17 Mar 2011

Will You Accidentally Vote For Hanson?

By Eva Cox
Voters who don't understand optional preferential voting in the upper house may inadvertently help the extreme right parties get a berth. Eva Cox explains why

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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Posted Thursday, March 17, 2011 - 12:51

I'm really disappointed that New Matilda has published an article that so seriously misrepresents the way that preferences work in NSW. Cox makes one worthwhile point - that the risk of a conservative NSW upper house is a real cause for concern. But further contributing to the misunderstandings around the NSW electoral system does no-one any favours. What Cox ignores is that a Greens candidate without a full quota could well be elected in exactly the same way she is suggesting Hanson could be - provided that that partial quota is still higher than the partial quota that Hanson or another right wing candidate achieves.

She also ignores the fact that there is quite simply a real dearth of progressive options in this election for Greens voters to allocate their preferences to in the event that the Greens are left with a partial quota.

Moreover - lets attribute some blame where it's due - the NSW Labor Party, whose total electoral collapse will be the real reason for a conservative lower and upper house.

Let's also be clear that the ALP is doing very little with its own ticket to prevent conservatives from controlling the NSW upper house. The sad fact is that even if a combined Greens and Labor alliance could prevent excesses of a conservative lower house on issues which the ALP requires its caucus to bind, the Labor Party doesn't expect of its members progressive stances on womens or LGTBI issues - like those about which Cox has been so outspoken. Feminist leaders like Cox and Summers have endorsed the ALP or their candidates all while conservative, pro-life candidates like Greg Donnelly are promoted to the ALP's few safe spots above the smattering of genuinely progressive candidates left in the ALP.

In the unlikely scenario where the ALP is able to recover significantly enough to win 7 upper house seats, many of those ALP upper house members will hold exactly the same pro-life, anti-woman views of those in the Liberal right and CDP. I don't see how promoting the ALP as a progressive party is in the interest of women or feminist causes when they are so relaxed about the commitment of their candidates to women's rights.

Posted Thursday, March 17, 2011 - 14:39

Eva Cox might be correct in theory, but her premise has a fatal flaw: on current polling and electoral logic, Anthony Green safely predicts 23 conservative (Coaltion + CDP + Shooters) and 19 ALP + Greens.

In other words the conservatives could lose a seat from that position and still not need ALP or Green support to pass legislation.

The *only* reason why the Coalition will have control of the Upper House is that the ALP vote has collapsed so badly. And that is hardly the fault of the Greens or the Independents.

Chris Maltby
Posted Thursday, March 17, 2011 - 21:15

I agree with what both melissaclaire and juswhe have said, but I would particularly like to take issue with this statement that Eva has made: "<i>Voting below the line is not a good tactic as only 10 per cent of votes are counted to estimate the distribution.</i>"

Of course it's totally untrue and it shows that her claim to have not previously understood the voting system is still generally true. The fact is that an above the line vote is just shorthand for certain below the line numberings, so all votes will be counted <i>below the line</i>. Ballot paper preference data is entered into a computer anyway, so counting them all is no extra effort, but even before computerisation they were all counted.

There is a random sampling process used to set aside a quota's worth of papers when a candidate is elected, but all eligible papers are included in the draw, not just the above-the-line ones. The actual papers the surplus is drawn from is very hard to predict as you get toward the end of the count (read the Elections Act for the full details).

A vote below the line is the best way to ensure your vote can only elect progressive MPs as it can skip some of the truly awful people that head one of the allegedly progressive groups. Eric Roozendaal anyone?

The main point that Eva has missed is that parties have no practical way to advocate below-the-line votes on their how-to-vote leaflets, and should the Greens show an above the line preference for Labor, Greens voters would see Roozendaal's name right there at the head of the column. I am certain that this would turn off more Greens voters than it would yield in preferences to allegedly progressive ALP candidates - which may be the point of this whole bogus preferences campaign.

Simply stated, the best way to ensure that Labor's collapse doesn't give total control of parliament to the Right is to encourage the swarms of former Labor voters to switch to the Greens and not the Coalition, not try to scare them off with a bogus preference story.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. milton
Posted Friday, March 18, 2011 - 13:10

did andrew ferguson write this piece for you eva? Respect plummet...

eva cox
Posted Saturday, March 19, 2011 - 09:34

eva cox

I am NOT supporting the ALP nor was this written to support them. I wanted to ensure people understand the difference to the Senate system and make sure their votes count the way they want them to. I do encourage people to allocate preferences and some of the answers show they don't understand the system. Greens elected on under a quota will keep their party votes, but if they do not score enough, maybe their preferences would help John Hatton or another progressive candidate.

A vote that transfers to the ALP will not elect the top five candidates as they will get enough first preferences but may assist the sixth who is pro choice. So that argument is ill informed. I realise that the preferences may not make a difference but people have a long history of voting differently in the upper and lower houses and this is an odd election to predict.

I agree with all the criticisms people make of the ALP, the Party sucks big time and deserves all the shit it gets, but the people of NSW don't deserve
another Fred Nile or shooter supporter. Therefore blaming the ALP for being obnoxious does not justify making it easier for the hard right to succeed. This is a logical flaw in the Greens argument. We need to take responsibility for our decision and not blame others.

I apologise for the wrong information on sampling, but it came from Meredith Burgman and I assumed she would know as the ex President of the Legislative Council

Posted Sunday, March 20, 2011 - 17:03


Eva, you may not support Labour as you say and neither do you support the Conservatives. That just leaves selected independents. And you beg the question when you claim "It’s bad for democracy when one party controls both houses".

Hanson's political career is a classic example of what lengths big bully parties will go to to crush minority Parties and Independents. Independents are the only way to a true democracy. (Perhaps not quite so at present) Whatever their personal political viewpoints they have to gain voter support to get in. They don't toe Party line and dogma.

Our Constitution does not call for large Parties that result in removal of the democratic selection process of the Prime Minister from the people entirely. The Constitutional draftsmen of the late 1800s presumed Australia would go down the UK path of many Parties being democratically represented in the Parliament with an Upper house maintaining balance and continuity of policy. Our clever Party politicians have subverted this. As a result the Governor General's role is marginalised and usurped by the PM.

Did you see our G-G during Prince William's visit? Another attempt by Julia at political leadership.

Posted Sunday, March 20, 2011 - 21:55

I will be just voting 1 Greens of course. And 1 in the upper house. We have to remove the ALP deadwood.

eva cox
Posted Monday, March 21, 2011 - 09:54

eva cox

I think all parties need internal dissenters and external challenges as no party has the monopoly on doing the right thing. Labor is the perfect example of stressing loyalty rather than ideas as criteria for rewards. Independents are important but often can be very local and/or limited do a mix of parties and independents works well, if no one has clear control.

Daniel, I agree on the deadwood but not voting that lets poison ivy take over is possibly worse.