We have a lot to be thankful for in our electoral system.
It's run by an central, federal authority with no visible partisan tilt and it can turn around a paper-based election in one evening, even if that results in a long discussion as to who actually forms government. Our Electoral Commission goes to great lengths to make sure that everyone can vote, no matter where they live.
We also have preferential voting which, in theory at least, should remove any barriers to voting for minor parties. The only fly in this ointment is the Senate voting system. We have proportional representation and the single transferrable vote. These should be awesome.
The problem is that we're limited in a very specific way: We can either vote incredibly easily for a pre-defined set of preferences, or we can spend a vastly greater amount of time and effort to number. Every. Single. Candidate. Below the line. All 110 of them, if you're lucky enough to be in New South Wales.
My utterly unscientific research suggests that if you ask a random person if they know where the preferences from the group they plan to vote for are going, they either won't know or they'll be guessing. This information is available on the Australian Electoral Commission website but it's not made particularly clear and when you do find it the most easily digestable form is a PDF booklet that contains the preference tickets in the form of filled out below the line ballots. If you're aware of how painful they can be to fill out you can imagine how painful they'd be to read.
This provides an environment where small parties can set themselves up to funnel preferences between themselves in an attempt to snag the last seat in a given state.
If the third candidate from the ALP or the Coalition fails to achieve a quota and another candidate manages to gather enough preferences to pass them in the count they can receive the ALP or Coalition candidate's preferences and end up winning the seat.
This is what happened with Steve Fielding of Family First in 2004 and John Madigan of the DLP in 2010. In 2013 we've ended up with an enormous field of incredibly minor parties who all seem to be passing preferences around themselves in an attempt to outlast enough candidates to be in the running to take a seat. In some cases, such as the Australian Sex Party and the Wikileaks Party, these deals seem to go against the stated ideology of the party leading to significant unrest in their supporters.
To try and combat the difficulty of voting below the line, several websites have sprung up to assist. Mine is Below the Line, and there are also Cluey Voter and Senate.io. All three of these sites provide a way for a voter to input which parties, groups or candidates they want to vote for (or, indeed, against) and then create a self-constructed "how to vote" card for them to take to the polling booth. My site also attempts to provide links to party and candidate information where possible so that voters can have a chance of knowing who it is they're voting for.
All this should be unnecessary though. A solution I believe should be pushed for is to remove the current form of above the line voting and replace it with above the line preferencing. A voter would be able to number the boxes above the line in preference order and it would act as if they'd numbered the candidates in the groups sequentially in the preference order specified.
Elections should be a competition of beliefs and ideology, both clearly stated and stood by. They shouldn't be a venue for rule-gaming in the pursuit of power. We unfortunately expect cynicism and contempt for voters from the major parties. Any minor party expecting to receive our vote should hold themselves to a better standard than this, and the system should encourage them to do so.
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