Sunday, April 28, 2019

How To Make Best Use Of Your 2019 Senate Vote

This piece is written to provide advice on the best way voters can use their vote most effectively at this year's Senate election.  It's a new version of the article I wrote in 2016, that takes account of the experience of that election and since, including with Section 44.  Many regular readers of the site will already be aware of many of the points below.  I hope the main part of the post will also be useful, however, for those who want to know what advice to give less politically engaged (or more easily confused) voters.  I will vote below the line and number every square, and I'm sure many other readers will too (at least in the smaller states!), but not everyone is up for that.

Under the system introduced in 2016, voters determine where their preferences go - there is no longer any "group ticket voting" in which if you vote for one party, your preference also goes to another.  Voters have great flexibility - they can vote above the line (in which case they are asked to number at least six boxes) or below the line (in which case they are asked to number at least twelve).  Voters who vote below the line are no longer forced to number all the boxes.  

This freedom is fantastic, but it's still taking some getting used to, and most voters are not using their vote in the most effective way they could.  If you don't have time to use your vote effectively and just want to get out of the polling box as fast as you like, that's fine, that's up to you.  But not making the best use of your vote might end up helping a party you can't stand beat one you are merely disappointed by.  This guide tells you how to avoid that, if you want to.   

Here I give some answers to the sorts of questions people are asking or likely to ask about the system.  At the bottom there is a section on tactical voting for advanced players only.  The vast majority of readers should stop when they get to that point.

Should I vote above the line or below the line?

You should vote below the line if any of the following apply to you:

1. You wish to vote for a range of candidates across party lines, rather than just putting all the parties in order of preference.  You might be the sort of person who will really like some candidates from a given party and really dislike others (perhaps because of their positions on social issues), or you might want to preference candidates with a certain background, or who you know, whatever party they're running for.

2. You are happy to keep your vote within party lines, but you want to put the candidates for some parties you vote for in a different order to the order their party lists them in. For instance you like a party but think it should have put someone else on the top of its ticket or higher on its ticket.  Or you detest a particular candidate and strongly want to put them absolutely last, even if it means numbering three times as many boxes.  (Be aware that if the candidate you detest is #1 for a major party ticket in a state (as distinct from territory) that they are going to win anyway so putting them last may not make any difference compared to voting above the line and putting their party last.)  

3. You wish to vote for an ungrouped candidate (an independent or a sole candidate for a party, who does not have a party box above their name) or preference one or more ungrouped candidates higher than some other candidates or parties.  These candidates appear on the far right of the ballot paper, except in NT which doesn't have any, so NT voters can ignore this one.  Be aware that ungrouped candidates are usually completely uncompetitive as they cannot get above-the-line preferences, so if putting the ungrouped candidates ahead of a nasty party is your only reason for voting below the line, you may well be wasting your time.  (Except perhaps in Tasmania, where there is one ungrouped candidate who is quite prominent.)

If none of those apply, you'll probably find that voting above the line is easier.

If voting below the line, be extra careful with votes 1-6

If you vote below the line, you'll be asked to number 12 boxes and should ideally number more.  However, if voting below the line make really sure you have put one and only one candidate number 1, one and only one candidate number 2 (etc) up to 6.  If you omit any of the numbers 1-6 when voting below the line your vote won't count. (One Tasmanian voter last election numbered every box but skipped the number 6, so their vote was disallowed.) If you double any of the numbers 1-6 when voting below the line, your vote won't count.  If you make a mistake after number 6, however, your vote will still count up to the point where you made that mistake.  Remember, if you make a mistake while voting at a booth, you can ask for another ballot paper.  (Also, don't use zeros or negative numbers for candidates you dislike - this can cause your vote to not be counted.)

Be extra careful if you like to number a few boxes then number backwards from the bottom up.  It's very easy to skip a number then end up with two 5s.  If you like to do this sort of thing, best to practice at home first.

You might think this sounds simple.  It's amazing how many people still manage to stuff it up.

