Electoral system of Australia

Electoral system of Australia
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The Australian electoral system has evolved over nearly 150 years of continuous democratic government, and has a number of distinctive features including compulsory voting, preferential voting (known elsewhere as instant-runoff voting) and the use of proportional voting to elect the upper house, the Australian Senate.[1]


Compulsory voting

Australia enforces compulsory voting. [2] Compulsory voting at referendums was considered when a referendum was proposed in 1915, but, as the referendum was never held, the idea was put on hold.[3] The immediate impetus for compulsory voting at federal level was the low voter turnout (59.38 percent)[3] at the 1922 federal election. However, it was not on the platform of either the Stanley Bruce-led Nationalist/Country party coalition government or the Matthew Charlton-led Labor opposition to introduce this requirement; rather, the initiative was taken by a backbench Tasmanian senator from the Nationalists, Herbert Payne, who introduced a Private Senator's Bill, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1924, on 16 July 1924. Senator Payne's bill was passed with little debate (the House of Representatives agreed to it in less than an hour), and in neither house was a division required, hence no votes were recorded against the bill.[4] It received Royal Assent on 31 July 1924.[5] The 1925 federal election was the first to be held under compulsory voting; the turnout figure climbed to 91.4 per cent, an increase of 32 percentage points on the previous election.

Voting is compulsory both at federal elections and at elections for the state and territory legislatures. In the states of South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia voting at local elections is not compulsory.[6] About 5% of enrolled voters fail to vote at most elections. People in this situation are asked to explain their failure to vote. If no satisfactory reason is provided (for example, illness or religious prohibition), a relatively small fine is imposed ($20),[7] and failure to pay the fine may result in a court hearing.

It is commonly but wrongly claimed[8] that it is compulsory only to attend a polling place and have one's name checked against the electoral roll. In fact, Section 245 of the Electoral Act[9] says that "It shall be the duty of every elector to vote at each election... The Electoral Commissioner must, after polling day at each election, prepare for each Division a list of the names and addresses of the electors who appear to have failed to vote at the election." A voter who has their name crossed off but then refuses a ballot paper or is seen not to put the ballot in the ballot box may be recorded as having not voted.[3] However, due to secrecy of the ballot, it is impossible to determine if a voter who receives and casts a ballot has actually cast a valid vote, or whether the voter has spoiled the ballot or left it blank.

Informal voting

Those who do not wish to vote for any of the available candidates sometimes resort to informal voting—placing a blank or incompletely filled-out ballot in the ballot box.[10] In principle, informal votes are excluded from the election count. Resulting from the disputed validity of so-called Langer voting, it became an offence to cause voters to unknowingly vote informally. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, as of October 2007 "It is not an offence to vote informally in a federal election, nor is it an offence to encourage other voters to vote informally".[11] It is, however, an offence to "mislead an elector in relation to the casting of his vote". The number of informal votes is recorded, but they are not counted as part of the total number of votes cast. Around 95% of registered voters attend polling, and around 5% of Representatives votes are informal [12]

Arguments for and against compulsory voting

Occasionally conservative politicians or libertarians argue for the abolition of compulsory voting on philosophical grounds, but no government has ever attempted to abolish it.

Following the 2004 federal election, at which the Liberal-National coalition government won a majority in both Houses, a senior minister, Senator Nick Minchin, said that he favoured the abolition of compulsory voting. Some prominent Liberals, such as Petro Georgiou, former chair of the Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, have spoken in favour of compulsory voting.

Because it maximises voter turnout, compulsory voting also maximises the amount of campaign cost reimbursement—public moneys paid to candidates and parties polling a minimum of 4 per cent at an election.

On the other hand, the weakness of non-compulsory voting regimes is that governments can be seen to lack legitimacy by those sections of the populace who chose not to cast a vote. A characteristic of non-compulsory voting is that it makes it easier for special interest groups to vote themselves into power if large sections of the population do not participate in the political process.

Peter Singer in Democracy and Disobedience argues that Australian compulsory voting negates any obligation of the voter to support the outcome of the election [citation needed]. In 1996 Albert Langer was jailed for three weeks on contempt charges in relation to a constitutional challenge on a legal way not to vote for either of the major parties. Chong, Davidson and Fry argue that Australian compulsory voting is disreputable, paternalistic, disadvantages smaller political parties, and allows major parties to target marginal seats and make some savings in pork barreling because of this targeting. Chong et al. also argue that denial is a significant aspect of the debate about compulsory voting.[13]

A counter argument to Singer's contention is that although voting is compulsory in Australia, under Australian law the individual still has the legal right to spoil their vote by voting informally if they so choose. A spoilt vote does not count towards any political party and effectively is the same as choosing not to vote under a non-compulsory voting system. In this way, contrary to Singer's assertion, compulsory voting in Australia does not remove from the individual the obligation or the choice to support the outcome of the political process. However the benefit of compulsory voting is that it ensures the government has legitimacy by legally requiring all citizens to either vote for the political party of their choice or spoil their vote.

