House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

3 - Elections and the electoral system

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Method of voting

With every system of election there are two quite separate and distinct processes, the ‘voting’ process and the ‘scrutiny’ process, that is, the counting. The first is performed by the voters in the casting of their votes while the second is carried out by the officials responsible for the conduct of the election. The procedure for the scrutiny of votes in House of Representatives elections is provided for in the electoral law.[101]

Until 1918 the ‘first-past-the-post’ voting process was used. This is one of the simplest forms of voting as it requires the voter to indicate a vote for only one candidate and the candidate with the greatest number of votes (that is, a relative majority) is elected.

The voting process now in use is a preferential one, usually referred to as ‘preferential voting’ (also known as the ‘alternative vote’ system).

Preferential voting

The preferential voting system used is an absolute majority system where for election a candidate must obtain more than 50 per cent of the votes in the count. The voter is required to mark his or her vote on the ballot paper by placing the number one (1) against the name of the candidate of first choice, and to give contingent votes for all the remaining candidates in order of preference by the consecutive numbers 2, 3, 4 and so on; all squares on the ballot paper must be numbered, although one square may be left unnumbered, in which case the blank square will be deemed to be the voter’s last preference, provided a first preference has been indicated.[102]

The first step in obtaining the result of the election is to count the first preferences marked for each candidate. If a candidate has an absolute majority (that is, fifty percent plus one) on the first preferences or at any later stage of the count, that candidate is elected. The next step is to exclude the candidate with the fewest votes and sort those ballot papers to the next preference marked by the voter. This process of exclusion is repeated (to achieve the two party preferred figure) until there are only two candidates left in the count, even though one of those candidates may have been declared elected at an earlier stage.[103]

Senate voting

A method of preferential voting related to that described above was also used for Senate elections from 1919 to 1946. A system of proportional representation has been used since 1949. Under that system, a candidate must obtain a certain percentage of the votes in the count, usually referred to as the ‘quota’, to be elected. This system is only appropriate to multi-member constituencies, such as those for the Senate, where each State votes as one electorate.

For Senate elections the ballot paper may be marked preferentially or, alternatively, the voter may indicate his or her wish to vote for candidates in the order set out on a registered party list by marking the appropriate box. The special feature of proportional representation is contained in the method of counting the votes which ensures that the proportion of seats won by each party in a State or Territory closely reflects the proportion of the votes gained by that party.[104] There is thus greater opportunity for the election of minority parties and independents than in the House.

The result of proportional representation has been that since 1949 the numbers of the Senate have usually been relatively evenly divided between government and opposition supporters with the balance of power often being held by minority parties or independents, whose political influence has increased as a consequence. Governments have frequently been confronted with the ability of the Opposition and minority party or independent Senators to combine to defeat or modify government measures in the Senate.

101. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 274.
102. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, ss. 240, 268.
103. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 274.
104. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 239. For a more detailed account of this system see Odgers, 13th edn, pp. 124–7; and Electoral Commission publications.