4 Oct 2006

Led by Donkeys

By Amy King and New Matilda
Amy King and Andrew Leigh have found that donkey voters have had a real effect on Australian democracy — especially when it comes to the number of women in Federal Parliament

Australians have long prided ourselves in our electoral system. Australia invented the secret ballot, was among the first to allow women the vote, and pioneered compulsory voting. Electoral systems translate public opinion into parliamentary representation, and Australia's is claimed to be one of the fairest.

Yet there is an element of chance in the system: the candidates' order on the ballot paper is determined by lottery. So one might reasonably ask how often the hand of Lady Luck sways the result of Australian elections?

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To estimate the size of the ballot order effect, we analysed Federal elections conducted since 1984, when ballot order was first randomised.

Our research aimed to answer a simple question: if you're lucky enough to get pole position on the ballot paper, how many more votes do you get? In other words, what share of the electorate are 'donkey voters' who stubbornly vote for the first person on the ballot paper?

It turns out that the answer isn't so simple. Male candidates who are listed first get an additional 1.4 per cent of the vote (an extra 1000 votes in the typical electorate). But female candidates get no benefit from being listed first on the ballot paper.

This odd gender bias is not a quirk of recent polls, but a systematic feature of donkey voting in Australia over the past 20 years. Because past research has combined male and female candidates, it has missed this surprising feature of donkey voting.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Our best characterisation of donkey voting today is that one in 70 Australian voters (about 160,000 voters in the 2004 election) are willing to vote for the first-placed candidate on the ballot but only if that candidate is a man. When a woman is listed first on the ballot, donkey voters move to another candidate.

The effects of ballot order are not only statistically significant, they are also large enough to affect the result. In a typical federal election, one in 10 seats (15 out of 150) are decided by a margin of less than 1.4 per cent. Were a man from a major Party to draw first spot on the ballot in these electorates, he might well tip over the line.

Indeed, we were able to identify five recent races in which a man from a major Party drew first position on the ballot and won by a margin of less than 1.4 per cent. These lucky beneficiaries of ballot order were Kim Beazley and Michael Lee in 1996, and Ross Cameron, Gary Nairn and Paul Neville in 1998. Without ballot order effects, the Labor Party might, today, have a different leader.

While the typical Australian voter has more schooling today than in the past, we found no evidence that the share of donkey voters has declined since 1984. So it seems reasonable to assume that a similar proportion of voters will continue to vote for the first-placed man in future elections.

Supporters of the current system often describe random ballot ordering as 'fair.' It is true that before the ballot draw, all candidates have the same chance of getting the top spot. But after the ballot draw, the system is manifestly unfair, since a man in the first position will do better than his rivals.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution, presently used in elections in the ACT and Tasmania. Rather than having only a single ballot paper, the Australian Electoral Commission could simply produce multiple versions, re-ordering the candidates each time. In this way, any ballot order effect is shared across the candidates. This electoral system, known as Robson Rotation, produces a fairer result. And thanks to advances in printing technology, the extra cost is minimal.

In World War I, Allied troops were described as 'lions led by donkeys.' Whether or not we lionise our Federal politicians, do we really want them chosen by donkey voters?

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