In the 2010 Australian election, Mark Latham urged Australians to vote informally by handing in blank ballot papers for the 2010 election. He also stated that he doesn't feel it is fair for the government to force citizens to vote if they don't have an opinion or threaten them into voting with a fine.[14]

Contrary to popular speculation at the time[citation needed], the Australian Electoral Commission confirmed that voting informally does not break any Australian laws and is completely legal.[15] How the Australian Electoral Commission arrived at this opinion is unknown and runs contrary to the opinions of Chief Justice Barwick, who wrote that voters must actually mark the ballot paper and deposit that ballot into a ballot box and Justice Blackburn who was of the opinion that casting an invalid vote was a violation of the Act.[13]

Preferential voting

Australia uses various forms of preferential voting for almost all elections. Under this system, voters number the candidates on the ballot paper in the order of their preference. The preferential system was introduced in 1918, in response to the rise of the Country Party, a party representing small farmers. The Country Party split the anti-Labor vote in conservative country areas, allowing Labor candidates to win on a minority vote. The conservative government of Billy Hughes introduced preferential voting as a means of allowing competition between the two conservative parties without putting seats at risk. It was first used at the Corangamite by-election on 14 December 1918.[16][17] It had previously been introduced as a result of the work of Thomas Hare and Andrew Inglis Clark in the Tasmanian House of Assembly.

Preferential voting has gradually extended to both upper and lower houses, in the federal, state and territory legislatures, and is also used in municipal elections, and most other kinds of elections as well, such as internal political party elections, trade union elections, church elections, elections to company boards and elections in voluntary bodies such as football clubs. Negotiations for disposition of preference recommendations to voters are taken very seriously by candidates because transferred preferences carry the same weight as primary votes. The federal Senate electoral system and those for some state legislatures now provide for simultaneous registration of party-listed candidates and party-determined orders of voting preference, known as 'group voting tickets'.

Under this system, voters can opt to either 'vote above the line' simply by placing the number '1' in a single box or to 'vote below the line' by numbering a large number of individual candidate's boxes in the order of their own preference. In the latter option, there is a risk that the vote will be declared invalid ('informal') if any number in the sequence is inadvertently duplicated or omitted. However, an estimated 95% of all votes are cast 'above the line',[18] meaning that the precise valuation of those votes is passed to the control of the party receiving the single primary vote. The electoral authority automatically allocates preferences, or votes, in the predetermined order outlined in the group voting ticket. Each party or group can register up to three group voting tickets. This highly complex system has potential for unexpected outcomes[citation needed], including the possible election of a candidate who may have initially received an insignificant primary vote tally.

At some polling places in the Australian Capital Territory, voters may choose between voting electronically or on paper.[19] Otherwise, Australian elections are carried out using paper ballots.

The main elements[20] of the operation of preferential voting are as follows:

  • Voters are required to place the number "1" against the candidate of their choice, known as their "first preference".
  • Voters are then required to place the numbers "2", "3", etc., against the other candidates listed on the ballot paper, in order of preference.
  • The counting of first preference votes, also known as the "primary vote", takes place first. If no candidate secures an absolute majority of primary votes, then the candidate with the fewest votes is "eliminated" from the count.
  • The ballot papers of the eliminated candidate are re-allocated amongst the remaining candidates according to the number "2", or "second preference" votes.
  • If no candidate has yet secured an absolute majority of the vote, then the next candidate with the fewest primary votes is eliminated. This preference allocation continues until there is a candidate with an absolute majority. Where a second preference is expressed for a candidate who has already been eliminated, the voter's third or subsequent preferences are used.

Following the full allocation of preferences, it is possible to derive a two-party-preferred figure, where the votes are divided between the two main candidates in the election. In Australia, this is usually between the candidates from the two major parties.

Gerrymandering and malapportionment

Australian history has seen very little gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, which have nearly always been drawn up by public servants or independent boundary commissioners. But Australia has seen systematic malapportionment of electorates (the allocation of more or fewer electoral districts to one part of a country or state than its population would merit), and indeed until fairly recently this was considered a perfectly natural and defensible practice in some states.

All the colonial legislatures before Federation, and the federal parliament after it, saw country districts allocated more representation than their populations merited. This was justified on several grounds: that country people had to contend with greater distances and hardships and thus deserved greater representation; that country people (and specifically farmers) produced most of the nation's real wealth, and thus deserved greater representation; and that greater country representation was necessary to balance the radical tendencies of the urban population.

In the 19th century these assertions usually reflected genuinely held beliefs. By the 20th century, and especially after the rise of the Labor Party, they became increasingly self-serving rationalisations by politicians (usually conservatives) who benefitted from the malapportionment. In the later 20th century these arguments were increasingly and usually successfully challenged, and the malapportionment was reduced and finally abolished in all states.

The most conspicuous examples of malapportionment were South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia.

In South Australia, the 1856 Constitution stipulated that there must be two rural constituencies for every urban constituency. By the early 1960s, the urban-rural voter ratio was almost exactly reversed. More than two-thirds of the state's population lived in Adelaide and its suburbs, but the rural areas elected two-thirds of the legislature. This was despite the fact that by this time, rural seats had on average one-quarter the number of voters that urban seats had. This gross distortion came into sharp focus in the 1962 state elections, in which Labor routed the governing Liberal and Country League in the two-party vote, but came up one seat short of a majority. Long time premier Sir Thomas Playford was able to continue in power with the support of two independents. The setup enabled Playford to stay in office from 1938 to 1965, even though from 1947 onward he was defeated by increasing margins in terms of actual votes. Largely because Playford was the main beneficiary, the setup was called "the Playmander," although it was not strictly speaking a gerrymander. The Playmander was not overcome until Labor defeated the LCL in 1965, though it was not abolished until 1968.

