Preferential Voting in Australia

I am surprised to learn that there are Australian voters who do not know how preferential voting works. Many think that, because Fred got more first-choice votes than anyone else, that Fred should be elected.

That is how First Past the Post works. It's not the Australian Way.

Others think that, because "Labor gives its preferences to The Greens", and vice versa, that if they choose Labor 1, that if Labor doesn't win, that their vote goes to The Greens.

It doesn't work that way either.

Some folk came to a school near here recently, described how it works, and then we had an election. I don't recall the names of the candidates (but there were all chocolate bars), or the actual votes, so I will just make some candidates and their votes up.

The ballot papers, we will say, had these names on them:

  • Mars bar
  • Snicker
  • Flake
  • Crunchie

The kids were asked to number the candidates, numbering their favourite one, second two and so on.

The ballots were collected, and sorted: all those with Mars Bars numbered one in one pile, Snickers numbered one in another and so on.

A completed ballot paper might have looked like this:

1 Mars Bar
4 Snicker
2 Flake
3 Crunchie

When the votes are counted on first preference, we have something like this:
Votes Candidate
25 Crunchie
11 Mars Bar
17 Flake
10 Snicker

Okay, we see that Snicker has fewest votes, so we eliminate Snicker, and recount its votes, counting second choices as if there were first. Let us say that of the ten who couldn't have a Snicker, five thought Mars Bar was next best, three wanted Flake and two Crunchie. Now we have:
Votes Candidate
27 Crunchie
16 Mars Bar
20 Flake

Now, Mars Bar is running third and so is eliminated. The third choices of those who couldn't have a Snicker or Mars Bar and second choices of those who just wanted a Mars Bar are counted as if they were their first choice.

Here's the surprise: 12 of these 16 chose Flake as their next choice, and only four preferred a Crunchie. So we have:

Votes Candidate
31 Crunchie
32 Flake

And so the winner is Flake.

In Australia, one generally has a Labor candidate and a Liberal or National candidate, plus several others. The better-organised parties generally hand out "How to Vote" "cards" outside the polling station - they are not permitted inside, This is where the myth that "If I vote Green, my vote might go to The Greens"arises. One can choose to use one of the How to Vote cards, one can also cast one's vote legitimately without following their advice. Indeed, I did just that: I went to a polling booth outside my electorate to vote, and nobody could give me a How to Vote card for my electorate. Bearing in mind the Great Big New Tax, I preferred Liberal, so write a "1" in that box. I located the Labor candidate, then numbered the rest, then Labor last.

It's valid, and there is no possibility that Labor will get my vote. Not even if the Liberal card said to put Labor second.

In a first past the vote, it matters who I number first. If I want a Green, the probability is that the Green candidate won't get elected - in the 2010 elections we have our first-ever Green MHR, so I probably wouldn't vote Green. I would probably vote Labor or Liberal as then I would have some influence over which of those two is elected.

With the preferential voting system we have, if I want a Green member, I can vote 1 Green, and later on the ballot paper choose between Labor and Liberal (or National). If enough people agree with me, then we will have our Green member (as Melbourne now does), but if not a Green, then my vote still counts.

It's not lost, and that is important to me.

When I was younger, I regularly expressed the view, "A pox on the two of you" by numbering most of the other candidates above Liberal and Labor. I sometimes choose to follow a party ticket, but that isn't the only way to cast a valid vote.