Things you hear about preferences

Every time there is an election I see the following points made about preferences, I don’t think they are helpful and I’ll explain why.

1. We should just get rid of preferences

This isn’t a blanket refutation of anyone wanting to change the voting system, for example some people want multimember electorates, proportional representation, or other options, and these are perfectly reasonable things to discuss, it is simply getting rid of preferences without changing anything else that I object to (and I still think in many of those other options preferences are worth having anyway!). This also isn’t about people suggesting optional preferencing, while I do have thoughts on this they are best saved for a separate post (and with the SA Government proposing it I should have motivation to write one soon).

So this means “getting rid of preferences” boils down to having first past the post FPTP in lower house electorates, meaning whoever has the most votes wins. As I have pointed out before this is a terrible system as it forces voters to guess at how everyone else will vote and to possibly not choose their genuine favourite in order not to waste their vote, and it is manipulable in the sense that it is possible to run spoiler candidates to draw support away from an opponent. In short, while its simplicity is superficially appealing it is unfair and open to being gamed, particular by those with the resources to fund parties and candidates.

It seems that sometimes the motivation for this is to have a simpler system, but it is a mathematical fact that simple systems are seriously flawed and a more complicated one is required to achieve a fair result.

Also sometimes people erroneously believe that preferences favour the major parties – in fact it would be even harder for anyone else to get elected without preferences. I have written about this in detail before – The Major Parties Do Not Win Because Of Preferences , and also relevant is How To Get Rid Of The Two Party System .

Even in the federal Senate and state upper houses with multi-member electorates, whilst the effect is smaller, removing preferences still leads to vote splitting between candidates with similar policies and has the same problems.

2. Party X is preferencing party Y.

In my opinion people give far too much importance to parties preferencing each other. Part of this may be because of the old (and thankfully gone) senate system where parties did control preferences (and sorry Vic and WA, you’re still stuck with this at state elections).
Now any talk about preferencing is purely about recommendations on how to vote cards. For these to have any effect there has to be a person handing them out at the polling place, the voter has to take it, the voter has to copy down the recommended preferences on their ballot paper. Most small parties and independents won’t even have people handing out, many voters don’t take them, and those that do have every opportunity to express different preferences if they want, and it can’t possibly be secret because they are filling it in themselves on their ballot.

Furthermore, preferences for the two most popular candidates (usually but not always Labor and Liberal / National) will never be distributed, none of those votes will go past 1. Quite often the election will be decided before other preferences are distributed, in some cases none at all.

The problem with this that all this talk of “preferencing” convinces many voters that parties do control preferences, rather than being fully in control themselves.

Also along with this, most attempts at making a big deal out of “party X is preferencing party Y” are a pointless distraction. Typically there is no chance of the preferences getting that far and they’ve designed their how to vote to make it as easy as possible to follow – because of the real purpose of these things – which is to put something in the voters hand telling them to vote for you on their way in to the polling place, and to make sure that if they do then they don’t vote informally.

3. Accepting preferences and assuming preference deals.

Sometimes people say “but party X accepted preferences from party Y”. This is always absolute nonsense. There is no mechanism at all by which one party or candidate can accept a preference from another. Voters decide how to number their ballots and the votes are tallied accordingly. There is not and has never been any “acceptance” of preferences and anyone who ever talks about it is being dishonest. It is a rather pathetic attempt at using guilt by association.
Now if someone has made some sort of deal with someone else, this could be potentially grounds for some criticism, and this is often what people are trying to infer with this “accepting preferences” rubbish. Since it is literally impossible to accept preferences then it cannot be evidence of a deal. Other versions of this are noting that a certain percentage of voters for party Y preferenced party X is evidence of a deal, which is also obviously rubbish as voters choose their own preferences.
The less preposterous version is that party Y put party X somewhere in their preferences on how to vote cards so there must be a deal. At least there is a grain of truth here since a preference on a how to vote may result from a deal – but it doesn’t have to. Most how to votes show a full range of preferences because this is a valid vote and you want people who vote for you to make their vote count. As a result you will literally recommend a preference for every single candidate. This leads to really stupid stuff like people complaining that you did not preference some awful candidate last (because you put another awful candidate last). It also leads to assumptions of deals, but you have to decide on the order of everyone, so they do not necessarily result from deals. For example I’ve seen people try to insinuate that the Greens made a deal with the Liberals in Melbourne in 2010. What happened was that the Liberals had a policy of putting Labor last in every electorate, so by default the Greens were second last. When the result came down to Greens vs Labor, Liberal voters following the how to vote would have preferenced the Greens. After this they changed their policy and have put Greens last at subsequent elections but I haven’t seem the same people claim that Labor made a deal with the Liberals.

Even your second preference doesn’t have to be part of a deal it might just be who you want to preference, for example picking an order that is roughly in line with similarity in policies is a good idea if you want people to follow your instructions (and hence give you the number 1).

The other thing to remember is that there really isn’t much to deal over anymore. Most of the power in preference deals was in Group Voting Tickets in the Senate and they are gone now. Two parties could agree to recommend high preferences to each other but there isn’t that much to be gained – the major parties are unlikely to have their preferences distributed and the smaller parties tend to hand out a lot less how to vote cards and when they do their voters are less likely to follow them.

4. They only won because of preferences

There is sometimes an attempt to insinuate that someone’s win was somehow less legitimate because they relied on preferences. This is not a sensible viewpoint because preferences are an inherent part of the system and voters would clearly choose differently in a different system. I would guess that most voters who chose a smaller party knew very well that their favoured candidate would not be elected and knew where their vote would end up in the final count. You can’t just count someone’s support as the people who voted 1 for them, you have to count it at the point where the election is over. Clearly many people would vote differently if there were not preferences as voting for smaller parties could be seen to waste your vote – in fact the final result tells us who a majority prefer given the choice of just the two most popular candidates.