Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Jim Molan's Senate Result In Historic Context

There is a lot of discussion surrounding Senator Jim Molan's below the line vote in the NSW Senate race.  Misleading arguments about it are being weaponised by some of those who would like to see Molan appointed to the Sinodinos casual vacancy, but there is also a risk that amid all this appreciation of the scale of Molan's result could be lost.

To start with, Molan absolutely is not going to win and has never even looked remotely like being in contention during counting.   But his result is still very significant - in the state in which getting a high below-the-line vote is most difficult (because of historically low below the line rates and also the sheer scale required for an individual campaign), Molan has so far polled just over 130,000 votes (2.8%).  His share should rise slightly based on remaining unapportioned votes but won't be significantly above 3%, if it even reaches that.  

The Status Of Molan's Record

Molan's six figure tally has been described as a "record" personal vote in terms of votes received, but that claim requires a lot of historic unpacking.  It is actually the highest raw vote tally achieved by a candidate below #1 in their group since before 1940.  The division into above the line and below the line boxes has existed since 1984, but from 1984 to 2013 voting below the line required numbering pretty much all the boxes with very few errors in order for a vote to be formal.  At the last two elections, voting below the line has become much easier. 

From 1940-1983 candidates were listed in an order nominated by their party, but there was no above the line box.  This meant that a voter would not have to number any more boxes if voting for a candidate below number 1 on a party list, as if they were voting for the top candidate.  However, they would be unable to strictly follow a how-to-vote card in that instance, and would be at greater risk of making their vote informal.  

Prior to 1940, candidates were listed in a single order with all parties mixed together, alphabetically.  In this system there were naturally many cases of candidates in the larger states polling well over Molan's 130K without being their party's highest listed candidates.  That system was knocked on the head after Labor used its famous "Four A's" ticket (Amour, Armstrong, Arthur, Ashley) to scoop the donkey vote in NSW 1937, helping itself to all four seats by a narrow margin under the repeat-preferencing system then in use.   The government was not amused.

After candidate orders became defined by parties, top-of-the-ticket major party candidates would invariably get more than 130,000 votes in the larger states.  But these could well be mostly voters faithfully following party recommendations, the nearest equivalent of those voting above the line today.  

In all the years from 1940 onwards, there was never a case of a candidate below #1 on a ticket polling even 100,000 primaries.  The highest I could find was 82,786 primaries (5.6%) for Horace Nock (NSW), the sole Country Party candidate at #3 on a mixed UAP/Country ticket in 1943.   This isn't because revolutions against party ticket orders never happened.  But there were fewer votes back in those days, so the proportion required to match Molan's raw vote tally in the larger states wasn't seen.  Also, bucking the party ticket tended to be a small state thing.

Between 1940-1949 down-ticket candidates exceeded 3% a total of fifteen times in the mainland states, while in Tasmania it was so common that in both 1943 and 1946 every single non-#1 candidate did it.  Indeed a tactical trick used by the major parties at times was to deliberately place a popular candidate last on the ticket.  

The 1949 election saw the introduction of proportional representation.  After 1949, Tasmanian down-ticket candidates would often break 3%, but in the mainland states, this almost completely stopped.  In the years up til the introduction of group ticket voting in 1984, I found only three further mainland state cases: Dame Nancy Buttfield (Lib, SA, 1964), Dame Dorothy Tangney (ALP, WA, 1967) and Ronald Maunsell who somehow escaped a knighthood for his efforts (NCP, Qld, 1980).  I should also mention Jack Lang getting 3.5% as an ungrouped candidate in NSW, 1951.  Tasmanians, however, kept doing it routinely, to such a point that both John Coates (ALP, 1984) and Nick Sherry (ALP, 1996) broke 3% even under Group Ticket Voting, while Lisa Singh (ALP, 2010) showed early flashes of below the line form in the old system with 2.8%.

