Labor and Liberal.

Now consider a more one sided contest, Port Adelaide

Labor ————— 51%
Liberal ————– 26%
Greens ————–  9%
Family First ——– 8%
Palmer United —- 6%
Australia First —– 1%

In this count, no preferences are distributed, the Labor candidate wins immediately. The fact that, for example, Greens voters would most likely have indicated a preference for Labor before Liberal, is irrelevant because the winner is declared without a single preference being used. The AEC still does a two candidate count, but it’s nothing to do with determining the winner.

The two cases considered above are basically what the vast majority of electorates across the country look like, a major party wins immediately without preferences, or both major parties are far in front of the rest of the field, so there is no way anyone else could win, and preferences are then just allowing those who supported less popular candidates to still have a say.

Now consider Indi in Victoria:

Liberal ————– 45%
McGowan (Ind) —  31%
Labor —————-  12%
Greens —————    3%
Palmer United —-     3%
Sex ——————-     2%
Family First  ———   1%
Rise Up —————    1%
Podesta (ind) ——–    1 %
Katter —————–    1%
Bullet Train ———-    1%

There is a crowded field, but the Liberals are well in front and not far off 50%, surely if being forced to give preferences helps the major parties then they’d win? In actual fact, pretty much nobody gave preferences to the Liberals above McGowan and so they lost. In a first past the post count the Liberals win easily, and in an optional preferencing count (rather than full preference) I think they would most  likely win, so in this case full preferencing works against the majors, purely because it is giving a better expression of the wishes of the electorate. Let’s see how the count progressed, after all the candidates with under 5% had preferences distributed the numbers were

Liberal ————- 48%
McGowan (Ind) — 38%
Labor ————–  15%

Then the Labor candidate is eliminated and preferences of people who voted Labor, or who voted for an earlier eliminated candidate but preferenced Labor higher than Liberal and McGowan, are distributed giving

McGowan (Ind) — 50.25%
Liberal ————- 49.75%

4. Preferences are what can be needed to beat the majors

The example of Indi above shows that rather than entrenching the power of major parties, preferences can be helpful in beating them. This is because someone has to win the seat, so the only way the majors will lose is for there to be another candidate who is popular enough to stay in the count longer and who gets preferences above the majors. Without preferences newer challengers to the power of the majors would have little chance. In 2013 both Fairfax and Kennedy were won by non-major party candidates (Palmer and Katter respectively), both were well behind a major party candidate on the initial count, would have lost easily on first past the post, and would be unlikely to win in optional preferencing. Two other seats were won by non-majors more easily, Melbourne and Denison, but both were only first taken from majors in 2010 thanks to preference counts. Denison is particularly interesting as a rare four way race. In 2010 the numbers were:

Labor  ————–  36%
Liberal ————-  23%
Wilkie (ind) ——– 21%
Green  ————– 19 %
Socialist ————   1%

After the Socialist is excluded the Greens are last and are then excluded giving

Labor  ————–  44%
Wilkie (ind) ——– 32%
Liberal ————-  24%

Not surprisingly most Greens voters likes Wilkie (a former Greens candidate) ahead of the others, and so he gets ahead of the Liberals. Then they are eliminates and not suprisingly, most Liberals don’t support Labor, so we get
Wilkie (ind) ——– 51%
Labor  ————–  44%

Now it might look like it was still pointless for the Greens voters to give a preference to Labor since their vote finished up with Wilkie anyway, but had the numbers been slightly different at the start Wilkie is eliminated early and those preferences might help Labor beat Liberal. You never know how the count will go because it depends on how everyone else will vote, but by filling in a full preference ticket you are prepared for every eventuality.

Not only were preferences required to bet the majors in pretty much every instance when they have lost, but without preferences it would be even rarer for them to be challenged. For example consider Melbourne. The Greens contested many times with their vote growing each time until they got close enough to be serious contenders. Without full preferencing the Green vote would quite likely have never grown like that, because many erstwhile Greens voters would stick with Labor to make sure that the Liberals didn’t win. In fact, the absence of preferences only strengthens the major parties for this reason, people are forced to vote strategically for whoever they think will be the most popular candidates (this phenomenon is sometimes seen in US presidential elections).

5. Even if you hate the majors equally it is still in your interests to preference them

I have seen some people suggest that they support a minor party, but will vote informally in the lower house because they don’t want their preference to end up with a major party.
This might seem like a principled stance but it is actually helping the major parties. The only threat to them is someone else getting elected, and the only way this can happen is by other candidates getting formal votes and a formal vote in the lower house (quite rightly in my opinion) must have all preferences filled in.
Maybe your favourite party doesn’t seem likely to win this time, but you are then denying a vote to someone who is actually putting in a big effort to take on the major parties. You are denying them electoral funding, not just the couple of dollars from your vote but possibly the whole lot if they don’t meet the 4% threshold. Many people will not start voting for a non-major option until they think they can win (which is a silly point of view given preferential voting, but it seems to be the case regardless), by not supporting them you might be stopping them from having a chance next time. You are helping the major parties.

On the other hand suppose you vote formally and your preference goes to a major party. Then this can only happen if your candidate was not popular enough and got eliminated. At this point, one of the majors is going to win, not because of your preference but because lots of other people voted for them. There is nothing you can do about this, and your vote is merely expressing a preference for one of the remaining candidates. It isn’t saying you like them or think they should be win, just that they’re better than the other one (even if they are both terrible) because unfortunately these are the two options that most of your fellow voters want. Even if you have no actual preference between the majors, it is still worth preferencing them to give support to your favourite candidate, once again, without other candidates getting formal number 1 votes, there is no way anyone other than the majors will ever win.

6. If it isn’t due to preferences then why do the majors win?

The simple reason is that they get the vast majority of number 1 votes. In 2013 about 70% of first preferences went to them, and that was lower than usual. The reason why this translates to well over 90% of lower house seats is that there are single member electorates, so someone with say 10% support in every single electorate is nowhere near winning a single seat even though 10% of the entire population like them. This issue is entirely separate to the issue of preferences. Also this is partly offset by the proportional senate, where others get higher representation.

Apart from that there is still the question of why they get so many number 1 votes, because there is nothing that says that the major parties have to win lower house seats. Their supporters would have a simple answer – that they are the best options that represent most people’s interests. If you don’t agree with that then you can look for other reasons which might be along these lines:

  • They have the most money.
  • The media mostly covers elections as a competition between the major parties, and it is often seen as a competition between two prospective prime ministers.
  • Incumbency is helpful, once they dominate, it stays that way.
  • A lot of people feel that they have to vote for one of the big parties to avoid wasting their vote. This is absolutely wrong but is a persistent myth, helped along at times by the major parties spreading it at election time.

The fact is, as I’ve written about before, the way to get rid of the “two party system”, which is not actually our voting system but just an artifact of the way most people choose to vote, is for people to cast formal votes for other candidates. This is what the major parties fear most.