Optional preferences, yet again

Just as the United States has been giving us all sorts of lessons on how not to run an election, Australia has also been considering electoral administration. The federal parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters last week released its report on the conduct of the 2019 federal election. It makes for depressing reading.

The committee, chaired by Liberal senator James McGrath, makes two sorts of recommendations: those that it thinks would serve the Coalition’s political interests, and those that it thinks would serve the interests of politicians in general. The Labor and Greens members, who file dissenting reports, generally agree with the second group but not the first; they show equally little sign of actually considering issues on their merits.

Some of the committee’s suggestions are couched in tentative terms – that “consideration be given” to allowing the House of Representatives to grow in size independently of the Senate, to introducing four-year terms, to abolishing by-elections and to prohibiting MPs from changing parties. Rather than any modesty in ambition, however, that reflects the fact that those changes would require constitutional amendment, and the chance of that happening is vanishingly small.

In other areas the committee recommends far-reaching change with minimal discussion. It wants ID requirements not just for voting but for changes in enrolment, which would disenfranchise swathes of young, poor or itinerant voters (just the sort who are less likely to vote for the Coalition). It wants the electoral commission to rename parties that have words like “Liberal” or “Labor” in their names. And it wants to abolish pre-poll voting as we know it by requiring the commission to enforce the existing (but not enforced) eligibility requirements.

Other suggestions for reform are given short shrift because they would work against the interests of either the Coalition specifically or the political class as a whole. So, no restriction of tax deductibility for political donations, no limits on campaign expenditure, no bans on misleading advertising, and no restriction of the parties’ ability to harvest postal vote data.

Perhaps the most interesting recommendation is right near the start. Recommendation two is as follows:

The Committee recommends that the Electoral Act be amended to:

• replace compulsory preferential voting with optional preferential voting; and

• introduce the Robson Rotation of ordering candidates on ballot papers for the House of Representatives.

To understand its significance, a little explanation is in order. Preferential voting was introduced by the Coalition parties to stop them from cannibalising each other’s vote. At the time, the difference between compulsory and optional preferences was relatively unimportant; large fields of candidates were unusual, so numbering every square was not an onerous task.

For most of last century, Labor opposed preferential voting because it worked against it, especially with the rise of the DLP in the 1950s. It schemed to return to first-past-the-post voting, and optional preferences could be seen as an interim step towards that. As numbers of candidates increased, compulsory preferences also meant that a lot of votes were rejected as informal, and that particularly hurt Labor, whose voters tended to be less educated and were more often from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

Labor succeeded in having optional preferences introduced in New South Wales in 1980 and Queensland in 1992. But funnily enough, at about the same time the balance of political advantage was shifting. The demise of the DLP and the reduction in Liberal-National contests meant that preferences were worth less to the Coalition, while the rise of the Democrats and later the Greens made them worth more to the ALP.

So by the turn of the century it was clear that Labor had more to gain from preferential voting. It took a while for that to filter through to people’s attitudes; the Liberals still worried about the potential for the Nationals to make trouble, and Labor still had a sentimental attachment to first-past-the-post. But by 2010 Queensland Labor was talking about returning that state to compulsory preferences, and it eventually did so in 2016.

Now the Coalition has embraced the logic of the situation as well. And so it should: not because of the political advantage (which would be minor at best), but because optional preferences are better in principle. There is no logical reason why thousands of people should have their votes thrown away because they fail to express a preference – which will never be counted – between candidates they have never heard of and have no interest in.

The illogicality was once even more pronounced, with Liberals who supported voluntary voting nonetheless supporting compulsory preferences. Labor, which dissented from the committee’s recommendation, can at least now claim a certain consistency in supporting compulsion in both, although to be fully consistent it would have to outlaw informal voting as well.

But these questions of principle make no appearance in the committee’s report. There is a brief reference to reducing the rate of informal voting, but nothing about the rights or wrongs of making people express preferences they do not have. The subsidiary question of Robson rotation (randomly varying the order of candidates on the ballot paper) receives no discussion at all, and is unlikely to proceed any further.

It’s all rather sad. At a time when many countries are rediscovering the importance of good electoral systems and preferential voting is attracting interest as part of a reform agenda, Australia is slipping further into Trumpism: a world in which facts and principles don’t matter, and all that counts is the naked calculation of political interest.