So I should just number 6 boxes above the line or 12 below?

You can, but I strongly encourage you to number more! Whether you are voting above the line or below the line, the more squares you number, the more powerful your vote becomes. 

If anybody - even an electoral official - tells you that voting for more than six above the line or more than twelve below will make your vote invalid, then that is wrong.  

I've numbered, say, 17 boxes and I don't like any of the other parties/candidates.  Should I stop now?

You certainly can, but it's more effective to keep going.  One of the most important messages in the system is that while you can stop when you run out of parties that you like, this may result in a candidate you strongly dislike beating a candidate who you think is the lesser evil.  Just voting for the parties you like and then stopping is not making the best use of your vote.

A lot of voters - especially a lot of idealistic left-wing voters - are a bit silly about this and worry that if they preference a party they dislike they may help it win.  Well yes, but your preference can only ever reach that party if the only other parties left in the contest are the ones you have preferenced behind it or not at all! If that's the case then someone from that list is going to win a seat, whether you decide to help the lesser evils beat the greater evils or not. 

To make best use of your vote, you should only stop when one of the following happens:

1. You could not care less which of the remaining candidates wins (assuming that at least one is elected).
2. You so strongly dislike all the remaining candidates that you feel morally opposed to even helping them beat each other.  Be aware that this could help the worst of them beat one who, while still terrible from your perspective, is not the worst.
3. Although you actually dislike one of the remaining parties less than one or more of the others, you want to exhaust your vote in protest to encourage that party to listen to your concerns.  (To make your point effectively, I suggest you send that party a letter after the election telling them you did this, since they won't be able to work it out from your vote.)

Of course, some voters just "don't have the time" to number more than a few squares, or reckon it's not worth the effort for the sake of one vote.  It's up to you whether voting effectively is a real priority for you or not.  I'm just suggesting what you should do if it is.

I want to vote above the line for Party X but they've done a preference deal with Party Y and I don't want my preferences to go to Party Y, at least not ahead of Party Z.

They won't.  Your preferences above the line can only go to Party Y if you choose to preference Party Y yourself.  You can vote for party X then direct preferences to whatever other parties in whatever order you like.  If you put party Y well down on the list, then your preference can only help Party Y beat any parties you have ranked even lower down or anyone you have left blank (this includes the ungrouped candidates).  Any preference deals your party has done, or any preferences they give on their how-to-vote card, have no impact on your vote unless you follow that card yourself.  

I want to vote below the line for a candidate, and I want to put a certain party last, but I don't want to number 100 boxes.  Is there a shortcut?

In the previous edition I said there was: bear in mind that the great majority of minor party tickets have no chance at all of getting more than one seat in any given state.  So there is no need for you to send your preferences to all the candidates for every micro-party, just the lead candidate will do.  Make sure you still preference up to the top four candidates from the bigger parties if doing this though (except the party you are putting last) and just to be on the safe side you might want to include second candidates for the Greens, One Nation, Centre Alliance, UAP and other minor parties that might somehow manage a quota.

However, that was before Section 44 started to bite.  The small risk you do take if you leave out the minor candidates is that if a candidate for one of these parties wins, and if that candidate is then disqualified, your vote might be less effective in the special count to replace them.  So if you want to be sure of keeping your vote effective if there's a special count, then the best thing is to number all of the boxes.

Can I vote above and below the line?

There is not much point in voting both above and below the line. Under the old system voters sometimes voted both above and below the line so that if they made a mistake below the line their vote above the line would still be counted.  This still applies, but it's so much easier to just make sure you don't make a mistake in the first six numbers if you vote below the line.

Also (and this is one to watch for when telling confused elderly relatives how to vote!) do not cast a vote that crosses the line (eg a 1 above the line, then a 2 below, then a 3 below, a 4 above etc).  At best this will cause your vote to exhaust very quickly and at worst it will not count at all.

This is all confusing! I just want to do what my party wants!

