Legislative Council Electoral System

The NSW Upper House is comprised of 93 MLCs (Members of the Legislative Council) and operates under an proportional optional-preferential system, partly similar to that introduced in the Federal Senate in 2016. In this system the state is treated as a single electorate and seats are distributed according to the number of quotas a party gets. Quotas are typically 4.55% of the vote.

This system provides the option of allocating as many preferences desired but also allows an individual to simply vote 1 and let their vote exhaust. Voting below the line, on the other hand, requires a minimum of 15 votes to be considered formal. Unlike the Lower House, when a vote exhausts it doesn't affect the number of votes required for a quota, which remains at 4.55% (half that at double dissolution elections). As votes exhaust entire seats are just simply lost. Those left standing when there are no more votes to trade, the system adopts a First Past the Post approach and a simple tally of how many votes each person has is continued until all seats are filled.

 

NSW Lower House Electoral System

The NSW Lower House is comprised of 93 MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) and operates under an optional preferential system similar to that introduced in the Federal Senate in 2016. 

Voters can number as many or as little candidates as they would like. Simply voting for 1 party and potentially allowing your vote to exhaust is perfectly acceptable or you may choose to fill out the entire ballot. Simple enough, yet there are lesser known structures within this system that can lead to unintended consequences when replicated on a mass scale.

Informal and Exhausted Votes

The clearest example of this is the effect of informal (improperly filled) and exhausted votes. When this occurs a vote is actually removed from the pool of votes from which the number of votes required to make up a majority and determine the seat is calculated.

To demonstrate, if 100 votes in total are cast, when counting begins the number to reach a majority (51%) is 51 votes. If after the first count nobody has a majority the party with the least number of votes is eliminated - a rare commonality between electoral systems - and their preferences distributed, assuming they exist. When an individual gives no preference and their party is eliminated, exhausting their vote, it is actually removed from the pool of votes from which the 51% majority is determined. The threshold number of votes required for election is therefore reduced.

For instance, if 20 out of 100 total votes exhaust or are informal there are now only 80 in the pool of votes being used to determine a majority. This majority has also now slipped from 51 votes to 41. This provides the greatest benefit to parties who score high on the initial - the primary - count, such as the LNP who are in coalition and do not have a split vote like Labor and the Greens. Taking this view, an informal or exhausted vote is a de facto vote for the LNP. Whether you like it or not, in a democracy premised on compulsory voting even your decision not to vote has a political impact.

Who Benefits?

Informal, unregistered and exhausted votes don't count for simply nothing and can have sweeping impacts if perpetrated at large scales. Whether you view this as a problem, however, is entirely dependent on your personal values and biases. With this in mind, I would argue that it is a genuine problem if people are simply unaware of what they are doing at the polling booth and their ballots are not at all, not even the slightest bit, a calculated political gesture. This demonstrates ignorance and can lead to unwanted outcomes for those who had no intention of supporting them.

Statistics from the last State Election in the Ballina Electorate and surrounds also show the magnitude of this issue with exhaust rates of up to 50%*. A similar occurrence happened in the 2016 Local Government elections where scrutineers I spoke with, and the booth I worked on, had similar figures. For the Left Movement to have a chance they must get over this petty
in-fighting and start to use their How-To-Vote cards properly. For the Coalition and the Right-wing Movement, the system is likely working just fine so just keep voting 1.

 
House of Reps: Voting Made Easy

 
The House of Representatives (HoR), or the Lower House as it is  commonly known, holds elections every 3 years using a system known more commonly as full preferential voting. As the name implies, for a vote to be considered formal (accepted) preferences must be given to every candidate listed; an easy task given the relatively small size of the ballot papers, unlike the "unelected swill", as Paul Keating once referred to, the Senate.

See here for the Senate voting system, its contrast and intentions in more detail.

Electoral System: Structure, Preferences and Background

This system breaks the nation into a mass of electorates with approximately the same number of voters, in line with the fundamental democratic rule of one person one vote.  To win the seat of an electorate a candidate must reach 51% - a majority - of the vote. Rarely, if ever, does a party reach 51% on the first count.
 
This is where preferences kick in. The candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and their preferences distributed according to the intention of their voters. Importantly, and more on this when we reach the Senate, each preference is distributed at its full value and carries the same weight as the original vote. With 151 seats on offer, and one of those reserved for the Speaker of the House, a Party must win 76 seats to form a majority government. Hung parliament occurs when a party fails to secure this number of seats and are required to obtain the support of minor parties in order to govern.