In Queensland, the malapportionment initially benefitted the Labor Party, since many small rural constituencies were dominated by rural workers organised into the powerful Australian Workers Union. But after 1957, the Country Party (later renamed the National Party) governments of Sir Frank Nicklin and Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen were able to manipulate the electoral system so that that it could win elections with only a quarter of the first preference votes. Combined with the votes of the Liberals (in Queensland, the National Party had historically been the senior partner in the non-Labor coalition), this was enough to lock Labor out of power even in years when Labor was the biggest single party in the legislature. This "Bjelkemander" was not overcome until the final defeat of the Nationals in 1989.

Western Australia retained a significant malapportionment in the Legislative Assembly until 2008. On 20 May 2005 the state Parliament passed new electoral laws, removing the malapportionment with effect from the following election. Under the previous system, votes in the country were worth up to four times the value of votes in Perth, the state's capital city. Under the new laws, electorates must have a population of 21,343, with a permitted variation of 10%. Electorates with a land area of more than 100,000 km² (40,000 mi²) are permitted to have a variation of 20%, in recognition of the difficulty of representing the sparsely populated north and east of the state.[21] A modified form of malapportionment was, however, retained for the Legislative Council, the state upper house.

Additionally, large districts would be attributed an extra number of notional voters, equal to 1.5% the area of the district in square kilometres, for the purposes of this calculation. This Large District Allowance will permit large rural districts to have many fewer voters than the average district enrolment. The Office of the Electoral Distribution Commissioners[22] gives the following example: Central Kimberley-Pilbara district has 12601 electors and an area of 600038 square kilometres. The average district enrolment for WA is 21343. Central Kimberley-Pilbara thus obtains 9000 notional extra electors, bringing its notional total to 21601, which is acceptably close to the average district enrolment.

The Parliament

The Parliament of Australia is a bicameral (two-house) Parliament. It combines some of the features of the Parliament of the United Kingdom with some features of the United States Congress. This is because the authors of the Australian Constitution had two objectives: to reproduce as faithfully as possible the Westminster system of parliamentary government, while creating a federation in which there would be a division of powers between the national government and the states, regulated by a written Constitution.

In structure, the Australian Parliament resembles the United States Congress. There is a House of Representatives elected from single-member constituencies of approximately equal population, and there is a Senate consisting of an equal number of Senators from each state, regardless of population (since 1975 there have also been Senators representing the territories).

But in function, the Australian Parliament follows the Westminster system. The Prime Minister holds office because they can command the support of the majority of the House of Representatives, and must resign or advise an immediate election if the House passes a vote of no confidence in his administration. If they fail to do so, they risk dismissal by the Governor-General. All ministers are required to be members of Parliament (although the Constitution permits a person who is not currently a member of parliament to hold a ministerial portfolio for a maximum period of three months).

The House of Representatives

A sample ballot paper from NSW for the House of Representatives.

The Australian House of Representatives has 150 members elected from single-member constituencies (usually called seats or electorates in Australia; see Australian electorates) for three-year terms. Voters must fill out the ballot paper by numbering all the candidates in order of their preference. Failure to number all the candidates, or an error in numbering, renders the ballot informal (invalid).[23] The average number of candidates has tended to increase in recent years: there are frequently 10 or 12 candidates in a seat, and at the Wills by-election in April 1992 there were 22 candidates.[24] This has made voting increasingly onerous, but the rate of informal voting has increased only slightly.

The low rate of informal voting is largely attributed to advertising from the various political parties indicated how a voter should number their ballot paper, called a How-to-Vote Card. On election day, volunteers from political parties stand outside polling places, handing voters a card which advises them how to cast their vote for their respective party. Thus, if a voter wishes to vote for the Liberal Party, they may take the Liberal How-to-Vote Card and follow its instructions. While they can lodge their vote according to their own preferences, Australian voters show a high degree of party loyalty in following their chosen party's card.

The challenge of numbering the ballot paper leads a certain number of voters to simply number the candidates sequentially from 1 to the number of candidates down the ballot paper. This practice is commonly referred to as donkey voting. It gives some advantage to the candidate at the top of the ballot paper. Before 1984, candidates appeared in alphabetical order, which led to a profusion of Aaronses and Abbotts contesting elections. (The most famous example of this was the 1937 election, in which the Labor Senate ticket in New South Wales consisted of candidates named Amour, Ashley, Armstrong and Arthur: all were elected.) Since 1984 ballot paper order has been decided at random by drawing lots prior to printing of the ballot papers.

Counting votes in elections for the House of Representatives

The House of Representatives uses full preferential voting, which is known outside Australia by names such as "instant runoff voting" (IRV) and "alternative voting".