That's up to you.  If your party is popular and you are voting at a booth, your party will probably hand out how-to-vote cards that tell you how they suggest you vote in the Senate.  If you are voting for a little-known party, you may need to check their website to see what they recommend (if anything). 

Be aware that it is possible your party will deal with parties you do not agree with and hence recommend you vote for someone who you would not actually like.  

The big drawback with following a how to vote card is that your party wants to keep the message simple and hence will probably only recommend six boxes above the line.  But such a vote is more likely to exhaust (or at least to have part of its value exhaust.)  If you're voting for a major party, your party will probably leave both the other major party and One Nation off its card.  If you want to preference the other major party ahead of One Nation, then you will have to keep going and number at least one more box than your party recommends.

I've heard that I can just vote 1 above the line and stop and my vote will still be counted!

That's true, but only to a degree.  If you do this (disobeying the official instructions) then your vote will only count for the party you've voted for.  Once all that party's candidates are elected or excluded, your vote will exhaust and will play no further role in the election.  It might make sense to vote this way (despite what the instructions say) if you only like one party and couldn't care less about any of the others, but really if that's your view you should learn more about the different parties.  You will almost certainly find some of them appeal to you more than others.

I've heard that I can just vote 1 below the line and stop and my vote will still be counted!

That's not true.  Such a vote would be informal.  If you vote below the line you need at least the numbers 1 to 6, once and once only each, for your vote to be counted at all.  It is better to follow the instructions and vote for at least 12.

This party I've never heard of has a cool-sounding name.  Should I vote for it or preference it?

That's up to you, but again I suggest being cautious about parties you don't know much about.  Their name may misrepresent what they are really on about, or some of their candidates may go off on a completely different track if they're elected.

If you don't have time to research parties before voting, then the best place to put parties you've never heard of is probably somewhere between the ones you moderately dislike and the ones you really cannot stand.  If you don't dislike any parties, best to put the ones you've never heard of at the end.

Do you have a video on this?

I don't, but the Vic-Tas branch of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia do (from last election).  I'm not associated with them, and I don't agree with all of it (they're very anti-above-the-line, but under the new system above-the-line voters have a greatly increased amount of control over their preferences, even if slightly less than below-the-line voters).  But on the whole it's OK and does at least explain why people should keep filling in boxes, and not just stop when they reach the minimum.

Are there tools to help planning my vote, especially below the line?

Depending on where you live, there may be a lot of parties on the Senate ballot, as a large number of micro-parties with no chance of winning are still running anyway.  (The number of party groups has come down a bit from last time though.)  If you want to vote below the line and go more or less all the way, you may want to prepare your ballot beforehand so you have something to take to the booth and copy.

A few sites that may help you to vote below the line (if you want to) are likely to emerge and I will list them here as I become aware of them and they appear to be up to speed:

Senate voting card creator
geekLections - allows for both ATL and BTL but big caution - this site's default ordering uses a VoteCompass classification that gives some strange results (eg placing the completely wacko Citizens Electoral Council at the political centre - only use this site if you know enough about the parties to reorder those you may not like appropriately.)

Also if you want to vote above the line (site also includes subjective party reviews that I may or may not endorse but are often funny anyway)

That concludes the simple questions (but feel free to ask me more in comments; you may want to check the comments last time to see if your question was already covered).  On to the tricky, slightly naughty bit!  The bit below the line is rated Wonk Factor 3/5 and is mainly for serious election and voting system junkies.


Tactical Voting

Strong disclaimer: If you have read this section and are not sure that you completely understand it, please ignore it and pretend you never read it.

Most voting systems are prone to tactical voting of some kind; indeed, in some it's necessary.  Under the first-past-the-post system in the UK it is often necessary for voters to vote tactically for their second or third preference party to ensure their vote isn't "wasted".  In the Wentworth by-election, many left-wing voters voted 1 for Kerryn Phelps because she was more capable of winning from second than Labor was.  Our preferential systems are much fairer than first-past-the-post, of course, but there are still ways of voting that can waste part of your vote's value, and ways to get around that if you want.

