Preferences in Australian federal elections: A quick guide

21 April 2022

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Damon Muller
Politics and Public Administration


When a general election or by-election is imminent the subject of trading preferences, or who is directing their preferences to whom, is always a hot topic of media discussion. In practice, however, the process of trading preferences is less concrete than it might sound.

What is a preference?

All lower and upper house elections at the federal level and in each state and territory either require or encourage voters to allocate preferences to candidates on the ballot paper.

At the federal level in the House of Representatives preferential voting means that if a candidate gets over 50 per cent of the vote in first preferences they are declared elected. If no candidate gets above 50 per cent of the votes on first preferences, the candidate with the lowest number of first preference votes is excluded and the preferences on those ballot papers are distributed to remaining candidates. When one candidate has at least 50 per cent of the vote from their own first preference votes and preferences transferred from excluded candidates, that candidate is declared elected.

One consequence of this process is that the final two candidates in each contest (generally referred to in Australian elections as the ‘two candidate preferred’ or ‘TCP’ candidates) will not have their preferences distributed. Under full preferential voting, as in a federal House of Representatives election, all the ballot papers that indicate a first preference for a candidate other than the final two will be counted towards one or the other of these two TCP candidates.

There is no way to cast a formal ballot so that it does not count towards one or the other TCP candidate, as all candidates on the ballot paper must be numbered so each ballot must preference one of the two TCP candidates over the other. If the TCP candidates are Labor and Liberal, for example, then all formal ballots will count towards either the Labor or Liberal candidate’s total, no matter who the voter preferenced or in what order.

This also means that it does not make sense to say that ‘candidate A beat candidate B on the preference of candidate C’. Candidate C did not allocate the preferences: the voters did. And the votes for all the candidates must have counted against either candidate A or candidate B (the TCP candidates) due to the nature of compulsory full preferential voting.

In the majority of contests in a federal election (136 divisions in the 2019 federal election) one of the TCP candidates is from Labor and one is from the Liberal/National Coalition. In these divisions, which are referred to as ‘classic’ divisions, the preferences from the Labor and Coalition candidates are not distributed, and so are not counted by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). So we tend not to know how the preferences of most of the people who vote for Labor or the Coalition with their first preference are allocated.

The distribution of preferences for Senate elections is more complex and the preferences for a winning candidate may be distributed. In Senate elections voters can also allocate preferences above or below the line. A detailed discussion of how the count in Senate elections works can be found in a prior Library publication.

How do candidates direct preferences?

Technically candidates do not allocate preferences: voters do. The only way a candidate can direct preferences is to communicate to their supporters how they would like them to order the candidates on their ballot papers. The way that this is typically done in Australian elections is through producing a How To Vote (HTV) card that indicates the candidate’s preferred preference distribution, and getting those HTV cards into the hands of their supporters.

Many candidates have an interest as to which candidate ‘their’ votes (that is, a ballot paper that gives them a first preference) ends up counting towards. For example, a candidate who does not have sufficient support to be one of the final two candidates in an election might want to support another candidate in the election who is ideologically aligned, and have their first preference votes count against that candidate.

In some cases a candidate’s allocation of preferences might be purely for show or signalling, such as a candidate who is likely to be one of the two final candidates stating that they are preferencing another candidate last, despite the fact that their preferences will likely not be distributed.

The success of a HTV card in directing preferences depends on two factors: whether the supporters receive the HTV card, and whether they follow it.

Distributing HTV cards

The easiest way for a candidate to ensure that their voters get one of their HTV cards is by handing them one as they walk into the polling place. Some states require parties to register HTV cards for state elections with the state electoral commission, and the electoral commission hosts those HTV cards on a website, creating a central repository for voters looking to follow a candidate’s HTV card (this is the case in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia, for example). South Australia even goes so far as printing the HTV cards on the voting screens in the polling place. However, none of these options are available for federal elections.

Distributing HTV cards at polling places in an election is usually done by party members and volunteers. Smaller parties may have trouble mobilising sufficient volunteers to cover all polling places, particularly in a general election. Media reports stated that in 2013 a Palmer United Party candidate was paying backpackers to hand out HTV cards, and in 2016 the Australian Equality Party was reported to have used job outsourcing website Airtasker to hire people to hand out HTV cards. However, at around $100 per person, adequately covering around 7,000 polling places at a federal election (including the pre-poll centres full time for two weeks) would get expensive.