(For further commentary on the report, not all of which I agree with, see Bernard Keane here and William Bowe here.)

3 thoughts on “Optional preferences, yet again

  1. Too often in the FPV vs OPV debate is that the only alternatives presented are either (i) nearly-fully-optional preferences, or (ii) “number all, or all but one, of the candidates.”
    (By “nearly-fully-optional” I mean “number at least as many candidates as there are seats.” In Tasmania, the ACT and the Victorian Legislative Council, this means a minimum five preferences because there are five seats. In NSW and (1992-2017) Qld, this meant one preference was sufficient in a single-seat contest).
    (Because Australia has never adopted, and is not likely to adopt, “literally-fully-optional” preferences in the Irish or Maltese sense, where a single 1 is sufficient even in a five-seat election).
    Now, in earlier decades, when OPV was proposed by the Whitlam Govt (and actually used, eg for Senate elections 1918-48, and the NSW Legislative Council when indirectly elected 1933-1978), the minimum number of preferences was usually larger than [SEATS], albeit indexed to that number. As proposed by Whitlam (and again by Senator Arthur Gietzelt in his 1981 discussion paper) and used for the Senate and the 1933-78 NSW LC, the minimum for a valid vote was or would have been “twice the number of seats plus 1.” Then NSW adopted an implicit rule of “68% of the number of seats” (10+ candidates for 15 seats 1978-1991, 15+ candidates for 21 seats since 1991).
    So there is a precedent for a minimum required number of preferences that is:
    (a) greater than 1, but
    (b) far less than “all, or all bar one, of the candidates,” and
    (c) not necessarily the same as the number of seats (or necessarily even indexed to it).
    What I’d propose as a possible compromise is some minimum number of preferences — for all contests — that is greater than 1 but not necessarily indexed to the number of vacancies. I actually think Tasmania was on the money when it used to require minimum 3 preferences both in 6- and then 7-seat Assembly elections and also (still today) in single-seat Upper House contests. A “trifecta” rule is simple (electoral authorities used the slogan “PR Is As Easy As 1, 2, 3” when STV was introduced in Northern Ireland). Applied to a single-seat contest it would mimic the effects of FPV back in the “good old days” of 4 or 5 candidates per division. It would ensure that Liberals and Nationals, or Labor and Greens, would not split each other’s vote, but would also spare voters from having to mark (and electoral staff from having to check and count) “random noise” preferences for unknown independents and minors.
    Applied to a multi-seat contest, a minimum of three preferences would also produce broadly proportional results and simplify the process of voting on a large ballot-paper. The ballot should also contain instructions along the lines of “If you wish to support a particular party or combination of parties, you should make sure you number every candidate from the party or parties concerned.” This would do more to prevent inadvertent vote-splitting than requiring at least as many preferences as seats — if the assumption is that significant numbers of voters will only preference the legal minimum number, the latter rule does nothing to help parties than run six or even seven candidates for five seats (not unknown in Tasmania and the ACT, presumably to have reserves on the bench available for casual vacancies, or perhaps to defuse a preselection squabble).
    I find it hard to imagine that a (say) Labor voter, handed a Hare-Clark or Senate-style ballot with candidates grouped by party and told “number at least N candidates,” would literally number only that many even if it left some squares blank in the preferred party column. So I don’t think a “trifecta” rule would cause significant intra-party vote-splitting in multi-seat STV races. It would however help contain the leaking of exhausted votes where it counts — among the three or four viable contenders — in a single-seat race, and it would have the advantage of consistency for all elections.
    (I believe Fiji and/or PNG may have adopted a three-preferences minimum at one point, but it was hard to tell from the media if three was also the legal maximum. Sri Lanka allows three preferences maximum in presidential elections).


  2. Voters do clearly have preferences between major parties, when forced to choose, as they currently are. Why take away their incentive to express a wider range of views, when the majority of informal votes occur in safe seats where their enfranchisement would not affect the outcome of the election (and in fact is likely *because* of the safety of the seats in which they live, where there is no impetus to bother voting formally because it wouldn’t make a difference)?
    I do already know what your answer will be, but I just reread this blog post in preparation for our lunch in an hour, and I decided to go on record as Devil’s Advocate. I am also available for other advocacy work, dial 1800-666-666.


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