How To Make A Vote Below The Line Count


The Greens have directed their Senate preferences to the Palmer United Party ahead of Liberal candidates, while Wikileaks has placed Shooters and Fishers Party and the anti-multiculturalism Australia First Party over both major parties and The Greens in New South Wales. New Matilda is currently profiling the policies and preferences of a range of minor parties.

How can you be sure your preferences don’t go to a party you find noxious? NM is here to help!

Voting below the line involves numbering each candidate in order of your preference below the black line, rather than following your chosen party’s preferences (the “group voting ticket”).

This year there is a record number of candidates running – more reasons to vote below the line, and a greater prospect of getting tangled up in the preferences and making mistakes. In 2010, 1,198 candidates ran; this year, there are 1,717 candidates—529 of whom are battling it out for 40 (out of 76) Senate seats.

There are 110 candidates contesting six seats in NSW; 97 in Victoria; 82 in Queensland; 62 in Western Australia; 73 in South Australia; 54 in Tasmania; and 27 and 24 candidates for two seats in both the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. 

Over 95 per cent of Australians vote above the line. In the last federal election, only 3.88 per cent voted below the line. The big problem with voting below the line is making mistakes and thereby squandering your vote.

Below the line ballots are discarded if a symbol is used as a first preference. They are ditched if there is more than one first preference; if there are 10 or more candidates and 90 per cent are not numbered; and if there are fewer than 10 candidates and one is not numbered.

In such cases (pdf), preferences are only allocated until the number sequence is interrupted. You can also vote both above and below the line. This can be a useful option for those unsure of their ability to correctly preference dozens of candidates, explains the ABC’s Antony Green, as your above the line vote is counted if your below the line vote becomes informal.

How do preferences work?
To win a Senate spot, candidates must reach a quota of votes. More on how that system works can be found at Antony Green's blog.

If seats remain unfilled after this process, unelected candidates are excluded from the count, starting with those who received the fewest votes, with their preferences distributed until all seats are filled.

Voting above the line ensures you don’t cast an informal ballot. But it can be difficult to find out where your party of choice is directing its preferences, unless it makes headlines or you trawl through the maze that is the AEC website.

What difference does voting below the line make?
Often, not a lot, Monash University School of Political and Social inquiry senior lecturer Nick Economou told NM.

“Senate results are actually profoundly influenced by what the major parties do—and in particular, where they send their preferences. Because, at the end of the day, nearly everyone is voting for Labor, Liberal and National, they are going to win the vast number of seats,” he said.

But there are exceptions. In 2004, current Greens leader of Christine Milne won a Senate seat—despite Labor preferencing Family First ahead of the Greens in some states—largely thanks to below the line votes.

Due to the increase in political parties (54, as opposed to 25 in 2010, a 46 per cent increase) fewer people are likely to vote below the line, added Economou.

“When you get lots of candidates, lots of parties, you enhance the complexity of the process and it just encourages people to go for the easy option and that will be to vote above the black line,” he said.

But the increase in candidates and parties also means more people are likely to vote for smaller parties, making their [own]preferences more important, former Greens candidate and Tally Room poll-watcher Ben Raue told NM.

“There are so many parties running and quite a lot of them have formed alliances that don’t necessarily follow their political agenda.”

“The deals are going to be more sophisticated and it’s possible that there’ll be a larger proportion of people whose votes go to a small party and their preferences will become more important instead of just seats being decided on primary votes,” he said.

But no one should feel pressured to vote below the line, added Raue.

“It’s not uncommon for people who know a lot about politics to just assume that it’s easy to vote below the line, or it’s the voter’s responsibility to vote below the line… In practice, it’s so difficult to caste a vote, particularly when you don’t know who a lot of these candidates are,” he said.

If you decide to vote below the line, there are websites—such as Below The Line —to help you pre-order your preferences. Green’s blog also provides breakdowns of state and territory preferences. For those wanting more detail on Senate voting, he’s also written a Q&A.

**This article has been updated since it was published.

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