Whatever Gets You Over The Line


Former One Nation leader Pauline Hanson lost her race for a seat in the NSW Legislative Council in April in an extremely close race. Despite leading on primary votes, she was overtaken by the Nationals’ Sarah Johnston and the Greens’ Jeremy Buckingham and ultimately missed out. On the final count, she was 1306 votes behind Johnston and 2437 votes behind Buckingham.

Pauline Hanson’s independent group polled 2.4 per cent of the vote in the upper house. This vote level would not be enough for a group to win a seat in the Senate or in any other state’s Parliament, but the low quota in the NSW upper house took her very close to victory.

Last week, Hanson launched a legal bid to have the result overturned, claiming that she had been "cheated" out of a seat in Parliament.

She has claimed that there were reports of about 1200 of her votes being misplaced in a pile of blank ballots, and that the NSW Electoral Commission had discussed hiding the mistake. Hanson claims to have received forwarded emails discussing plans by the NSWEC to cover up any error. (Read the full claim here.)

After polling day, all Legislative Council ballot papers were entered into a computer program at the Legislative Council Counting Centre in Riverwood in late March and early April. Following two weeks of ballot processing, the Electoral Commissioner "pushed the button" on the computer program that then did an automatic count of all ballots to produce a result.

When candidates receive more than a quota of votes, their surplus is distributed through random sampling. The computer program automatically assigns a random sample of ballots to their next preference to continue the count.

Hanson’s claim refers to a pile of 50 blank ballot papers sent in from a local electorate office. The count found that more than 15 were formal votes for Hanson’s group. She then relies on a supposed leaked email from inside the Electoral Commission which claims that there could be as many as 1200 Hanson ballots in among the approximately 150,000 blank ballots.

It seems rather unlikely that the court case will make much progress. The counting process for the Legislative Council involved hundreds of staff, with double-checking of ballot sorting and sophisticated data entry processes.

Even if a local polling clerk had decided to sort Hanson votes into the blank pile, this wouldn’t be enough to achieve a result. These blank ballots were then checked twice at the counting centre. Any mis-sorts would then be re-sorted by a supervisor. So to put a Hanson ballot into the blank pile would require the cooperation of a number of Electoral Commission staff.

While it isn’t implausible that a few staff could have been biased in how they counted, the system meant that rechecking in different places made it hard for such bias to have an effect.

According to the election night count, Pauline Hanson’s largest number of above-the-line votes at a single booth was the 197 votes she won at Bass High School in Bankstown. The vast majority of polling booths had less than 100 Hanson ballots. Unfortunately the NSWEC has not provided polling booth figures for the final result, which includes below-the-line votes.

Considering the small number of Hanson votes at each booth, an effort to squirrel away 1200 Hanson ballots would require the cooperation of hundreds more Electoral Commission officials.

If somehow the court was to grant a recount of blank ballots, and Hanson was to gain an extra 1200 ballots, a different result could be produced. While Hanson was outpolled by Nationals candidate Johnston by more than 1200 ballots, the proportional system would mean those extra votes would have a greater effect.

The quota is calculated based on the total number of formal votes in the count. Adding an extra 1200 formal votes would increase the quota. This wouldn’t have an effect on Hanson’s vote, as she is the first candidate in her group, but Johnston was the 11th Coalition candidate. An increased quota would mean more of the Coalition’s votes would need to be used to elect each of the first 10 candidates, giving less votes to Johnston. I estimate it would increase Hanson’s lead on primary votes by 1750 votes.

So is there any basis to Pauline Hanson’s criticism of the Legislative Council electoral system? Actually, there is. New South Wales has extremely strict rules for registering a political party, requiring a party to register 12 months in advance and maintain at least 750 members. This has helped cut back the number of groups running for the Legislative Council since the "tablecloth ballot" election of 1999. In addition, it is required that all groups must have at least 15 candidates to have a box above the line. It is effectively impossible for a candidate to be elected without a box above the line.

Pauline Hanson found 14 other candidates and paid the $5000 nomination fee. Yet while the 14 official parties had their party name appear next to the box above the line, Pauline Hanson’s group only had the words "Group J". The other independent group, headed by former MP John Hatton, also suffered the same handicap.

It appears that this difference explains the very high vote for Pauline Hanson among below-the-line voters. Hanson polled (pdf) 1.96 per cent of the above-the-line vote, but polled 22 per cent of the below-the-line vote. Hanson has a previous record of polling strongly below the line when running as an independent for the Senate and for the NSW Legislative Council in 2003. It appears that many of her voters voted for her below-the-line after not seeing her name above the line.

To vote formally below the line, it is necessary to number at least 15 of the 311 candidate squares. Anecdotal evidence from scrutineers at the Legislative Council count suggests that many informal votes came from those who voted "1" for Pauline Hanson below the line but did not number enough boxes to count.

If those votes were counted as valid votes for Hanson, she may well have closed the gap and won a seat in the Legislative Council.

Pauline Hanson isn’t the best ambassador for electoral reform. Even so, it seems fair that a group that manages to clear the many hurdles put in front of them should be able to have their lead candidate’s name above the line, thus giving them the same exposure as the political parties they’re competing with.

It’s true that some Pauline Hanson votes were probably made informal by the voting system but it’s also true that the Legislative Council system is the only one in the country that gave her a chance of winning a seat. Why else leave her home state of Queensland to run in NSW? A vote of 2.4 per cent wouldn’t have come close to giving her a seat under the proportional systems used for the Senate and in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT. Whatever the result of Hanson’s claim, the NSW Legislative Council system remains the fairest and most proportional voting system in Australia.


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