When the polls close at 6pm on election day, the votes are counted. The count is conducted by officers of the Australian Electoral Commission, watched by nominated volunteer observers from the political parties, called scrutineers, who are entitled to observe the whole voting process from the opening of the booth. The votes from each polling booth in the electorate are tallied at the office of the returning officer for the electorate. If one of the candidates has more than 50% of the vote, then they are declared elected. Australian politics are influenced by social and economic demographics, though the correlation between "class" and voting is not always simple.[25] Typically, the Labor Party will poll higher in strongly working-class seats, the Liberal party in middle-class seats, and the National Party in rural seats. In a strong seat, the elected party might win up to 80% of the two-party-preferred vote. In the 2004 federal election, the highest winning margin in a seat was 25.1%,[26] with most seats marginal by less than 10%.

In the remaining seats, no single candidate will have a majority of the primary votes (or first-preference votes). A hypothetical result might look like this:

White (Democrat) 6,000 06.0%
Smith (Labor) 45,000 45.0%
Jones (Liberal) 35,000 35.0%
Johnson (Green) 10,000 10.0%
Davies (Ind) 4,000 04.0%

On election night, an interim distribution of preferences called a TCP (Two Candidate Preferred) count is performed. The electoral commission nominates the two candidates it believes are most likely to win the most votes and all votes are distributed immediately to one or the other preferred candidate.[27] This result is indicative only and subsequently the formal count will be performed after all "declaration" (e.g. postal, absent votes) votes are received.

In this example, the candidate with the smallest vote, Davies, will be eliminated, and his or her preferences will be distributed: that is, his or her 4,000 votes will be individually re-allocated to the remaining candidates according to which candidate received the number 2 vote on each of those 4000 ballot papers. Suppose Davies's preferences split 50/50 between Smith and Jones. After re-allocation of Davies's votes, Smith would have 47% and Jones 37% of the total votes in the electorate. White would then be eliminated. Suppose all of White's preferences went to Smith. Smith would then have 53% and would be declared elected. Johnson's votes would not need to be distributed.

Here is a real example of the operation of preferential voting in Australia, from the federal election of 1990: Charles Blunt was the leader of the conservative National Party of Australia, representing Richmond, a traditional National Party seat in northern New South Wales. The intervention of the anti-nuclear campaigner, Dr Helen Caldicott, allowed the Labor candidate, Neville Newell, to win the seat despite polling only 27% of the primary vote. Note that Caldicott also had a good chance of winning the seat – if all of Gibbs' preferences had gone to her as directed on the How-to-Vote card, she would have drawn ahead of Newell and won on his preferences.

RICHMOND, NSW                  73,794 enrolled, 70,571 (95.6%) voted
North Coast NSW: Byron Bay, Lismore, Murwillumbah, Tweed Heads
1987 two-party majority: NPA over ALP 06.6
Stan Gibbs                      AD       4,346   06.3  (−00.8)
Neville Newell                  ALP     18,423   26.7  (−08.5)
Gavin Baillie                              187   00.3   
Alan Sims                       CTA      1,032   01.5   
Ian Paterson                               445   00.6   
Dudley Leggett                             279   00.4   
Charles Blunt *                 NPA     28,257   40.9  (−10.2)
Dr Helen Caldicott                      16,072   23.3
1,530 (02.2%) informal                  69,041
Caldicott was an independent Green candidate.
2nd count: Baillie's 187 votes distributed
Gibbs                 34 (18.4)          4,380   06.3
Newell                44 (23.8)         18,467   26.7
Sims                  21 (11.4)          1,053   01.5
Paterson              35 (18.9)            480   00.7
Leggett               15 (08.1)            294   00.4
Blunt *               17 (09.2)         28,274   41.0
Caldicott             19 (10.3)         16,091   23.3
(exhausted             2                     2                     )
>                    187                69,041
3rd count: Leggett's 294 votes distributed
Gibbs                 40 (13.9)          4,420   06.4
Newell                17 (05.9)         18,484   26.8
Sims                   6 (02.1)          1,059   01.5
Paterson              50 (17.4)            530   00.8
Blunt *               29 (10.1)         28,303   41.0
Caldicott            146 (50.7)         16,237   23.5
(exhausted             6                     8                     )
>                    294                69,041
4th count: Paterson's 530 votes distributed
Gibbs                 84 (16.3)          4,504   06.5
Newell                60 (11.7)         18,544   26.9
Sims                  57 (11.1)          1,116   01.6
Blunt *              113 (21.9)         28,416   41.2
Caldicott            201 (39.0)         16,438   23.8
(exhausted            15                    23                     )
>                    530                69,041
5th count: Sims's 1,116 votes distributed
Gibbs                179 (16.3)          4,683   06.8
Newell               139 (12.6)         18,683   27.1
Blunt *              562 (51.1)         28,978   42.0
Caldicott            220 (20.0)         16,658   24.1
(exhausted            16                    39                     )
>                  1,116                69,041
6th count: Gibbs's 4,683 votes distributed
Newell             1,555 (33.8)         20,238   29.4
Blunt *              800 (17.4)         29,778   43.2
Caldicott          2,245 (48.8)         18,903   27.4
(exhausted            83                   122                     )
>                  4,683                69,041
7th count: Caldicott's 18,903 votes distributed
NEWELL            14,426 (77.4)         34,664   50.5
Blunt *            4,202 (22.6)         33,980   49.5
(exhausted           275                   397                     )
>                 18,903                69,041   00.5    07.1 to ALP

If two candidates are tied at the end of the process, the Electoral Commissioner casts the deciding vote. In practice, however, a recount would almost certainly be requested by an unsuccessful candidate.

