Optional preferences find a friend

South Australia is in the news this week because of an MPs expenses scandal, which has forced the resignation of three state ministers. But there’s more interest for the psephologically minded in its government’s plan for electoral reform, announced last week.

It’s not clear whether or not the plan will make it into law, since the government has no majority in the upper house, the Legislative Council. But it has already made history as the first time a non-Labor government has attempted to have lower house elections conducted on an optional preferential system.

You can read Antony Green’s detailed explanation of the proposal here. The upshot is that the impact of the change in South Australia would be relatively small, since the state already has a generous savings provision that admits many votes that would otherwise be informal. Nonetheless, the symbolic impact is large, not least as a possible precedent for the Morrison government to move to optional preferences for federal elections.

South Australia thus completes the reversal of positions on this issue that has been in process for about the last thirty years. Once upon a time, things were simple: Labor supported optional preferential voting, the Coalition parties opposed it. Then, for a long time, it was messy; the balance of political advantage shifted, but inertia kept many politicians in the camp that they were used to.

Now we have firmly come out the other side: Labor is firmly against optional preferences and the Coalition, by and large, is supportive.

Rather than retell the whole story, I’ll direct you to previous occasions when I’ve covered it. First, this piece from Crikey in 2010 which deals with some of the history:

And to understand the politics of the debate, it’s necessary to appreciate the extent to which political parties are captive to their histories. Preferential voting was introduced — in 1918 federally, and at varying dates from 1892 (Queensland) to 1929 (South Australia) — by non-Labor governments to prevent their votes from being wasted when they had multiple candidates. For most of its history, it clearly worked in their favor; first the Country Party and later the DLP could contest seats against the main non-Labor party, and their votes would still be counted as preferences.

For the same reason, Labor generally opposed the system and dreamt of going back to first-past-the-post. In Queensland they actually succeeded in doing so in 1942, but preferences were reintroduced by a Coalition government in 1962. After that Labor pretty much resigned itself to preferential voting, but aimed to at least make preferences optional, knowing that this would result in votes leaking away from the Coalition in three-cornered contests.

Then, also from Crikey, there’s this story from 2013 responding to a suggestion that the Coalition would embrace change at federal level:

If there’s a constant theme in the history of electoral law in Australia (and most other countries as well), it’s that change is driven by perceived political interest, not by principle. Shifts to more democratic outcomes happen when a major party thinks that they will work to its advantage – as, for example, with the introduction of PR for the Senate by the Chifley government.

It’s just possible that this might be one of those cases. Whatever the politics of it, it’s hard to see any reason in principle why people should have to express preferences that they don’t hold.

And then there’s this blog post from 2016 when Labor reversed course on the issue in Queensland:

No party comes to this sort of issue with clean hands. The Coalition parties have a long history of resistance to democracy: from John Howard’s attempt to close the rolls early and disenfranchise prisoners, to the Western Australian division’s long fight against one-vote-one-value, to promoting “voter-ID” laws and their associated conspiracy theories, to support for numerous rurally-biased malapportionments.

Indeed, it seems likely that LNP resistance to the Palaszczuk government’s move is somewhat muted by an institutional memory of having doggedly fought for many years to retain compulsory preferences, in Queensland as well as other states.

Nonetheless, there’s something particularly disappointing when Labor does something like this. Labor is supposed to be the party of the masses; democracy is supposed to be its friend, not its enemy. When it votes to restrict or distort the people’s choice, it is betraying its soul in a way that the non-Labor parties are not.

I don’t doubt for a moment that, as Green says, the South Australian move is driven by calculations of advantage rather than principle. But that shouldn’t stop anyone from supporting it. Optional preferential voting is unequivocally a good thing, regardless of the motives of its supporters: it is simply absurd that people’s votes should be thrown out because of inconsequential mistakes in numbering, or because they refuse to express preferences that they do not hold.

For even more detail you can go to Kevin Bonham’s discussion; he only mentions South Australia in passing, but he goes through the various alternatives to compulsory preferences and their possible effects. I think he’s right to say that the political implications of change are probably overstated on both sides; as he says, “In the Queensland 2017 election the switch from optional to compulsory preferencing seemed to have very little direct impact on the results.”

More important is the fact that optional preferences force political allies to work more closely together – as has been seen in New South Wales, firstly with Liberals and Nationals and more recently with Labor and the Greens. But as Bonham points out, that’s a further reason for Labor’s antagonism, since its strategists hate the idea of co-operating with the Greens.

But for Australian democracy as a whole that might not be a bad thing. And it would be even better if we could get into the habit of discussing changes to the rules in terms of what’s fair and democratic, rather than of who will benefit.

3 thoughts on “Optional preferences find a friend

  1. Full preferential voting is one of those things like say, the Crown of Australia, where if it didn’t exist you wonder whether it would have any advocates.

    How did we end up at a point where full preferential voting is basically the default in this country? Going from first-past-the-post to optional preferential seems like a natural evolution. Going directly to full preferential (if that’s what we did?) seems quite odd.

    Consider where this evolution is currently taking place. In 2018 Maine used “ranked choice” voting for the first time and, wouldn’t you know it, the 2nd congressional district was memorably (and contentiously) decided on preferences. But imagine telling a voter that they couldn’t simply vote Republican or Democrat; but must rank them alongside two other independents, about whom they might know nothing about. Further suppose telling them that it probably doesn’t matter in what order they rank their subsequent choices, they just need to rank them. I suspect many would greet this with perplexity.

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    1. Yes, I think that’s right – it’s hard to imagine anyone inventing such a system now. It took a while to take shape in different ways in the different states, but in the early 20th century I guess there wasn’t a lot of difference between compulsory & optional preferences, since it was rare that there’d be more than 3 or 4 candidates in a seat. People mostly didn’t run for parliament unless they had a serious chance. And of course seats were much smaller, so the idea that there could be candidates that no-one had heard of or knew anything about would have been quite alien.

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      1. I have some idea that the percentage of votes required to retain a candidate’s deposit used to be higher too. These days it’s usually only 4-5% of the first preference votes (or less than that if you end up elected, eg Steve Fielding). Accounts I’ve read from circa 1918 seem to bandy about thresholds like 16.67% or 20%. Understandable as a measure to deter “frivolous” candidates splitting the vote, if you’re used to FPTP. As we saw with the 1984-2014 Senate system of ticket voting, it may take a while for old habits to change and for parties/ candidates/ deal whisperers to realise that they can run more candidates without harming themselves. (Not split votes, of course, under the 1918-83 Senate method, btu informal votes spoiled due to confusion).

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