A quick overview of the proposed Senate electoral system

Senate chamber

In an interview with the ABC’s Radio National on 22 September 2015 the new Special Minister of State, Hon Mal Brough MP, indicated that he intended to pursue reform of the Senate electoral system. Citing the need to strengthen Australia’s democracy and democratic engagement by implementing a more representative system, the Minister stated that ideally the new system would be in place for the next election (due in the normal course of events in the second half of 2016).

In an Interim Report released in May 2014, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) proposed what is perhaps the most radical overhaul of the electoral system used to elect the Australian Senate since 1948, when the much-criticised block system was abolished and proportional representation by Single Transferable Vote was first introduced. The government has not yet formally responded to the Committee’s report.

The changes proposed by JSCEM aim to address some perceived problems at the 2013 federal election:

'Many voters were confused. If they voted above the line, the choice of where their vote would go was effectively unknown, and accordingly in many cases their electoral will distorted.

If they voted below the line they needed to complete preferences for each and every candidate - in many states, a very complex and time consuming exercise.

The ‘gaming’ of the voting system by many micro-parties created a lottery, where, provided the parties stuck together in preferencing each other (some of whom have polar opposite policies and philosophies) the likelihood of one succeeding was maximised.'

Proposed changes

The Committee has proposed changing the voting system itself, along with the system of party registration. In terms of the voting system, the Committee has essentially recommended that Group Voting Tickets (GVTs) be abolished and that the Senate voting system be changed to Optional Preferential Voting (OPV).

GVTs allow voters to have their preferences distributed by the party they are voting for. It was introduced to combat the high level of informal ballots that resulted from voters having to number every square on the senate ballot paper (the NSW ballot paper for the 2013 Senate election had 110 squares). In the large states, more than 97% of voters elected to use the party’s GVT by voting above the line in the 2013 federal election.

The preference allocations through GVTs are complex and tend to be opaque to voters. The combination of the requirement for preferences to be allocated to every candidate, and strategic preference swaps between groups, mean that the Above The Line (ATL) votes tend to find their way to unexpected candidates. These candidates may then be elected despite having very few first preference votes—far fewer first preferences than many of the candidates who are not elected.

The Committee’s solution is to retain the option for ATL votes, allowing voters to cast multiple ATL preferences, but have those ATL votes indicate preferences only for the candidates in that group. This returns control of the preferences to the voter.

The Committee has also proposed that voters choosing to vote below the line not be required to number every candidate. Voters would only be required to nominate at least as many preferences as there are vacancies to be filled (six in a normal half-senate election for a state, two for a territory).

Effects on electoral outcomes

Predicting the electoral outcomes that would emerge from the proposed system is difficult. It would almost certainly eliminate the situation where a candidate is elected on a very small vote, but would be unlikely to prevent smaller parties with a reasonable constituency being successfully elected.

The NSW Legislative Council has a similar system where voters can nominate multiple preferences above the line—however only around 15 per cent of voters do so. Parties can attempt to direct preferences through Senate How To Vote cards, but in NSW in 2011 these were only followed by a small number of voters. When voters do allocate their own preferences, they can do so in ways which are not consistent with the GVT of the party that gets their first preference, particularly for minor and micro parties.

In the absence of GVTs, large numbers of votes will exhaust—drop out of the count before their preferences can be allocated. This would be particularly true of votes for minor and micro parties where the voter does not allocate a later preference for a major party. It is likely that one or more seats per state would be filled by a candidate who had the highest remaining vote, but did not gain a quota (the overall number of votes required to be elected).

While NSW Legislative Council ballot papers still have large numbers of micro and minor parties despite OPV, the quota for election to the Council is only around 185,000 votes compared to a quota of around 625,000 votes for the Senate in NSW. It is possible that the JSCEM’s recommended changes, combined with proposed tougher party registration rules, could reduce the number of minor and micro parties contesting federal elections.

The reduced burden for casting a vote Below The Line (BTL) may also mean that this option becomes more popular. Among other effects, this would increase the time required for the Australian Electoral Commission to count the ballot papers to determine the result. In practice, however, this would only be likely to present a problem in the case of a senate election that happened before new senators took their places on the 1st of July, or a joint sitting following a double dissolution election.

The JSCEM’s proposed reforms, if implemented, would return the Senate voting system to a much more proportional system, where the makeup of the Senate more closely represented the votes of the electorate, but would also remove much of the element of surprise that has characterised senate elections in recent years.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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