Exhausted preferences

The exhausted counts correspond to votes that ought to be informal, if strictly following the rules above, but were deemed to have expressed some valid preferences. The Electoral Act has since been amended to almost eliminate exhausted votes.

Section 268(1)(c) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 now has the effect of making the vote of any elector that does not preference every candidate on the ballot paper an informal vote as opposed to counting the vote until the voter's preference exhausts.

Two-party majorities, swings and pendulums

Since 1984 the preferences of all candidates in House of Representatives seats have been distributed, even if this is not necessary to determine the winner of the seat. This is done to determine the percentage of the votes obtained by the winning candidate after the distribution of all preferences. This is called the two-party-preferred vote. For example, if (in the example given above), Smith finished with 58% of the vote after the distribution of Johnson's preferences, Smith's two-party vote would be 58% and the seat would be said to have a two-party majority of 8%. It would therefore need a two-party swing of 8 percentage points to be lost to the other side of politics at the next election.

Once the two-party majorities in all seats are known, they can then be arranged in a table to show the order in which they would be lost in the event of an adverse swing at the next election. Such tables frequently appear in the Australian media and are called election pendulums or sometimes Mackerras pendulums after the political scientist Malcolm Mackerras, who popularised the idea of the two-party vote in his 1972 book Australian General Elections.

Here is a sample of the federal election pendulum from the 2001 election, showing some of the seats held by the Liberal-National Party coalition government, in order of their two-party majority. A seat with a small two-party majority is said to be a marginal seat or a swinging seat. A seat with a large two-party majority is said to be a safe seat, although "safe" seats have been known to change hands in the event of a large swing.

Seat State Majority Member Party
HINKLER Qld 00.0 Paul Neville NPA
SOLOMON NT 00.1 Dave Tollner Lib
ADELAIDE SA 00.2 Hon Trish Worth Lib
CANNING WA 00.4 Don Randall Lib
DOBELL NSW 00.4 Ken Ticehurst Lib
PARRAMATTA NSW 01.1 Ross Cameron Lib
McEWEN Vic 01.2 Fran Bailey Lib
PATERSON NSW 01.4 Bob Baldwin Lib
HERBERT Qld 01.6 Peter Lindsay Lib
RICHMOND NSW 01.6 Hon Larry Anthony NPA
DEAKIN Vic 01.7 Philip Barresi Lib
EDEN-MONARO NSW 01.7 Gary Nairn Lib
HINDMARSH SA 01.9 Hon Christine Gallus Lib


The boundaries of Australian electoral constituencies are drawn up by the Australian Electoral Commission, an independent statutory authority, completely independent of political considerations. Members of Parliament and political parties may make submissions to the Commission on proposed new boundaries, but any interference with the Commission's deliberations would be a serious offence.

The Electoral Act requires that all seats have approximately equal numbers of enrolled voters. When the Commission determines that population shifts within a state have caused some seats to have too many or too few voters, new boundaries are drawn up. This is called a redistribution. Redistributions are also held when the Commission determines (following a formula laid down in the Act) that the distribution of seats among the states and territories must be changed because some states are growing faster than others.

In 2003, for example, redistributions were held in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. South Australia lost one seat, while Queensland gained a seat. Victoria kept the same number of seats, but one seat was abolished and one new seat created.

Casual vacancies

If a member's seat becomes vacant mid-term, whether through resignation, death or some other possible reasons, a by-election may be held. Further details are at Casual vacancies in the Australian Parliament.

The Senate

The Australian Senate has 76 members: each of the six states elects 12 Senators, and the Northern Territory (NT) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) each elect two Senators. The several other Australian Territories have very small populations and are represented by Northern Territory and ACT Senators (for example, Christmas Island residents are represented by NT Senators, while Jervis Bay Territory residents are represented by ACT Senators).

Senators for the states serve six-year terms, with half the Senators from each state being elected at each federal election. The terms of the territory Senators coincide with the duration of the House of Representatives.

The Senate is elected both proportionately and preferentially, except that each state has an equal number of seats so that the distribution of seats to states is non-proportional to the total Australian population. Thus, although within each state the seats proportionally represent the vote for that state, overall the less populous states are proportionally stronger in representation for their population compared to the more populous states.

In each state, political parties which are registered with the Electoral Commission present lists of candidates, which appear as a group on the Senate ballot paper. Independents and members of unregistered parties can also nominate, but they cannot appear on ballot paper as a group.

Voters can vote for the Senate in one of two ways. They can number all the candidates, as they would with a House of Representatives ballot: but since there may be 50 or 60 candidates on the ballot paper, few voters do this. This is called below the line voting. Or they can simply write "1" in a box indicating the party for which they wish to vote. This is called above the line voting. More than 95% of voters cast their votes above the line.[citation needed]

When votes are cast above the line, they amount to accepting whatever "1,2,3,4,..." sequence has been pre-nominated by that party-or-group for that state-or-territory. When an election is imminent, such details (multi-page) can be inspected at the electoral commission's website, http://www.aec.gov.au. Concise single-page sortable tabulations of these pre-nominations have been prepared by Ondwelle Publications[28] for 3 selected states for the election of 21 August 2010: Queensland,[29] NSW[30] and Victoria.[31] — Also available are: Victoria 2007 [32] and Victoria 2004. [33] The latter is of some interest because it illustrates how overly-clever strategic preference-advice can seriously backfire. As explained briefly on page 2, that is how S.Fielding (as candidate for a minor party antagonistic to Labor) ended up being elected thanks to Labor's own preference votes! — a serious matter because Fielding then sometimes held the balance-of-power in the Senate during his six-year term.