When it comes to polling day, voters are required (all voting in Australia is compulsory regardless of state/federal divides) to complete the entire ballot paper with preferences from first to last. These ballot papers are typically small with only a handful of choices, making this a logistically simple task for the voter.

Once the votes have been cast and the polls close, counting begins. Following the first round of counting - the primary vote - the party with the least amount of votes is eliminated and the preferences of the voters who listed them first are redistributed. This process continues until a candidate reaches 51%.


Institutional Role & Political Philosophy of the HoR

The House of Reps, as an institution, is often described as being comprised of elements from both the United Kingdom (Westminster) and the United States of America (Washington) political systems, acquiring the name "Washminster" frequently in academic literature. This is due to Australia taking institutional features from both, such as allowing the existence of semi-autonomous states with a similar check on executive power found in the Senate, similar to the USA, while also maintaining a Prime Minister as the Head of Government and Governor General - the symbolic representative of the Queen of England - as Head of State and formally endorsing British ideals of responsible government to supposedly entrench ministerial accountability. The Governor General's role is typically symbolic and their actions ceremonial in nature, yet the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1973 is an example of the potential perils or positive aspects, depending on your viewpoint, this design contains.

Greater differences exist, but an exhaustive list is unnecessary. The result for the House of Representatives is an emphasis on democracy and producing clear, unambiguous outcomes with regard to who governs, who is responsible and who to hold accountable. The counter-weight occurs in the Senate where a different system, used to produce different results for precisely this reason, is in play. 

Federal Lower House: Pros and Cons


The benefit and drawbacks of such any electoral system are multifaceted and, as always with politics, debatable depending on your values. Below we by no means purport to note every benefit and hindrance of such a system, just those touted commonly by advocates and opponents:

  • Systems of this sort strongly encourage voters in a period tinged by apathy and cynicism towards democratic and political institutions to at least engage, however minutely, every three years if only for a few weeks or days; it forces people to participate and become genuine political agents who have,  if nothing else, a self-interest in voting to avoid being fined. A simple example of why this system is argued superior to some others is that, in America for instance, Trump lost the popular vote by a substantial number, suggesting a majority of Americans would have preferred an alternative president. Had compulsory voting been in place, or even a full preferential system, Trump would likely never have been elected. Similarly, had the United Kingdom voted on Brexit as a whole it is unlikely the resolution would have passed. Whether you think this is good or bad is beside the point, which is simply to provide an example of the power electoral systems have in shaping political outcomes. It is a coercive system, but one that coerces individuals into democratic participation, which is arguably a benefit in modern democracies given the current state of the world and the wanna-be demagogues lurking in any political niche they can find.

  • Another simple example of how full preferential systems prevent distorted electoral outcomes can be explained with a basic hypothetical scenario: if there are three main candidates, with two classed as progressive and one as conservative, the progressive vote is immediately split and provides the conservative with an advantage from the primary vote (the first round of counting). However, if the conservative wins 35% of the vote with the two progressive candidates achieving 32% split between, it is likely that as preferences begin to flow that a progressive candidate would win, reflecting the clear preference of the electorate had they been given greater input into the electoral process. In contrast, other systems, such as First Past The Post common to America, do a single round of counting and award the seat based on that count alone. There are no preferences and, in the above scenario, this would lead to roughly 68% of the electorate - far more than a majority - preferring an alternative representative.

  • Common criticism of this system is that it has lead to an entrenched state of two-party politics which, while declining in power, remains dominant. That being said, preferential systems are designed precisely so individuals can vote for their first party of choice without fear of wasting their vote. For this reason it must be acknowledged the notion that full-preferential voting leads to an entrenched two-party system is confused at best as it creates an environment precisely in which minor parties can flourish. Accordingly, it is not so much the system that is to blame but the voting patterns of the electorate; or that the ALP and LNP genuinely do reflect two distinct, broad groups that comprise a firm majority of the voting population. With this in mind, such an argument is arguably becoming more difficult to sustain as society continues to pluralise and fragment into even more distinct social groups. In contrast, First Past The Post systems provide little to no incentive to vote for minor parties as they have little chance of winning and their vote therefore counts for very little. On this basis it can be argued that our two-party system is, historically at least, reflective of the electorate's views and not merely an intractable power structure of Orwellian disposition. The system is designed so any party with enough support can rise through the ranks of Parliament.

The Senate (Upper House) Electoral System

Since the reforms to the Senate in 2016, individuals must vote either 1- 6 above the line or 1 - 12 below. This is in contrast to the pre-2016 system which encouraged voters to simply vote 1 above the line for their preferred party and allow the party to then decide where it goes; what's known as a group voting ticket. The current system used by the Senate is referred to as a partial preferential system and is strikingly different to the House of Reps. The Senate elects 12 representatives from each state and from these states 76 Senators, approximately half of the House of Reps, are elected by reaching a quota of the overall percentage of formal (valid) votes. 