In this case I am not arguing that voters should vote tactically - I'm just explaining how they can do it if they want to.  The ethical decision involved (since voting tactically effectively reduces the value of other voters' votes) is up to them.

Here is a good example.  A voter really likes two candidates.  One is on top of a major party ticket, the other is in a lowly position and considered in danger of not winning.  They slightly prefer the first candidate, but might it actually be worth voting 1 for the second and 2 for the first instead?

Generally, the answer is yes, but only if not everyone does it, since if everyone did it then the first candidate wouldn't be so safe anymore.  However, it's a fact that not everyone will do it, and you can rely on the party vote being high enough at this election that top-of-the-ticket major party candidates in states will definitely win.

The one principle of tactical voting I recommend to those who really want to do it is do not vote 1 for any candidate who you know or suspect will get elected more or less straightaway.  Generally a strategic voter would therefore avoid a 1 vote for the first two major party candidates in a state, or in the ACT at this election for ALP #1.  Voting below the line and starting at the bottom of your preferred party ticket - if you're a major party voter - is a common trick.  But another one is to vote 1 for the second candidate (just to be really safe) of an agreeable micro-party which has no chance of winning at all, and then number the rest of the squares as you would normally. (The possible downside of this method is that your originally preferred party misses out on a few dollars of public funding.  For people who think no parties should be funded, that's a benefit.)

You can also do this above-the-line if you want to, under the new system.  Instead of voting 1 for any party that will poll more than 14.3% of the primary vote, you can deliberately give your 1 vote to a micro-party with absolutely no hope of winning and your second preference to your preferred party (then continue numbering parties in order).    Your vote will flow at full value to the candidate from your party who is most likely to be fighting for the final seat.  However, this does get a bit risky, because if too many people do it and select the same obviously hopeless micro-party, that micro-party might someday actually win!

Here's the mechanics behind all this.  If you vote 1 for someone who is going to be elected right off the bat, you are giving them a vote they do not need.  A portion of your vote is in effect left behind with them when their surplus is passed on, and your ballot paper in effect carries on to other candidates at a reduced value.  (In some cases its value may be reduced to zero, through "loss due to fractions".)  However, your vote also slightly increases the total passed-on value of all your chosen candidate's other votes.  Effectively, 1 vote is still passed on, but instead of it being your vote at full value, it's a mishmash of your vote and bits of the vote of everyone else who voted for the same person.

This can make a big difference if you're voting across party lines.  In some cases, voting 1 for a very popular candidate and then 2 for someone from a different party could actually harm the candidate you put second! (Note: don't do this deliberately to try to harm an opposing candidate, since you can harm them more then by just voting as you normally would.)

Advanced players may like to engage in a form of "preference-running" in which they try to strategise their vote so that it never gets caught with anyone who is elected until right at the end, and stays in the hunt at full value.  It is actually really hard to pull this off, because multi-seat elections are so unpredictable.  It often involves making difficult decisions about whether you would rather be sure of your vote reaching a favoured candidate, or take some risk of it not doing so to greatly increase the chance of another candidate you like.  This sort of thing is so easy to misunderstand that I am not going to publicly give any advice on how to do it. Please don't ask.

Those interested in some real examples of the principle I recommend should see this old Tasmanian Times article (wonk factor 4/5).  That article covers the Hare-Clark system as used in Tasmanian state elections.  There is a slight difference with the Senate system in that in the Senate, if your vote reaches someone who is elected with a quota at a later count, part of the value of your vote will be passed on (though often not very much).

