What A Single Vote Can Do


Julia Gillard and the Labor party lost the 2010 election. That is, they failed to win the majority vote. Tony Abbott and the Liberal party lost too – only gaining 72 seats for the Labor Party's sixty nine, four short of the requirement for majority government.

Four non-majority party members were elected into the parliament: one member of the Greens, one member of the National Party of Western Australia and four independent members held the balance of power. Andrew Wilkie, a former Greens candidate and now Independent Member, was elected as the Member for Denison. On 2 September 2010 he declared his support for Labor on confidence and supply.

Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, all independents, were re-elected. Both Katter and Windsor were successful at previous elections, while Oakeshott was elected at the 2008 Lyne by-election. All are former members of the National Party but were open to negotiating with either side to form government. They said they would engage in discussion as a bloc but vote individually.

On 7 September, Katter declared his support for the Coalition and Windsor and Oakeshott for Labor. The Labor party formed government with a margin of just one independent. Voters in Windsor and Oakeshott's electorates had a shedload of power in 2010. It just goes to show that single votes matter at all levels of government.

Take, for example, the 2011 local government election for Roebourne Shire, in Western Australia. Only 30 per cent of eligible voters voted during the council elections, and the position of President was decided by a name pulled out of a box. As Tom Stephen MLA observed, “A single vote can make a difference, and in this case will change the administration of the Roebourne Shire”.

Mandatory voting tends to produce “donkey votes”, where voters who don't know (or don't care) just number the boxes in order from the top. The donkey vote is so common that candidates try to have their name at the top of ballots to catch it. Others deliberately spoil their ballots or leave them blank; some who are enrolled to vote no longer want their vote to go towards any candidate.

There was an informal vote of 5.55 per cent in the 2010 election, a rise from past years. Hundreds of thousands of votes were not counted because tthey weren’t filled out properly.

The gap between political rivals for nine closely fought federal electorates in 2010 was smaller than the number of invalid ballot papers – if just some of those invalid ballot papers were filled in properly, they could have made the difference those voters wanted to see.

So don’t walk around thinking that just because you don’t agree with the current available parties doesn’t mean that your vote – or lack of it – won’t affect anything.

In the US, where voting is voluntary, and only a small percentile of the population votes. Historically, small proportions of the African American population cast votes. In 2004, just 60 per cent of eligible African Americans voted. In that race, George Bush won by about three million votes. In 2000, when all-over voter turnout was a record low 55 per cent, George W. Bush won Florida by just 527 votes. Commentators like Gerry Hudson argue that a surge in voting among African Americans and other core Democrat constituencies could have tipped both presidential races.

For a significant change in leadership, these numbers only have to change slightly. When Barack Obama first ran for presidency in 2008, 65 per cent of African Americans voted, an increase of just 5 per cent, but this increase was essential for Obama’s victory. In 2012, African Americans represented 13 per cent of the overall voter turnout – which delivered key states like Virginia, Ohio, and Florida and gave Obama another four years in the Oval Office.

Australia uses a preferential voting system. Under this system, voters can either “vote above the line” simply by listing the candidates on the ballot paper in the order of their preference, number one being their first preference, number two being their second preference, and so on. Or, you can “vote below the line” by numbering a large number of individual candidate's boxes in the order of your own preference.

Let’s go back to the 2010 election: After gaining the support of four crossbenchers, Labor was able to form a minority government. A vote for these independents brought their agendas to the forefront – the NBN, poker machine reform, and same-sex marriage to name a few. A government with independents can break up the large party majority, and compel them to listen and attend to issues that they might not have done so otherwise.

It’s not a perfect system by any stretch of the imagination. And helping vote an independent member into parliament doesn’t guarantee that key members of the major parties will follow through with agreements made with independents in exchange for their support.

But the key point here is that your vote is in no way a drop in a very inconsequential ocean. It can have a direct effect on state and federal elections, and the only way you can make your vote completely useless is to not use it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.