As a rule, then, smaller and newer parties that do not have a large grass-roots membership base, or the financial resources to hire people, will struggle to direct their preferences unless they restrict themselves to a manageable number of seats. Statements by these parties in relation to who they are preferencing in an election may be more aspirational than likely to affect actual preference flows.

Following HTV cards

While a HTV card can indicate to a voter how their preferred candidate would like that voter to distribute their preferences, preference allocation is still up to the voter.[1] Due to the anonymity of voting it is not possible to determine whether people who take HTV cards actually follow them, however some Australian research has examined voter use of HTV cards.

The Australian Election Study (AES) asks respondents whether they followed a HTV card when they marked their preferences. As shown in Figure 1, the 2016 and 2019 results show that HTV card use varies considerably from party to party, with almost half of all Liberal voters following HTV cards, but less than 5 per cent of One Nation voters. Note that for some of the smaller parties the sample size is quite small, so these figures should not be assumed to be representative of all voters for those parties.

Figure 1    Voters who used a HTV card in 2016 and 2019, by party voted for in the House of Representatives

Chart - Voters who used a HTV card in 2016 and 2019, by party voted for in the House of Representatives

Source: Data from the Australian Election Study.

Note: Data for some smaller parties is based on a very small number of respondents and is not necessarily representative.

Looking at the actual votes and their preferences is another way to measure HTV card compliance, however it is complicated by the inability to determine between those who followed a HTV card and those who just happened to allocate their preferences in the same order as a HTV card.

As noted above, Labor and Coalition preferences are typically not distributed in federal elections, so it is more difficult to determine preference compliance for the major parties. ABC election analyst Antony Green looked at a number of seats that were TCP contests between the Greens and Labor, meaning Liberal preferences were distributed. In 2010 the Liberals preferenced the Greens above Labor, and in the divisions of Batman (since renamed to Cooper) and Melbourne around 80 per cent of Liberal preferences went to Greens. In 2013 the Liberals preferenced Labor over the Greens, and 32.6 per cent of Liberal preferences went to the Greens in Batman and 33.7 per cent went to the Greens in Melbourne. In 2019 Liberal preferences flowed 33.9 per cent to the Greens in Cooper (formerly known as Batman) on the basis of Liberal HTV cards also putting Labor over the Greens (the Liberals were a TCP candidate in Melbourne in 2019 and so their preferences were not distributed). This suggests a relatively high level of Liberal voter HTV card compliance in those seats.

Some state electoral commissions conduct audits of HTV card compliance in state elections. In 2014 in South Australia, for example, an audit of 76 divisions found 42.4 per cent of formal ballot papers followed a HTV card. The audit found that divisions that had 5 or more candidates showed below average HTV card compliance, and those with 4 candidates showed above average HTV card compliance. For the 2018 state election the South Australian Electoral Commission found 37.7 per cent of all formal ballot papers followed the HTV cards. As mentioned above, polling places in South Australia have the HTV cards printed on the voting screen, making them accessible to voters at the time of voting, so it would be expected that SA would have relatively high HTV card compliance.

Following the 2019 NSW state election a survey was conducted which asked about HTV card usage, finding that 63 per cent of voters ignored HTV cards completely. Of the reported usage by party, 53 per cent of Coalition voters ignored HTV cards, as did 80 per cent of Greens voters. These figures are largely consistent with the AES findings. The report also noted that HTV card usage was highest among ‘rusted on voters’ (83 per cent), however it is unclear how this was defined.

The Parliamentary Library looked at distribution of preferences in the 2016 Senate election and found highly variable HTV card compliance. In NSW, for example, almost a third of Coalition voters preferenced in accordance with the party’s HTV card to the third preference, whereas only 1.4 per cent of Labor voters did. In Queensland, where One Nation polled strongly in the Senate, only 10.36 per cent of One Nation voters gave their second preference to the Australian Liberty Alliance, which was second on One Nation’s Senate HTV card. Almost as many One Nation voters (9.95 per cent) gave their second preference to the Liberal National Party of Queensland instead.

