The Senate voting system: issues and suggestions for reform

Rob Lundie and Deirdre McKeown, Politics and Public Administration

Key issue
Election to the Senate of candidates from small parties with a very low primary vote.

Small party success

The Senate result at the 2013 election ignited debate about the fairness of the voting system, given that the distribution of preferences delivered Senate seats to parties with a very low primary vote. This has been attributed to the fact that most people chose to vote above-the-line, resulting in their preferences being distributed according to a pre-determined Group Voting Ticket, which is lodged by the parties with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) before polling day. Group Voting Tickets are published on the AEC website.

Through a complex series of preference deals, about which most voters were unaware or did not understand, candidates from a number of small parties were elected.

A similar situation occurred at the 2004 federal election when Family First’s Steve Fielding (Vic.) was elected to the Senate with 1.9% of the primary vote and in 2010 when DLP Senator John Madigan (Vic.) was elected with 2.33%.

Size of ballot paper

Large numbers of candidates stood for the Senate (for example, over 100 candidates in NSW). This resulted in very large ballot papers that voters found difficult to manage in polling booths. Furthermore, the size of the print required polling officials to provide magnifiers so that the names could be read.

Low informal vote

The 2013 election saw a lower level of Senate informal votes than at the 2010 election, 2.96% and 3.75% respectively. It is possible that the size of the Senate ballot paper and the requirement that people voting below-the-line number every box, encouraged most electors to simply vote ‘1’ above‑the-line, thereby reducing the chance of informality.

Confusing party name and ballot paper position

Commentators have suggested that the Liberal Democrats may have benefitted from the so-called ‘donkey vote it received by being the first party listed on the NSW Senate ballot paper. There were also reports that a number of voters had confused the name of the party with the Liberal Party.

Proposals for reform

A range of solutions have been suggested by psephologists, commentators and academics (such as Antony Green, Brian Costar and George Williams) along with former Senator Bob Brown and current Senators Lee Rhiannon (AG, NSW) and Nick Xenophon (IND, SA).

The proposals for reform can be grouped into two main approaches:

Taking the power to allocate preferences away from the parties and giving it to the voters.

The most common method advocated for returning the power of allocating preferences to voters is optional preferential voting above or below the line. Above-the-line voters would have the choice of voting for as many parties as they wished. The preferences would flow down the list of the candidates of the party they first chose and then move on to the list of candidates of the party of their second choice, and so on. This would weaken the power of Group Voting Tickets as the voter, not the party, would have the power to allocate preferences.

Alternatively, the voter could vote below the line for a limited number of candidates (six for a half‑Senate election; 12 for a double dissolution). Voters would not be required to fill in every box and would have greater control of the flow of preferences.

Optional Preferential Voting was adopted for the NSW Legislative Council after it confronted a similar situation in 1999 (250 candidates and the election of a candidate who obtained only 0.2% of the primary vote).

Reducing the number of small parties and their influence on the result.

The number of small parties could be reduced by tightening the party registration criteria and/or requiring small parties to obtain a certain level of voter support as indicated by their primary vote.

The proponents of new party registration requirements suggest such things as: each party would be required to have a larger number of members than the present 500; no person could be a member of two parties at the same time; each party would be required to pay a larger registration fee than the current $500; each party would be required to have a constitution, hold meetings and provide minutes of those meetings; each party would have to register at least a year before the election was due and party names could not be so similar to the names of other parties as to be likely to cause confusion amongst voters.

The effect of small parties’ influence on the result could also be reduced by the requirement that each party obtain a certain percentage of the primary vote, for example 4%, before the party could be involved in the distribution of preferences. Senator Joe Ludwig, a former Special Minister of State, has noted that Germany and New Zealand use a threshold of 5% while other countries such as the Netherlands, Israel, Italy, Argentina and Sweden use lower thresholds.

The party donkey vote in the Senate could be negated by rotating the position of parties on the ballot paper.

Current situation

Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has said that the issue should be considered after the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has conducted its inquiry into the 2013 election. 

Senator Nick Xenophon (IND, SA) has announced that he will introduce legislation to allow Optional Preferential Voting below-the-line.

Further reading

S Bennett and R Lundie, Australian electoral systems, Research paper, 2007–08, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2007.

Australian Government, Strengthening Australia’s democracy, Green paper, September 2009.


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