The Senate count

The form of preferential voting used in the Senate is technically known as the "Inclusive Gregory".[34]

The system for counting Senate votes is complicated, and a final result is sometimes not known for several weeks. When the Senate vote is counted, a quota for election is determined. This is the number of valid votes cast, divided by the number of Senators to be elected plus one.

For example, here is the Senate result for the state of New South Wales from the 1998 federal election. For greater clarity the votes cast for 50 minor party and independent candidates have been excluded.

The quota for election was 3,755,725 divided by seven, or 536,533.

Enrolment:                              4,031,749
Turnout:                                3,884,333 (96.3%)
Informal votes:                           128,608 (03.3%)
Formal votes:                           3,755,725
Quota for election:                       536,533
Steve HUTCHINS                  ALP     1,446,231   38.5  ELECTED 1
Hon John Faulkner *             ALP         2,914   00.1  Group H
Michael Forshaw *               ALP           864   00.0  Q:2.7073
Ursula Stephens                 ALP         2,551   00.1  
David Oldfield                  ON        359,654   09.6  Group K
Brian Burston                   ON            570   00.0  Q:0.6729
Bevan O'Regan                   ON            785   00.0
Bill HEFFERNAN *                Lib     1,371,578   36.5  ELECTED 2
Dr John Tierney *               Lib         1,441   00.0  Group L
Sandy Macdonald *               NPA         1,689   00.0  Q:2.5638
Concetta Fierravanti-Wells      Lib           855   00.0  
Aden Ridgeway                   AD        272,481   07.3  Group M
Matthew Baird                   AD            457   00.0  Q:0.5142
Suzzanne Reddy                  AD          2,163   00.1  
David Mendelssohn               AD            809   00.0
John Sutton                     Grn        80,073   02.1  Group U
Catherine Moore                 Grn           748   00.0  Q:0.1521
Lee Rhiannon                    Grn           249   00.0
Suzie Russell                   Grn           542   00.0
128,608 (03.3%) informal                3,755,725

In this table, the Group number allocated to each list is shown at right. Below that is the number of quotas polled by each list. Thus, "Q:2.7073" next to the Labor Party list indicates that the Labor candidates between them polled 2.7073 quotas.

It will be seen that the leading Labor and Liberal candidates, Hutchins and Heffernan, polled more than the quota. They were therefore elected on the first count. Their surplus votes were then distributed. The surplus is the candidate's vote minus the quota. Hutchins's surplus was thus 1,446,231 minus 536,533, or 909,698. These votes are multiplied by a factor (called the "transfer value") based on the proportion of ballot papers preferencing other parties. ABC Election commentator Antony Green believes that this method distorts preference allocation.[34]

After Hutchins's surplus votes were distributed, the count looked like this:

                     Votes             Total after 
                     distributed       distribution
HUTCHINS                   E              536,533   14.3  ELECTED 1
FAULKNER *           908,567 (99.9)       911,481   24.3  ELECTED 3
Forshaw *                196 (00.0)         1,060   00.0
Stephens                 130 (00.0)         2,681   00.1
Oldfield                 186 (00.0)       359,840   09.6
Burston                    6 (00.0)           576   00.0
O'Regan                    4 (00.0)           789   00.0
HEFFERNAN *                E            1,371,578   36.5  ELECTED 2
Tierney *                 13 (00.0)         1,454   00.0
Macdonald *                1 (00.0)         1,690   00.0
Fierravanti-Wells          1 (00.0)           856   00.0
Ridgeway                 278 (00.0)       272,579   07.3
Baird                      5 (00.0)           462   00.0
Reddy                      3 (00.0)         2,166   00.1
Mendelssohn                4 (00.0)           813   00.0
Sutton                    66 (00.0)        80,139   02.1
Moore                      2 (00.0)           750   00.0
Rhiannon                   1 (00.0)           250   00.0
Russell                    0                  542   00.0
                     909,698            3,755,725

It will be seen that virtually all of Hutchins's surplus votes went to Faulkner, the second candidate on the Labor ticket, who was then elected. This is because all those voters who voted for the Labor party "above the line" had their second preferences automatically allocated to the second Labor candidate. All parties lodge a copy of their How-to-Vote Card with the Electoral Commission, and the Commission follows this card in allocating the preferences of those who vote "above the line." If a voter wished to vote, for example, Hutchins 1 and Heffernan 2, they would need to vote "below the line" by numbering each of the 69 candidates.

In the third count, Heffernan's surplus was distributed and these votes elected Tierney. Faulkner's surplus was then distributed, but these were insufficient to elect Forshaw. Likewise, Tierney's surplus was insufficient to elect McDonald.