It is worth noting that 2016 was the first time in recent memory that HTV cards have been used for the Senate, and it is possible voters may take time to get used to using them. It is also true that people are reporting less usage of HTV cards over time, according to the AES. In 1996 more than half of all respondents reported using a HTV card for their House of Representative vote, however by 2016 that had dropped to only a third of respondents (Figure 2).

Figure 2    Followed ‘How to Vote’ card for House of Representatives

Chart - Percentage following ‘How to Vote’ card for House of Representatives

Source: Australian Election Study

HTV cards and formality

While HTV cards are useful for directing how a candidate’s supporters should vote, they also have a role in supporting voters to cast a formal vote—that is, a vote which is filled in correctly and can be counted in the election (election analyst Kevin Bonham argues that formality is the main purpose of HTV cards). This is particularly true for contests in seats where many electors do not speak English as their first language, or in contests where there are large numbers of candidates and voters risk making numbering errors.

Research by the AEC into informal voting at the 2013 federal election found that areas with high levels of social exclusion tended to have higher rates of informal voting and suggested that

factors such as educational attainment and English proficiency could mean that many voters submitted blank ballots due to linguistic problems or a lack of understanding of the Australian electoral system  (11)

The same research found that when the number of candidates on the ballot paper increased, the informality rate from non-sequential or incomplete numbering increased. If the number of candidates changed between elections, this was also associated with increased informality.

In 2013 Labor MP for the ACT electorate of Fraser (since renamed to Fenner) Dr Andrew Leigh issued a HTV card which indicated a first preference for himself, with the remaining preferences in order down the ballot paper, resulting in an order of preferencing which favoured right-wing parties such as Rise Up Australia over the Greens. Dr Leigh argued that as Fraser was a safe Labor seat his preferences were unlikely to be distributed (which turned out to be correct), so he opted for the simplest numbering approach. He stated that the ‘priority for us was formality, to minimise informality rather than to worry about the extremely small chance that Labor preferences would be distributed’.

Providing a HTV card is an easy way to ensure that, as a candidate, your supporters’ votes will be formal and entered into the count, as even a relatively numerate elector might make an error allocating as many as 22 preferences.

How important are preferences?

As voters are becoming less likely to use HTV cards, the requirement to count preferences in federal elections is generally increasing. Preferences are only distributed when none of the candidates has received 50 per cent or more of the first preference vote, and the proportion of seats in federal elections where the winning candidate has won with less than 50 per cent of the first preference votes has been increasing over time (Figure 3).

Figure 3    Seats in federal elections where preferences were counted to determine the winner

Chart - _Percentage of seats in federal elections where preferences were counted to determine the winner

Source: Parliamentary Library analysis of AEC election results

Candidates who are ahead on first preferences still generally win the election after preferences are distributed, however. According to Library calculations, in only around 1 in 10 divisions in recent federal elections did preferences result in the candidate leading on first preferences losing the election. Analysis by Antony Green on House of Representatives elections since 1949 found that generally less than 10 per cent of seats had the results changed by preferences. So while preferences are increasingly being counted, they do not generally make large differences to election results.

Preferences may also be important to candidates and parties to the extent to which they can be ‘traded’. A minor party may do a deal with a major party that each will preference the other prominently on their HTV cards (or a major party might preference a minor party and hope that the minor party will reciprocate, without making a formal deal). While the major party’s preferences may never be distributed, and the minor party’s success in directing preferences might be negligible, featuring as a major party’s highly ranked preference provides some free publicity that the minor party might not otherwise be able to achieve. They may also help boost the party’s vote, allowing the party to receive more per-vote public funding. Such deals may turn out to be more effective for ideological signalling than they are for strategic electoral advantage, although this does not stop them from being aggressively pursued when an election nears.

Regardless of the effectiveness of HTV cards for directing preferences (as opposed to encouraging formal voting), their value in terms of both signalling and the small number of additional directed preferences they may secure means that preferencing debate is unlikely to diminish in the near future. In an election every vote counts, and the actual or perceived benefit from securing deals and distributing HTV cards likely well outweighs the financial costs of producing them.


[1].    This was not the case for the Senate system as it operated between 1984 and 2014 as voters who voted above the line had their preferences distributed in accordance with a group voting ticket provided by the party to the AEC. Voters could only direct their own preferences if they elected to number every box below the line.


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