How Does Australian Preferential Voting Work?

I have two alternative titles for today’s post. For those of you who were just as bamboozled as I was when you arrived at the polling station on Saturday, it’s called…

  • Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted

And for those of you who were expecting the complicated voting arrangements that awaited me, this post is called…

  • Well, you should have Googled “How to vote in an Australian Federal Election” before you turned up, shouldn’t you?

Going to the polls

This isn’t the first time I have voted in Australia as an Australian citizen, you will remember that I cast my vote in the Queensland state elections which took place in March of last year.

At the time I took a photograph of myself proudly entering the polling station to place my vote…

BobinOz voteOn Saturday it was a Federal Election and I couldn’t really see it being much different, that’s why I didn’t take my camera, so I’m sure the Green Party will be overwhelmed that I have recycled the above photograph for this post.

Yes, it was the same hall that I attended to vote, same setup, so why on earth would I need to take more pictures? You’ll find out why when I get to the section about Senate voting. But first…

Voting in the UK

Here’s what I’m used to when it comes to voting in elections. Back in the UK, voting in a “General Election” was very straightforward; decide who you wanted to vote for and then vote for them.

Job done.

Sometimes there would only be three choices, unless you were lucky enough to live in an area represented by someone from The Official Monster Raving Loony Party or one of the other minor parties. It mattered not though, your task was very simple; put one simple cross in one simple box and the job was done.

If you wanted to make it more complicated than this, you could always go to the pub after voting and discuss what you’ve done and why with anybody else who would listen. That though, was voluntary.

Preferential voting in Australia

Those of you unacquainted with the Australian political system will probably need to brush up by reading my post Australian Politics Explained first.

Okay, ready?

Here, in Australia, things were completely different. On arrival at the polling station, I was issued with my voting slip which had seven candidates on it, but rather than selecting one, I had to choose them in order of preference, numbering them 1 to 7.

Pretty simple, really, and as I grabbed that voting slip and began walking towards the voting booth, the guy behind the desk said “not so fast!

He then handed me a larger piece of paper, much much larger, with so many boxes on it my head was spinning. For all I knew, it could have been some kind of complicated flowchart that might perhaps assist a scientist in his project to create perpetual motion.

It wasn’t though; it was another voting slip, this one for the Senate.

This sheet of paper was so big I couldn’t put it down and lay it flat in the polling booth. I’ve had to take three photographs, courtesy of my mobile phone camera, to capture it all. I’ve used political terms to describe each one of these photographs.

First, here’s the extreme left…

Left Senate Ballot FormNow here’s the centre…

Centre Senate Ballot FormAnd finally, the far right…

Right Senate Ballot FormErm, what do I do with this?” I asked.

I was told I needed to place all 82 candidates that appeared below the line in my preferential order, numbering them 1 to 82 OR, if I decided to vote above the line, I just needed to place a 1 in one box and let the magical process of preferential voting automatically do the rest for me.
Before I try to explain how all this works, let’s go back to my vote for Federal Government and pretend, just for the sake of this example, that I only had four choices, not seven. Let’s say the political parties I could have voted for were…

  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Blue

For one of these parties to win a seat in the House of Representatives, they would require a majority which is 50% of the total vote + 1. In this example, let’s assume 100 people were voting, so one party would need 51 votes to win.

Let’s say though that the first vote goes like this…

  • Red – 31
  • Yellow – 16
  • Green – 29
  • Blue – 24

As you can see, nobody has achieved 50% plus one, so nobody has a majority. In Australia’s preferential voting system, whoever came last is out, so in this example we say goodbye to Yellow.

All the people who voted for Yellow may have lost their primary vote, but their secondary vote now kicks into play. So, let’s say the 16 people who voted for Yellow voted the following parties second…

  • Red – 5
  • Green – 1
  • Blue – 10

These votes are added to the primary votes already gained by these parties giving us new totals of…

  • Red – 36
  • Green – 30
  • Blue – 34

Now we are down to the final three, but still no majority. Bottom of the pile is Green, so they are out! As before, the secondary votes for the Greens are added as primary votes and if that second vote was for Yellow, who are already eliminated, then the third preference is used and so on.

Let’s say, in this example, that the Greens preferential votes went as following…

  • Red – 12
  • Blue – 18

The winner then is Blue, who you will remember were just third after the primary vote, but now has 52% with Red second on 48%.

NB: I can assure you that these colours were picked at random and no political message has been hidden within by the author, honest.

So, that’s how preferential voting works here, but it does get much more complicated.

What is above the line voting?

Back to that vote for the Senate. Remember those 82 choices? And remember you can either put all 82 choices in order numbered 1 – 82 or you can just vote for one and be done?

Well, if you take the easy way out and just choose one, you are kind of losing control of your vote. Because whoever that one party chooses as their secondary preference, that’s where your vote is going to go.

If, on the other hand, you take the time to vote below the line and put them all in order, then you are always in control of who you are voting into the Senate. Your secondary vote, third, fourth and all the way down to your 82nd choice, if necessary, will be taken into consideration.

