An American Perspective on the Australian Election System

Introduction

Australia will soon hold, most likely in September of this year, elections to that country’s federal House of Representatives (Australia’s most important elective body). Australia’s voting system to elect members to its House offers a refreshing contrast to the rigid first-past-the-post election system used for the vast majority of federal, state and local elective offices in the US. This system, called a preferential voting system, provides both the ideological diversity of a proportional voting system and the political stability of a first-past-the-post (“first post”) system. Australians have been using the preferential voting system for nearly a century and its national-level success has encouraged the use of this system throughout the society for all manners of public and private elective offices. The following series of posts will look at the nuts and bolts of the Australian preferential voting system, pinpoint those political parties that actually matter in this system, provide an overview of the exciting results from the 2010 election (the closest House election in Australian history) and, ultimately create a model to forecast the district by district election results in the upcoming election.

But you may ask, why should any American be interested in such a voting system and in the upcoming Australian election? First off, the 2000 US presidential election is a good place to start. As many readers will remember, the results of the 2000 US presidential election came down to a few hundred Florida ballots (out of six million cast in that state) and to this day many Democrats rage at Republicans, George W. Bush and the US Supreme Court over what they felt was an election stolen from them and from Al Gore. People today tend to focus less on the fact that Ralph Nader, a liberal minor party candidate, received more than 90,000 votes in the state far more than enough had these voters cast their ballots for Mr. Gore. However had the Australian voting system been in place in Florida in the 2000 US election, most of these Nader voters would likely have indicated a preference for Mr. Gore over Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore would have been elected president. Secondly, as anyone perusing on-line news article comments is more than well aware, Americans hold little back in expressing their diversity of opinion. However the US two-party political system is about suppressing such diversity of opinion with each party. Indeed, frustration with mainstream opinion on the left and right helped to create the Occupy and Tea Party movements, movements that have not been supported by mainstream Democrats and Republicans. But being marginal players within the two main parties offers these groups more potential in the US system than would separating and forming a minor party since minor parties are, because of the first-post system, an irrelevant part of the US political process. Third, the upcoming Australian election will represent a referendum on Australia’s controversial carbon tax policy, arguably one of the most aggressive attempts to limit carbon dioxide emissions in the developed world. With US policy on limiting CO2 emissions sidelined by a reluctant Congress, with Europe’s carbon trading scheme floundering, and with renewable energy subsidy schemes in countries such as Germany and Spain under threat by budget austerity the Australian election may well represent the battle line for aggressive public policy to limit CO2 emissions in the developing world. If carbon emissions policy can’t keep its head above water in Australia, it seems unlikely to make significant headway anywhere else anytime soon. It’s important to remember that the carbon tax was proposed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard after the 2010 elections even though she campaigned against such a tax during that election campaign. While this apparent flip-flop puzzled most American observers (including this one), an understanding of the Australian preference voting system and the results of the 2010 election will easily explain what drove Gillard to reverse course on the carbon tax. Fourth (and perhaps most importantly) Australian politics provides great entertainment value even for the casual observer. Australians play a rough, uninhibited brand of politics with cheap shots, low blows and backstabbing seemingly all in a day’s play. It’s like playing American football American style without padding or helmets. So it may well be worth it learn a little bit about the Australian electoral system and then grab some popcorn, settle down and watch the upcoming show.

Australian House of Representatives Voting System

As in most democratic countries, Australian House voters face a list of candidate names and boxes next to each candidate when they go to the polls. Most countries would simply require the voter to select their favorite candidate and place a mark of some kind in the box next to that candidate’s name. However, Australian voters are required to not only select their favorite candidate but to also indicate their preference for the remaining candidates in descending order. The voter must place a “1” in their favorite, first preference, candidate’s box, a “2” in the box of the candidate who is their second preference and so on until they finally indicate that candidate whom they would most rather not have get elected. The important point is that the voter MUST indicate their preference for every candidate on the ballot or else their ballot is declared invalid (called an “informal” ballot in Aussie lexicon). Preference indication for every candidate is necessary because preferential ballots are counted round-by-round, with the lowest vote candidate eliminated in each round, until only two candidates remain with one of those candidates receiving 50%+1 vote and election.