After this stage of the count, the remaining candidates in contention (that is, the leading candidates in the major party tickets) were in the following position:

HUTCHINS                                  536,533   14.3  ELECTED 1
FAULKNER *                                536,533   14.3  ELECTED 3
Forshaw *                                 375,587   10.0
Oldfield                                  360,263   09.6
HEFFERNAN *                               536,533   14.3  ELECTED 2
Tierney *                                 536,533   14.3  ELECTED 4
Macdonald *                               300,313   08.0
Ridgeway                                  273,109   07.3
Sutton                                     80,186   02.1

All the other candidates were then eliminated one by one, starting with the candidates with the smallest number of votes, and their votes were distributed among the candidates remaining in contention in accordance with the preferences expressed on their ballot papers. After this process was completed, the remaining candidates were in the following position:

HUTCHINS                                  536,533   14.3  ELECTED 1
FAULKNER *                                536,533   14.3  ELECTED 3
Forshaw *                                 450,446   12.0
Oldfield                                  402,154   10.7
HEFFERNAN *                               536,533   14.3  ELECTED 2
Tierney *                                 536,533   14.3  ELECTED 4
Macdonald *                               357,572   09.5
Ridgeway                                  286,157   07.6
Sutton                                    112,602   03.0

Sutton was then eliminated. 80% of Sutton's preferences went to Ridgeway, giving Ridgeway more votes than McDonald. McDonald was then eliminated, and 93% of his preferences went to Ridgeway, thus giving him a quota and the fifth Senate seat. Ridgeway's surplus was then distributed, and 96% of his votes went to Forshaw, thus giving him a quota and the sixth seat. Oldfield was the last remaining unsuccessful candidate.

A final point needs to be explained. It was noted above that when a candidate polls more votes than the quota, their surplus vote is distributed to other candidates. Thus, in the example given above, Hutchins's surplus was 909,698, or 1,446,231 (his primary vote) minus 536,533 (the quota). It may be asked: which 909,698 of Hutchins's 1,446,231 primary votes are distributed? Are they chosen at random from among his votes? In fact they are all distributed, but at less than their full value. Since 909,698 is 62.9% of 1,446,231, each of Hutchins's votes is transferred to other candidates as 62.9% of a vote: each vote is said to have a transfer value of 0.629. This avoids any possibility of an unrepresentative sample of his votes being transferred. After each count the candidate's progressive total is rounded down to the nearest whole number. This means that a small number of votes are lost by fractionation in the final count.

When a person is appointed Divisional Returning Officer for a seat, his electoral enrolment will be transferred from the electorate where he lives to the one he administers. Normally he will be precluded from voting at an election, but instead will have two special powers; these are:

1. If during the count there are two candidates with equal lowest votes, he can decide which will be excluded.

2. If at the end of the count the two candidates left have an equal number of votes, he will get to vote in the election by giving a casting vote to the candidate he prefers. This is his personal vote, just like any other elector's, and is awarded at his sole discretion.

Casual vacancies

If a senator's seat becomes vacant mid-term, whether through resignation, death or some other possible reasons, the parliament of the relevant state or the legislative assembly of the relevant territory chooses a replacement senator. Further details are at Casual vacancies in the Australian Parliament.

Double dissolutions

Under the Australian Constitution, the House of Representatives and the Senate generally have equal legislative powers (the only exception being that appropriation (supply) bills must originate in the House of Representatives). This means that a government formed in the House of Representatives can be seriously frustrated by a Senate majority determined to reject its legislation.

In these circumstances, Section 57 of the Constitution allows the Governor-General to dissolve the House of Representatives and the entire Senate – this is called a "double dissolution" – and issue writs for an election in which every seat in the Parliament is contested. A governor-general would usually take such action only on the advice of the Prime Minister.


Candidates for either House must formally nominate with the Electoral Commission. The signature of the Registered Officer of a party registered under the Electoral Act is required for a party-endorsed candidate. A registered party must have at least 500 members. Fifty signatures of eligible voters are required for an independent candidate. A deposit of $500 is required for a candidate for the House, and $1000 for a candidate for the Senate; this deposit is refunded if the candidate or group gains 4% of the first preference votes. To receive public funding, a party or candidate must receive at least 4% of the vote.[35]