So, clearly it is best to fill the form in properly from 1 to 82. So who does?

In the last election, only just over 3% of voters actually bothered.

That’s how it all works here in Australia. Maybe old habits die hard, but I much prefer the old system I enjoyed in the UK; one man, one vote, one cross and if you wanted to, one pub.

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Anthony Rubbish March 8, 2022, 8:10 am |

    Great to see someone who understands the numbers. I have always voted below the line and for the first half I vote down the columns because these are my preferences and the last half I number from the bottom up because if I have to vote for a certain party then I will ensure I reverse their recommendations as a protest.

    I would prefer optional preferential above the line where I can never from 1 to … and then not have to put a preference next to people I wouldn’t ever want to see elected. In this way when you preferences have been exhausted you vote is simply discarded (a bit like first past the post systems if you vote for the losing candidate).

    I love preferential voting because it means an extremist with a minor percentage of support can’t pull off a win against the majority (at least without some support via preferences). Having said that we do have the odd results from the preference whisperers who figured out how to game the system.

    My response would be to make it so that you need to have a minimum vote percentage of say 10% before you can receive preferences otherwise your preferences just get distributed to those candidates with a serious quantum of primary support.

    First past the post voting seems to be flawed because it discourages people with similar politics from standing against one another lest they “split the vote” and so you end up with outcomes that favour parties rather than competence or vision (irrespective of political leaning).

    • BobinOz March 10, 2022, 6:44 pm |

      A timely reminder Mr Rubbish, because we will all be going through this process again within the next couple of months, so time to brush up on preferential voting. Thanks for your tips, I’ll be studying them closer to the time.

  • Ernie In AZ September 16, 2013, 4:16 am |

    Hi Bob,

    Another oddity with the Senate is that the voting is preferential and proportional. The system is so complex and produces puzzling results. How someone from the “Motoring Enthusiast Party” can get elected for a six year term with only 12,444 votes out of nearly 2.5 million ballots cast is beyond me. Perhaps a little electoral reform may be a good thing. Personally, I like preferential voting, but a few changes may be in order.


    • BobinOz September 16, 2013, 3:54 pm |

      Yes, the whole system is way more complex than I cared to write about here. Six per state, blocks of 14.3%, leftovers going to second preferences, dark deals between parties, all kinds of nonsense. Reform is definitely in order.

      Cheers, Bob

  • Tim September 15, 2013, 10:07 am |

    Fantastic explanation Bob!

    I can’t help thinking that the voting system is a little bit silly and open to abuse. The number of people who will seriously rate 82 options must be tiny.

    Oh well, it may have changed by the next federal election – when I will be eligible to vote! 🙂

    • BobinOz September 16, 2013, 3:05 pm |

      It may well have done Tim, I think the system is already being re-looked at.

  • Rupert September 11, 2013, 3:01 am |

    Hi Valter. Bob is right, it’s all or nothing. Otherwise the ballot is categorised as ‘informal’ and is not counted in the results. However, there is a thing called ‘Donkey Voting’, where you just number everything in order, either left to right or top to bottom. For this reason candidates prefer to be at the top or on the far left as these votes ARE counted. In New South Wales (where I live) there were 110 candidates for the senate – bonkers!

    Malcolm Turnbull has hinted that electoral reform may be on the agenda for the government-elect, which is a good thing I think. If nothing else, it will save on printing costs and the unnecessary waste of paper – but that might be a bit too ‘Green’ for Bob, so I’ll quit now before I’m tempted to write a thesis on the benefits of carbon pricing 😉

    • BobinOz September 11, 2013, 5:13 pm |

      Not completely true Rupert, when I saw the size of that piece of paper and then mentally in my head tried to multiply it by millions, even I was shocked. I found myself turning to Mrs Bobinoz and saying “oh my word, those poor trees!”

      See, I do have a little bit of green, it just doesn’t extend to carbon tax 🙂

      • Rupert September 11, 2013, 5:23 pm |

        “Like” – to use the modern and oh so youthful vernacular for approval. All the best mate 🙂

        • BobinOz September 11, 2013, 6:12 pm |

          Keep up, it’s +1 now:-)

          • Rupert September 11, 2013, 7:51 pm |

            Not heard that one! I’m getting old…

  • Valter Russo September 10, 2013, 1:49 pm |

    hi bob

    not sure if you can enlighten me,but lets say you had only preference for 15, and you put those 15 in the form and let the rest empty, will they count, would be rejected?
    im no politics man, but as a regular guy i can asure you,i do not have preference for even those 15 i said in the example.haha.
    its allways 82?


    • BobinOz September 10, 2013, 4:11 pm |

      As it was explained to me, you either fill in one box above the line or you do all 82 below the line. There was no middle ground, all or nothing. That’s how I understood it anyway.

      After 10 or 15 I should think anyone would just be guessing from then on in, surely?


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