With an election looming, it's worrying that an extraordinary number of NSW voters do not seem to understand the NSW optional proportional voting system. I was one of these until a week ago when I decided to find out what the effect of not allocating preferences could be. It took considerable time and effort to work it out, especially as far as the Legislative Council is concerned.
It's bad for democracy when one party controls both houses — thanks to deals with very conservative upper house members. This happened in NSW under Labor with some poor outcomes and under the Coalition, the social fabric of the state and the feminist issues I care about will be vulnerable. Confusion about preference allocation may advantage conservative groups and consolidate their hold on the upper house.
The Greens and John Hatton have announced they won't encourage their voters to allocate preferences. This increases the likelihood of the more disciplined conservative groups acquiring a vital extra seat. NSW voters should think seriously about allocating their preferences to help an anti-conservative MLC cast the deciding vote in the upper house.
At the lower house level, the choices are fairly clear: the people you vote for get your votes in the order you number them. If you have no preference beyond your number ones, your vote stops there. It's more complex in the upper house. Many NSW voters still think their preferences will be automatically distributed according to registered preference deals, like at Senate elections. As a result, many people in the upper house may just tick one box without specifically allocating preferences.
This is where the problems arise. Why? It has to do with quotas and exhausted preferences. When a voter votes 1 above the line for Group X, in the primary count that vote will be allocated to the first in that group. When a group member reaches a quota, the excess votes go to the next on the list. If no other preferences are offered above the line, any unused votes are exhausted and don't go beyond the list.
A candidate who gets 4.55 per cent of the vote (the quota) is elected, and their excess votes trickle down their list. When no more quotas can be met, preferences are distributed. If there are not enough preferences to secure 21 quotas, the remaining candidates without a quota are ranked by their number of votes. This is what makes it more possible that minority candidates like Pauline Hanson, who are well known, may get up, or maybe an extra Christian Democrat.
Independents and Greens want to distance themselves from possible contamination by the major political parties by avoiding preferences. After all, many people can't bear the thought of voting Labor and yet are not really happy with voting Coalition. The Greens are therefore well placed to pick up progressive ex-Labor voters. By refusing to recommend allocating their preferences in a complex system of optional preferential and proportional voting, the Greens have freed themselves from the political deals — but also potentially encouraged their supporters to inadvertently increase the possibility of conservative victories.
The Greens have made two tactical errors that may upset those who are not rusted on voters. One is they focused very heavily financially on the two winnable inner city lower house seats which happen to be held by two of the more thoughtful and better Labor women, Verity Firth and Carmel Tebbutt. Given the likely rout of the ALP, replacing two left Labor members with two similar Greens will make no visible difference to political outcomes.
The other is their decision on upper house campaigning. The only way the Greens will have a serious influence on the policies and practices next NSW government will be if they hold the balance of power in the upper house. This result is possible but would require a solid campaign state-wide to maximise the Greens' upper house vote. This could have involved a decision to play the odds in a complex system of optional proportional voting through deals with other parties to help them reach quota or gain unused excess votes.
The Greens are relying on the past two election results when the parties most likely to win all of the 21 seats on offer managed quotas on their first preferences. Thus distribution of the preferences did not occur. However, this election will be different as Labor is expected to lose many seats and where they go may be crucial to the balance of power in this house.
It may well be that the Greens vote exhausts. This means those votes will not flow to any other candidate. The upper house candidates for the right wing parties are likely to do some tight and disciplined swaps, such as between the Shooters Party and the Fred Nile Christian Democrats and the Coalition. This, and maybe with the support of Hanson, may lob them into the extra seat that could have otherwise been occupied by a more progressive candidate. Effectively this will cut the Greens from the balance of power. Or one of them may pick up an under-quota seat if there are not enough preferences to create enough quotas.
Voting below the line is not a good tactic as only 10 per cent of votes are counted to estimate the distribution. Distributing preferences above the line is the most likely way of optimising your influence on the future NSW government.
Correction: This article states that only 10 per cent of votes are counted to estimate distribution. In fact, only about 10 per cent of minor party votes end up having their preferences counted, but that is of all minor party votes, both above and below the line. That figure is low because most votes are above the line ‘1’s and therefore have no preferences beyond the end of the chosen group. It is not because of the way the votes are counted.
For minor parties that are excluded and have their preferences counted, every vote counts.
There is a random sampling process which is engaged in for any candidate that receives in excess of a quota of votes, and for technical reasons, it is more likely that the votes in this sample will be above the line votes. So if you vote below the line for one of the candidates who is elected on the surplus of the leading candidate in the group, your below the line vote either gets squeezed out in the sampling process, or doesn’t get examined because it is with a candidate elected by the transfer of a surplus.
Thanks to Antony Green for his advice and to the readers who alerted us to this error.
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