There is also one specific 2019 case where tactical voting may be a good idea that I should mention, as it's a good example of how voters might use tactical voting to rescue their party from a tactically daft preselection.  If you are a Tasmanian Labor voter but don't mind which Senators represent your party, you will increase your party's chances of winning three seats by voting 1 for Lisa Singh below the line, followed by the other Labor candidates in whatever order you wish.  Why?  Because if Lisa Singh is excluded, her below the line votes will "leak" a lot to other parties, and this could be catastrophic for Labor's chances of three seats.  On the other hand, if Singh takes over as Labor's effective number 3, her below the line votes will stay with the party and have no opportunity to leak.  Therefore, voting 1 for Singh below the line is Labor's best chance of winning three seats (unless the number of voters doing so more than doubles from last time, which seems highly unlikely.)

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  1. If I want to vote below the line and make sure a party gets the few dollars of public funding, can I vote 1 for a candidate who is placed at the bottom of the ticket, on a party which gets above 4%, but also gets eliminated early enough in the count for me to distribute my preferences (to minor parties which are likely to get below 4%)?

    1. Yes. The party whose candidate you vote 1 for gets public funding if it gets 4% or more.

  2. AEC lady today told me "only 6 above the line". I pointed out that was wrong, that it was AT LEAST 6, and she angrily told me "well it won't matter anyway if you number more than that". I tried to explain that if e.g. the first 6 you number all exhaust without getting to quota then it very much does matter, but she clearly had no idea how any of this actually works.

    I'm not sure whether I should email the AEC complaining about that? It might only be a minor issue in the grand scheme, but it pisses me off that someone handing out voting forms would give voters incorrect information. Surely they covered that in training.

    1. Thankyou. Which electorate?

      There were a large number of such cases last election.

    2. It was Dunkley (pre-poll centre in Frankston). I don't want to complain too much about the AEC booth staff, most of them seemed to be well-meaning retirees wanting to contribute to the public good etc, but it annoys me that the staff don't seem to have been trained in what the rules actually are. I heard them discussing it afterwards while I was voting, they were all quite confused as to what they were supposed to tell people.

  3. Have voted below the line in the past, happier with voting above the line since the changes.
    Possibly stupid question, but I'm trying to get my head around it to advise my parents. If you vote 1 for Labor, will your vote exhaust there? Or will some flow on to your next choices?

    1. With a Labor above the line vote there are two likely results. If Labor wins the third seat in a state, or narrowly misses out on three, the vote will probably stay with Labor and never go anywhere else. If Labor wins two and the third candidate is excluded while there is still a fight on between other parties, then the vote will flow on to other parties but at a reduced value, with most of its value staying with the two Labor candidates already elected. A vote can only exhaust when every party (or for a below the line vote, candidate) that a voter has marked numbers for has had all its candidates either elected or excluded.

  4. Sorry to revisit an old thread but a theoretical question about below the line voting. I like one of the major party candidates and I also like one of the indy's. The major party candidate is in pretty much an unwinnable position if you just vote down the ticket or vote above the line while it's anybodies guess what happens to the indy. My question is, who should I give my 1 and 2 vote to maximise both of their chances to get up? The rest of the ballot paper I've got sorted just my 1 and 2 votes.

    1. My recommendation in this case based on chances of winning would be to just put the top 2 candidates in order of your preference - vote 1 for the one you like the most. If either candidate is not competitive then the order isn't going to matter. If both the independent and the major party candidate are competitive (because the major party candidate gets a lot of BTLs) then trying to work out which would be better placed to carry your vote forwards with the better chance of election is an extremely complex matter.

      If public funding is an issue for you then voting 1 for the independent increases their prospects of recovering their deposit and meeting the 4% threshhold for getting public funding for their campaign.

  5. Thanks Dr Bonham and just as an aside the 4% never even came into it.

  6. is up for 2019. As is but you've listed my favourite voting tool

  7. Thanks for a great site which i just discovered on the morning of voting day. I had a pretty good grasp before but this helped fine-tune the strategy, especially about going beyond the minimum 6 or 12. You exlain well and I even followed most of the wonk section about strategic voting - not too hard provided you have some prior knowledge of quotas etc.