I have chosen two examples from the 2010 election, from Western Australia’s Brand district and from Tasmania’s Denison district, in order to make the preferential counting process transparent to the reader and to illustrate some of the most important dynamics of the preferential system.

Western Australia’s Brand district is a primarily suburban district located south of Fremantle on the Indian Ocean coast. There were five candidates on the ballot in Brand in 2010 (listed below in ballot order) including candidates representing the major Liberal and Labor parties as well as three minor parties:

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Dawn Jecks Green
Donna Gordin Liberal
Robert Burdett Christian Democratic
Andrew Newhouse Family First
Gary Grey (Incumbent) Labor

Source: Australian Election Commission

Preferential ballots are counted round-by-round. The Preliminary round allots the first preference votes to each candidate, that is, a count is made of the number of voters who placed a “1” on behalf of each candidate. The table below shows the number of first preference votes for each of the above candidates:

First Preference Votes

Brand District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Votes
Dawn Jecks Green

11,504

Donna Gordin Liberal

30,731

Robert Burdett Christian Democratic

1,771

Andrew Newhouse Family First

2,190

Gary Grey (Inc) Labor

31,832

Source: Australian Election Commission

The Labor candidate came through the first round with a narrow 1,101 vote margin over the Liberal candidate while the Green candidate trailed. The Family First and Christian Democratic candidates lagged far behind the leaders with the Christian Democratic candidate holding the last position. Under the preferential voting system, the candidate with the fewest votes in a given round is “excluded” from consideration in subsequent rounds and their votes distributed to the remaining candidates based on preferences of each individual voter for the excluded candidate:

Round 1

Distribution of Christian Democratic Votes

Brand District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

1st Pref. Votes

Round 1 Distribution

Round 1 Votes

Dawn Jecks Green

11,504

122

11,626

Donna Gordin Liberal

30,731

382

31,113

Robert Burdett Christian Democratic

1,771

-1,771

0

Andrew Newhouse Family First

2,190

1,163

3,353

Gary Grey (Inc) Labor

31,832

104

31,936

Source: Australian Election Commission

I have drawn lines through Mr. Burdett’s name and party to emphasize his exclusion from future election rounds. The table shows that 1,771 votes have been taken away from Mr. Burdett and distributed to the other candidates as well as the updated vote total for each remaining candidate after the above distribution. I have drawn a line through the excluded candidate’s name and party for emphasis.

The Family First party’s candidate received the lion’s share of the distribution from the Christian Democratic candidate while the Liberal candidate gained about 300 votes on her Labor party incumbent opponent in Round 1. While the Family First candidate made significant gains in the first round distribution, Mr. Newhouse’s total remains far behind the other candidates and he will be excluded from further consideration in future rounds. The table below shows the distribution of votes from the Family First candidate to the remaining candidates in Round 2:

Round 2

Distribution of Family First Votes

Brand District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Round 1 Votes

Round 2 Distribution

Round 2 Votes

Dawn Jecks Green

11,626

1,013

12,639

Donna Gordin Liberal

31,113

1,652

32,765

Robert Burdett Christian Democratic

0

0

0

Andrew Newhouse Family First

3,353

-3,353

0

Gary Grey (Inc) Labor

31,936

688

32,624

Source: Australian Election Commission

Note how the Liberal candidate took over 1st place by a scant 141 votes after the favorable distribution from the Family First candidate. However, neither candidate is, at this position anywhere near the 50%+1 requirement for election under the preferential voting system. With the two major party candidates running neck and neck and with the Green party candidate’s 12,639 votes remaining to be distributed to the remaining two candidates in the 3rd and final round, we can see that the Green party voter preferences hold the balance of power in this election. Should this preference distribution be relatively random, then the outcome would be a tossup. On the other hand, if the Green party voters in this district tend to favor one major party over the other, then these Green voters would decide the outcome of this election:

Round 3

Distribution of Green Votes

Brand District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Round 2 Votes

Round 3 Distribution

Round 3 Votes

Dawn Jecks Green

12,639

-12,639

0

Donna Gordin Liberal

32,765

3,653

36,418

Robert Burdett Christian Democratic

0

0

0

Andrew Newhouse Family First

0

0

0

Gary Grey (Inc) Labor

32,624

8,986

41,610

Source: Australian Election Commission

In fact, the Greens are more ideologically compatible with left-of-center Labor than the right-of-center Liberals. In the end the Green party voter’s preference distribution favored the Labor party candidate by a more than a 2 to 1 margin over the Liberal candidate in the process delivering a 5,200 vote margin of victory in the Western Australia’s Brand district to the Labor incumbent candidate Gary Grey.

Let’s summarize what the above example has taught us about the Australian preferential voting system:

  1. Australian House of Representatives voters vote not for a single candidate but rather indicate their preference for candidates from greatest to least.
  2. Counting of preferential votes takes place on a round-by-round basis; the candidate with the fewest votes in any given round is “excluded” from subsequent voting rounds.
  3. The votes for excluded candidates are distributed to the remaining candidates based on preferences of voters for those excluded candidates.
  4. Preferential vote counting continues round-by-round until only two candidates remain. The candidate with the most votes at that stage is declared elected.

With the above in mind let’s move to the fascinating 2010 House election in Tasmanian state’s Denison district. This was essentially a four-way race between the two major parties (Liberal and Labor), the most important minor party (the Greens) and an independent candidate who, unusually for independent candidates, commanded significant support. I begin with the candidate list for Tasmanian’s Denison district (again based on ballot order):

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Andrew Wilkie Independent
Jonathan Jackson Labor
Mel Barnes Socialist Alliance
Cameron John Simpkins Liberal
Geoffrey Alan Couser Green

Source: Australian Election Commission

Why do I emphasize ballot order? Because ballot order matters. Voting in Australian federal elections is compulsory (more than 90% of eligible voters comply) and voters with some uncertainty regarding their preferences when they enter the voting booth will tend to make some or all of their ordering based on ballot order. I estimate that each ballot order position is worth about 0.3% of first preference votes. That is, the independent candidate Wilkie can expect to receive about 1.2 percentage points more first preference votes than the Green candidate simply because of ballot position. This also implies that if the orders between these two candidates were reversed, the total impact would be 2.4%.

First Preference Votes

Denison District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Votes
Andrew Wilkie Independent

13,788

Jonathan Jackson Labor

23,215

Mel Barnes Socialist Alliance

856

Cameron John Simpkins Liberal

14,688

Geoffrey Alan Couser Green

12,312

Source: Australian Election Commission

The percentage share of received by Wilkie received 21.3% of first preference votes while Couser received 19.0%. Thus, reversing the ballot order could have put the Green candidate ahead of Mr. Wilkie by a handful of votes after the first preference count. Since the distribution from the Socialist Alliance candidate in the first round was nearly a dead heat between the independent and Green candidates, it is entirely possible that Mr. Wilkie went through to the 2nd round on the strength of his ballot position: 

Round 1

Distribution of Socialist Alliance Votes

Denison District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

1st Pref. Votes

Round 1 Distribution

Round 1 Votes

Andrew Wilkie Independent

13,788

269

14,057

Jonathan Jackson Labor

23,215

229

23,444

Mel Barnes Socialist Alliance

856

-856

0

Cameron John Simpkins Liberal

14,688

98

14,786

Geoffrey Alan Couser Green

12,312

260

12,572

Source: Australian Election Commission

This is as a good a time as any to clarify the ideological position of Labor, Liberals and Green parties that may be confusing to Americans. The Liberals are in fact Australia’s mainstream conservative party while a reasonable comparison can be made between the Australian Labor party the British Labour party. This also brings up a most curious spelling point regarding Australian English. Most curiously Australians use the American spelling Labor to refer to their political party but they use the British spelling labour when writing about workers or working. At any rate, since the Liberals are conservative and the Greens are quite liberal (in an American sense, mind you), if Green voters perceived Mr. Wilkie (a one-time Green candidate for office) as being relatively left-of-center compared with the Liberal candidate, then they would have likely given a strong share of their distribution to Mr. Wilkie.

