Senate preference mayhem: 0.2% of the vote could be enough to win

This election sees a record number of parties contesting the Senate and a record number of candidates. Even people like me who enjoy filling in all the squares below the line on the Senate ballot paper might balk at having to fill in 82 squares (if you’re in Queensland), 102 (if you’re in NSW) or 97 (if you’re in Victoria). I tend to start with my top few, then go to the bottom with the ones I loathe the most and after a few back and forths, ideally it all meets neatly in the middle – if I mess it up and have to start all over again it could end up taking quite a long time. All of which means the likelihood of people just voting 1 above the line for their favourite party is greater than ever.

If you just vote 1 above the line, your preferences are distributed according to the Group Voting Ticket lodged by that party. The problem with doing that is that the preference flows often go in directions you wouldn’t expect. Many of the micro parties are swapping preferences with each other regardless of whether their policies or philosophies are alike or deeply opposed.

There has been some attention drawn to examples such as the Wikileaks Party preferencing a white supremacist party and the Shooters Party ahead of the Greens in NSW and preferencing the Nationals in WA ahead of Wikileaks greatest Parliamentary supporter, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, as well as the Sex Party in NSW preferencing Pauline Hanson ahead of the Greens. But these are just the tip of a very opaque iceberg. If you want to see who all the candidates are and where all of their preferences go, head to the Australian Electoral Commission’s website at this link – http://aec.gov.au/election/who-are-the-candidates.htm.

With so many parties cross-preferencing, there is a real chance that a party will get someone elected on as little as 0.5% or even less – which would make Family First’s win in Victoria in 2004 with 1.9% look like a landslide.

To test out possible results, have a go at Antony Greens’ excellent Senate calculator at this link – http://www.abc.net.au/news/federal-election-2013/senate-calculator.

I’ve managed to get plausible primary vote scenarios where a party can get elected on 0.2% of the vote – which is what the Outdoor Recreation Party polled in winning a seat in the infamous ‘tablecloth ballot paper’ in the Upper House for the NSW state election in 1999. That election had 80 parties contesting, but the quota to win a seat was only 4.5%, compared to 14.3% for a Senate seat.

Significant reforms were made to the NSW Upper House voting system after the 1999 result, and even if we can avert such an anti-democratic result in the Senate contests this time, I’d suggest similar reforms to the Senate voting system are still very much needed.

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