Whereas the Lower House system is designed to try and ensure a single party governs with clear lines of accountability, Senators are elected through a system of proportional representation. Seats are distributed according to the proportion of the vote gained by a party, creating a greater diversity of views which act as a check on the power of the ruling party in the Lower House (the Executive). In short, a party with 10% of the vote would have 10% of the seats on offer. Unlike NSW's Legislative Assembly exhausted votes do not affect the numbers needed to fill a quota and are therefore less important. However, counting of the votes in the Senate is significantly more complex than in the House of Reps. 

Whereas the House of Reps uses a small ballot and has few parties running in each seat, the Senate ballot is often caricatured as a "tablecloth" due to its size and number of competing parties. Since the changes in 2016 voting above the line (ATV) requires voters to number candidates from 1 to 6 in order of preference. This is in contrast to the previous system of Group Voting Tickets, in which individuals could simply vote 1 above the line and allow their preferences to be determined according to the will of the Party. Below the line (BTV) voting requires individuals number at least 12 candidates in order of their preference. Previously it required filling every single box. Simply put, to vote in the Senate you need to remember either six above or twelve below.

 Without going into unnecessary detail, after the first round of counting candidates who received a quota (14% of the vote at regular elections, 7.7% during double dissolutions) are elected and their surplus votes - those accrued by a candidate that are in addition to their quota - are transferred to the next on their party ticket at a reduced value. If there are no votes left to count due to exhausted votes the final seats are allocated as they would be in a First Past the Post system, going to individuals with the most votes until all seats are filled. Antony Green, Australia's preeminent psephologist (electoral expert) provides a more in-depth analysis, explaining the maths and formulas more in-depth for those so inclined.

Institutional Role of the Senate

Given the Senate's institutional role as a "house of review" acting as a check on executive power, this arrangement can arguably be said to have struck a fair balance, keeping in mind no system is without flaws. The system of checks and balances in Australian Parliament is, briefly, that: the executive (government) makes the law, the Senate, comprised of a broader cross-section of the Australian population due to their electoral system of proportional representation, reviews the law and the judiciary (the courts) interpret the law when need be. Dispersing power in this manner is a defining characteristic of liberal democracies. 

Due to the unequal populations of each state and the exact same level of political influence each wields in the Senate, the democratic principle of one person one vote is utterly perverted. This is not without good reason as it goes to the heart of the tension between democracy and liberalism found in every liberal democratic state. As always, the efficacy of the Senate in functioning as a house of review is dependent on its composition and the values of the individual making the assessment. Historically, the system has operated extremely well. With a double majority - majorities in both houses - occurring only a few times. 

Political Philosophy of the Senate

In terms of political philosophy, the Lower House emphasises democratic elements, such as strong government, ministerial responsibility and clear lines of accountability, while the Senate emphasises liberal elements (liberal in this sense refers to protection of the individual, not the economic liberalism championed by the liberal party and to a lesser extent Labor and the Greens). This is why the Senate abandons the democratic notion of one person one vote: it functions primarily as a liberal, not democratic institution. Furthermore, it was arguably necessary for the early colonies to come together in federation. This is highly problematic for those who argue for proportional representation as being more democratic than other systems as it depends on which aspect of contemporary democracies one is referring to.

Also in clear support of the notion above is the fact the Senate utterly perverts the fundamental democratic notion of one person one vote by giving states with large discrepancies in population relative to others equal levels of political power in the Senate. In this context the Senate can never be more democratic than the House of Representatives.

At this point it should be clear the complexity of our system makes any discussion of it extremely difficult to have in any sort of meaningful sense. Confusions arise almost immediately without definitions and it is extremely difficult to classify a specific type of democracy as inherently superior to another - an argument repeated countless times - as there are always trade offs between these elements which go straight to the core of our personal values.

Pros & Cons 

  • Proportional Representation often appears to be a much fairer way to organise our politics as it allows for diverse groups to acquire political influence and political power is dispersed according to the percentage of votes received. The idea of politics as a zero-sum game drifts away here as multiple winners emerge. This can be enhanced even further with Mixed Member Proportional, in which each electorate is allowed to elect more than one candidate.

  • With greater diversity comes, more often than not, greater need for negotiation and discussion. Without excellent negotiators and strong relations between the various parties a system based solely on proportional representation runs the risk of becoming mired in endless debate with nothing ever being done or, just as bad, compromises to the point that nobody is happy.