And this is exactly what happened. A majority of Green voters declared a preference for Mr. Wilkie thus putting Mr. Wilkie through to the final round.

Wilkie’s odds of winning the election still seemed long as the Labor candidate faced an uphill fight in the final round as the Labor candidate Jackson still held a lead of 7,640 votes over his independent rival meaning that Wilkie would need to receive a minimum of about 75% of the Liberal distribution to win election. However, since both candidates were politically left-of-center, the question is whether these conservative Liberal voters had an opinion one way or the other as to which left-of-center candidate became MP.

Round 2

Distribution of Green Votes

Denison District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Round 1 Votes

Round 2 Distribution

Round 2 Votes

Andrew Wilkie Independent

14,057

6,635

20,692

Jonathan Jackson Labor

23,444

4,888

28,332

Mel Barnes Socialist Alliance

0

0

0

Cameron John Simpkins Liberal

14,786

1,049

15,835

Geoffrey Alan Couser Green

12,572

-12,572

0

Source: Australian Election Commission

In fact, Liberal voters did in fact have a strong opinion regarding which of these two candidates they would have prefered to see get elected. For Liberal voters, every Labor seat represents a firm seat for their opponents. On the other hand, even if Wilkie were to align himself with Labor in the subsequent parliament he would not owe his seat to Labor if he were elected. In fact, were he to gain his seat as a result of support from Liberal voters, he would be more likely to maintain his independence going forward since he would owe his seat to the benevolence of Liberal voters.

Voters taking these factors into consideration and casting their votes based on such considerations is called tactical voting. Tactical votes are votes cast by voters in a minority position in order to sway an outcome towards, from those voters standpoint, the lesser of two evils. While tactical voting is virtually non-existent in the US, the preferential voting system means that tactical voting is practically an art form in Australia. Indeed, the Liberal’s distributed 79% of their preferences to the independent candidate giving Andrew Wilkie a narrow victory and denying Labor a precious seat in what was an incredibly close election at the national level:

Round 3

Distribution of Green Votes

Denison District 2010

Candidate

Party Affiliation

Round 2 Votes

Round 3 Distribution

Round 3 Votes

Andrew Wilkie Independent

20,692

12,525

33,217

Jonathan Jackson Labor

28,332

3,310

31,642

Mel Barnes Socialist Alliance

0

0

0

Cameron John Simpkins Liberal

15,835

-15,835

0

Geoffrey Alan Couser Green

0

0

0

Source: Australian Election Commission

Fantastic outcome if you were rooting for the little guy. Had the Green candidate Couser edged out the independent in the 1st round it is quite possible that he could have been the first one to break the finish line tape since the Liberals would have looked at a Green-Labor final round and voted to undermine Labor in the very same way they put Wilkie over the top against the Labor candidate Jackson. Then again, the smallest of swings in Labor’s favor would have given Labor a narrow victory.

There are a number of lessons we can take away from these actual election examples:

  1. The preferential voting system creates opportunities for minor party and independent candidates to hold the balance of power in an election or even occasionally win.
  2. The preferential voting system enables tactical voting to become an important part of the electoral process and the above examples strongly suggest that Australian voters are extremely sophisticated when it comes to organizing their preferences.
  3. Minor party power under the preferential voting system depends on the number of first preferences votes received and on the ability to distribute those votes in such a way as to affect an election’s outcome.
  4. While major parties tend to win the lion’s share of the seats under the preferential voting system the potential power of minor parties forces the major parties to take into consideration the interests of minor party supporters. This is in sharp contrast to the first-post system in the US where minor parties are virtually non-existent and where voters with views away from the mainstream are forced to fit uncomfortably under the awkward “big tent” of the two major parties. The outcome under the Australian preferential voting system seems to combine the stability of a two-party system while giving minority parties a stronger say in the ultimate outcome than is the case in the US electoral system.

In my next post. I will identify those Australian political parties that matter in House of Representative elections.

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