Since Senate reform was passed prior to the 2016 election, Molan's c. 3% vote has been the highest for any down-ticket mainland candidate, and it will also be the highest below-the-line vote for any candidate outside Tasmania or the ACT.  But in Tasmania it has been eclipsed by the down-ticket votes of Lisa Singh (6.1% in 2016 and 5.7% this year) and also Richard Colbeck (4% in 2016), as well as by Richard Colbeck, Nick McKim and Jacqui Lambie (twice) as ticket-toppers.  And the highest BTL percentage recorded by a top-of-ticket candidate under the new system is Katy Gallagher's 7.6% in the ACT Senate this year.

A record that has not been discussed but may be worth checking is Molan's share of the BTL vote for his state.  Currently he has about 43% of his state's BTL total.  It's not so easily checked and I am unsure offhand whether such a high share by a candidate of a state total has happened before.  

What does it mean?

The huge Molan vote in comparison to the BTL votes of others is being used to claim that Molan has an iron-clad grip on the right to a Senate vacancy.  However, such comparisons are misleading.  No candidate outside Tasmania was the subject of a significant BTL campaign like Molan was.  We don't know how any other candidate would have gone had they been supported by a BTL campaign on a similar scale, and to say that candidates who weren't trying to get BTL votes and didn't need BTL votes are less popular than Molan because they didn't get as many BTLs as him is simply silly.  

Using the number of BTL votes of a ticket-leading candidate, such as Hollie Hughes, to say anything about that candidate's personal vote is also always problematic.  A voter who likes a ticket leader but has no reason to vote below the line may choose to vote above the line for that ticket leader's party instead.  A 1 above the line is counted as a vote for the ticket leader, so ticket leaders may have personal support hidden inside their party's above-the-line vote.  On the other hand, a voter who votes 1 below the line for the ticket leader and then continues down the party ticket in order may not be aiming to personally vote for that ticket leader, so much as to control (or even in some cases deliberately exhaust!) their preferences outside that party's ticket.  It may be that such a voter would have accepted any order their party put candidates in.  For this reason whoever is top of the ticket always attracts some personal vote by virtue of that fact alone.

All this said, I think that getting nearly 3% below the line is an impressive score in a state as difficult to do it in as NSW.  I don't remember posting any estimate of what Molan might get before the election, but I wouldn't have thought it to be quite that much. 

In terms of the prospects for below-the-line campaigns succeeding in the future outside Tasmania, this does show that it is vaguely realistic for a major party candidate to win from outside the ticket order in a double-dissolution (if we ever see one of those things again).  Not that this would have happened in this instance (the NSW Coalition ticket would have scored 5 DD quotas more or less exactly, meaning that Molan would not have been able to catch the fifth candidate from outside the top five), but if a NSW candidate can poll almost 0.4 DD quotas there is some hope there that someday a win will occur.  

However, this particular attempt has ruffled feathers, not least because of the threat to the stability of the joint Coalition ticket caused by Molan potentially usurping the Nationals' seat.  (I suspect that a few sneaky inner-city Liberal voters may have voted for Molan with an eye to exactly that outcome.) There is also the question (Ross Leedham has posted some interesting correlations on Twitter here) of whether unpleasantries and division of resources in Sydney harmed the Liberal vote in the House of Reps there, or whether Molan just happened to do well in areas where his party was doing badly.  

See also:


My thanks again for historic data used in this post to Adam Carr's Psephos site.  Any errors in use of the data are mine.  


  1. Personally, although I do not like Molan, this case only strengthens by belief that a full implementation of Hare-Clark with Robson Rotation would strengthen democracy in the Senate and contrary to what some others think, would be workable even in larger states.

  2. Where does Fiona Patten’s tally in the 2018 Victorian state election rank, percentage wise, compared to some of the figures you’re quoting. I know the actual number of votes would obviously be less since it’s just an eighth of the state, but her share of both the actual below-the-line votes, and her ratio of below-the-line to above-the-line votes had to be near records, particularly considering that Victoria still has GVTs above the line.

    1. 1.6% of the votes in Northern Metro were BTLs for Patten. This was 12.6% of all BTLs in Northern Metro, but she wasn't the highest BTL-getter in Northern Metro (Samantha Ratnam (Green) had more than twice as many.) Patten's BTLs were 48.7% of the Reason vote. At this Senate election we have seen some candidates such as Garland and Pesec get more than half their group's vote in BTLs, but that was partly because of voter confusion about non-party boxes.