2013 Federal Election / Domestic / Federal

Out of line? Voting in the Senate

by Meg Keyes


Voting for the Senate in Australian Federal elections can be a little complicated.  Each State elects twelve Senators and each Territory two, through a voting system known as proportional representation.  The ideological underpinning of this method is that the proportion of votes is approximately equal to the proportion of seats won.  There are some great advantages to this system.  Proportional representation gives minor parties and independents a better chance at winning representation than in the lower house, where a preferential system is used, and tends to result in a greater variety of parties being elected.  It is less likely that one party will hold an outright majority in the Senate, which encourages negotiation between parties.  Having this system in the upper house, rather than the lower house, usually allows for a stable government, unlike in other nations (for example, Italy) where proportional representation in the lower house results in unlikely and shifting coalitions.

Election of candidates to the Senate is calculated by a quota system.  To make things even more complicated, only half the Senate is elected during a general election, as Senators serve six year years, unless the election is a double dissolution.  At a half-Senate election, the quota for election is only one-seventh or 14.3% (one third or 33.3% for territories, where only two Senators are elected). Once a candidate has been elected with votes reaching the quota amount, any votes they receive in addition to this may be distributed to other candidates as preferences.  This involves some fiddly mathematics, and preference deals can cause some interesting results – think Steven Fielding’s election as a Family First Senator in 2004.  The complications are exacerbated by the large numbers of candidates contesting Senate seats, a figure which seems to grow with every election.  The Herald Sun reported in July that Victorian voters will be given magnifying glasses to help them read a record metre-long ballot paper for the Senate.   As many as 57 parties, plus independents, are expected to stand in Victoria for the Senate.  This has forced a lengthening of the already large ballot paper and a shrinking of the type size.  The 1.02-metre ballot paper is the maximum length at which printers can produce it, but there are expected to be so many candidates the Australian Electoral Commission has ordered 40,000 magnifying glasses for polling booths nationwide to help voters read the fine print.

To make things easier for voters who don’t want to spend a large proportion of their election day battling with the upper house ballot paper, it is possible to cast a single transferable vote, also known as voting ‘above the line’, whereby the voter nominates the party of their preference with a ‘1’ in the top section of the ballot paper and delegates their vote to that party and their pre-selected order of candidate preference.  This is obviously far simpler and less time-consuming than labelling every single candidate from 1 to (almost) infinity without a single omission or double-up.  Approximately 95% of voters vote this way since its introduction in 1984.  However support for the major parties has been decreasing since the 1990s, and there are considerable amounts of voters, particularly young voters who are disillusioned with both Liberal and Labor, and it is always prudent to check what deals your selected party has made.  There have been attempts made to combat this conundrum.  Websites such as belowtheline.org.au have online tools to help voters build their below the line preference at home, when they’ve got time and easy access to the internet, and to print a copy of their selections to make voting day (relatively) quick and easy.  If you are unhappy with giving your vote to one of the major parties, this may be less painful than making use of your government-provided magnifying glass (and your time on Election Day).  But each to their own.



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