  1. ^ Scott Bennett and Rob Lundie, 'Australian Electoral Systems', Research Paper no. 5 2007–08, Department of the Parliamentary Library, Canberra.
  2. ^ Scott Bennett, Compulsory voting in Australian national elections, Research Brief No. 6 2005–06, Department of the Parliamentary Library, Canberra.
  3. ^ a b c "Compulsory Voting in Australia" (PDF). Australian Electoral Commission. 16 January 2006. http://www.aec.gov.au/About_AEC/Publications/voting/index.htm. Retrieved 2011-02-04. 
  4. ^ ""The case for compulsory voting"; by Chris Puplick". Mind-trek.com. 1997-06-30. http://www.mind-trek.com/writ-dtf/votehoax/c-puplic.htm. Retrieved 2010-06-16. 
  5. ^ "Odgers, Australian Senate Practice". Aph.gov.au. http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/pubs/odgers/app05.htm. Retrieved 2010-12-29. 
  6. ^ Independent Review of Local Government Elections: Issues Paper . Retrieved 28 July 2010.
  7. ^ "Electoral Offences". Voting within Australia – Frequently Asked Questions. Australian Electoral Commission. http://aec.gov.au/Elections/australian_electoral_system/electoral_procedures/Electoral_Offences.htm. Retrieved 2006-10-21. 
  8. ^ Derek Chong, Sinclair Davidson, Tim Fry. "Whichever way you dice it, compulsory voting is evil". Cis.org.au. Archived from the original on 2008-07-23. http://web.archive.org/web/20080723195743/http://www.cis.org.au/executive_highlights/EH2006/eh32906.html. Retrieved 2010-06-16. 
  9. ^ "Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918". ComLaw (Commonwealth Law). Commonwealth of Australia. http://www.comlaw.gov.au/ComLaw/Legislation/ActCompilation1.nsf/previewlodgmentattachments/115CF0A990BE7D97CA257700001B41BB/$file/CwlthElectoral1918_WD02.htm#param332. Retrieved 2010-12-30. 
  10. ^ "[A ballot is informal if] it does not indicate the voter's first preference for one candidate and an order of preference for all the remaining candidates"—Informal ballot papers Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, Section 268
  11. ^ "The AEC has recently restructured our content". Aec.gov.au. 2007-06-08. http://www.aec.gov.au/pdf/backgrounders/18/EB_18_Informal_Voting.pdf. Retrieved 2010-06-16. 
  12. ^ Australian Electoral Commission, Electoral Pocketbook, Australian Electoral Commission, Canberra, June 2006, pp. 71–77. Retrieved September 2007.
  13. ^ a b Derek Chong, Sinclair Davidson,Tim Fry "It's an evil thing to oblige people to vote" Policy vol.21 No4 Summer 2005-06
  14. ^ "Blank vote legitimate, Latham asserts". Watoday.com.au. http://www.watoday.com.au/federal-election/blank-vote-legitimate-latham-asserts-20100816-125xe.html?from=age_ft&autostart=1. Retrieved 2010-12-29. 
  15. ^ Burton-Bradley, Robert (2010-08-16). "Latham not breaking the law, says AEC". news.com.au. http://www.news.com.au/features/federal-election/donkey-vote-mark-latham-breaking-the-law/story-e6frfllr-1225905657658. 
  16. ^ Adam Carr. "By-Elections 1917-19". Psephos Australian Election Archive. http://psephos.adam-carr.net/countries/a/australia/1917/1917repsby.txt. Retrieved 2011-02-10. 
  17. ^ "Australia's major electoral developments". Australian Electoral Commission. http://www.aec.gov.au/Elections/Australian_Electoral_History/Reform_present.htm. Retrieved 2011-02-16. 
  18. ^ Your vote and the Senate: The Big Switch
  19. ^ "Electronic voting and counting". Australian Capital Territory Electoral Commission. http://www.elections.act.gov.au/elections/electronicvoting.html. Retrieved 2011-02-16. 
  20. ^ "Preferential Voting". Australianpolitics.com. http://australianpolitics.com/elections/features/preferential.shtml. Retrieved 2010-06-16. 
  21. ^ "View News Headlines". Findlaw.com.au. 2005-05-20. http://www.findlaw.com.au/news/default.asp?task=read&id=23585&site=LE. Retrieved 2010-06-16. 
  22. ^ Information Centre for the 2007 Electoral Distribution, Where will you be in 2009?, p2.
  23. ^ "Voting HOR". Aec.gov.au. 2007-07-31. http://www.aec.gov.au/Voting/How_to_vote/Voting_HOR.htm. Retrieved 2010-06-16. 
  24. ^ Adam Carr. "By-Elections 1990-1993". Psephos Australian Election Archive. http://psephos.adam-carr.net/countries/a/australia/1990/1990repsby.txt. Retrieved 2011-02-10. 
  25. ^ "Betts, K. – People and Place Vol. 4 No. 4". Elecpress.monash.edu.au. http://elecpress.monash.edu.au/pnp/free/pnpv4n4/bettcl.htm. Retrieved 2010-06-16. 
  26. ^ "2004 Federal Election. Latest Seat Results. Election Results. Australian Broadcasting Corporation". ABC. http://www.abc.net.au/elections/federal/2004/results/latest.htm. Retrieved 2010-06-16. 
  27. ^ "Counting the Votes". Aec.gov.au. 2008-02-13. http://www.aec.gov.au/Voting/count.htm. Retrieved 2010-06-16. 
  28. ^ "Ondwelle Home-page". Ondwelle.com. http://www.ondwelle.com. Retrieved 2010-12-29. 
  29. ^ http://www.ondwelle.com/Preferences_Senate2010Qld.rtf
  30. ^ http://www.ondwelle.com/Preferences_Senate2010NSW.rtf
  31. ^ http://www.ondwelle.com/Preferences_Senate2010Vic.rtf
  32. ^ http://www.ondwelle.com/Preferences_Senate2007Vic.rtf
  33. ^ http://www.ondwelle.com/Preferences_Senate2004Vic.rtf
  34. ^ a b "Antony Green's Election Blog: Distortions in the Queensland Senate Count". Blogs.abc.net.au. 2010-09-16. http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/2010/09/distortions-in-the-queensland-senate-count.html. Retrieved 2010-12-29. 
  35. ^ "Nominations". Australian Electoral Commission. http://www.aec.gov.au/Parties_and_Representatives/Candidate/Handbook/nominations.htm. Retrieved 2007-12-15. 

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