You don’t hear much about the election for the ‘other House’ in our Federal Parliament – the Senate. There’s no polls predicting who will win. Parties don’t do a special launch of their State/Territory Senate candidates. You don’t get letterbox drops or see State Senate candidates plastered on our local electricity poles. And yet the outcome of the Senate election will have a huge impact on the next three years in Australia, because Senators are just as vital to the working of Australia’s democracy as our MPs in the House of Representatives.
Further – as I wrote recently – for the majority of Australian voters, despite what our politicians would have you believe, your vote in the Senate is arguably more important and can have more of an impact than your vote in the House of Representatives. Despite this, these’s very little information available to the average punter both on who is running for the Senate and how to make your vote count.
This lack of understanding about the Senate is magnified by recent changes to Senate voting rules. However these changes actually mean that if you DO know what you’re doing, there’s a good chance your vote in the Senate will be especially powerful this election. But on the flip-side if you don’t know what you’re doing – even if your vote is technically valid, it may not count at all.
What’s so special about votes in the Senate?
The House of Representatives is the Lower House in our Federal Parliament. It’s the House that our pollies care about primarily because the outcome determines which of the two major parties gets to govern for the next three years. When voting for a representative in this House, as long as you fill out the little green voting form properly, your vote always counts. But only once. Maybe not always towards your first preference – but it always counts towards determining which candidate gets to take a seat as representative (or MP) for your electorate. This is because your ONE VOTE counts towards determining the outcome for ONE SEAT of Parliament (your local electorate).
The Senate is the Upper House in our Federal Parliament. It’s the House that our pollies ignore at election time, but which you should care about. The way Senators are elected to the Upper House is different to the way MPs are elected in the Lower House because votes for Senators are counted at a State (or Territory) level, and there are 12 seats to be filled for each State (and 2 for each Territory). This means that when you cast your vote for the Senate, your ONE VOTE can count towards determining the outcome of MULTIPLE SEATS and towards electing candidates from MULTIPLE PARTIES. But if you don’t know what you’re doing – even if you’ve filled out the large white Senate voting paper according to AEC guidelines – it’s possible your vote may NOT COUNT at all.
Here’s why this is so important in the 2016 election and what you need to know to make your vote really count…
Why this is so crucial in the 2016 federal election
Understanding how to make your vote really count in the Senate is particularly important in this election due to the fact that:
- Minor parties and Independents will very likely control the balance of power in the Senate for at least the next three years. In fact, since Federation in 1901, Labor has only once held a majority in the Senate – and that was more than 50 years ago. Understanding how your vote in the Senate works can help determine whether the Senate leans progressive or conservative.
- Along similar lines, the polls are tight and could go either way. If you’re a progressive voter like me, then you need to maximise your vote in the Senate to ensure that we have a progressive Senate regardless of who ends up in government in the House of Reps. Importantly, if we end up with the LNP in government in the House of Reps, then a more progressive Senate can protect Australia from the worst of right-wing lunacy.
- It’s a double dissolution election – which means that in the Senate, voters in each State are electing twice as many Senators as they usually do. Or put another way – there’s more Senate booty up for grabs, and more potential for anomalies to occur if Australian voters don’t know what they are doing.
- This is the first time the new Senate voting rules have been used – it’s likely there will be a lag in people understanding how they work, increasing the probability that up to 80% of voters’ votes will ‘exhaust’ – or run out of steam before the final Senate positions are decided. With twice as many State Senate positions up for grabs than usual, that will mean that the last few Senate seat in each State may be decided by only the votes of those voters who know what they are doing.
To help illustrate how counting in the Senate works, I’ve prepared a simplified example below based on the rules the AEC have posted on their website – from both a candidate’s perspective and a voter’s perspective.
(If you don’t want to know the detail behind Senate voting or are just happy to take my word for it, I suggest you skip to the ‘The Strategic Guide to really make your Senate vote count’ section at the end of this article for tips on making sure you are one of the voters who maximises their vote at this election. This is not a ‘How to Vote’ guide OR an explanation of AEC rules – rather it’s a strategic guide to getting the most out of your vote.)
Senate voting explained from a Candidate’s perspective – a simplified example
Assume there were six candidates up for election in your state for only two Senate seats – Ann, Bob, Carl, Don, Edith and Frances. (In reality there will be many many more than six candidates to choose from in your State or Territory, and there are 12 Senate seats up for grabs in each State.)
These are broadly the steps the AEC would follow to determine which of the six Senate Candidates won the two Senate seats up for election:
Step One: Work out the Senate Quota (number of votes needed to become a senator)
When the AEC determine which Senators have been elected, they first have to work out what the ‘Senate quota’ is – or the number of votes each Senator needs to be allocated in order to be elected. They do this using this formula:
(Number of formal ballot papers / (Number of senators to be elected + 1)) + 1 )
In our simplified example, there are two Senate seats and 300 valid votes cast (any invalid votes are discarded before they work out the quotas). Using the AEC formula, the number of votes (or quota) that each potential candidate requires to become a Senator is:
Senate Quota: ((300 votes)/(2 seats +1)) + 1 = 101
Step Two: Count first preferences
Once they’ve established what the quota is, the AEC then counts the first preferences on every voting paper.
In this example, after they’ve allocated the first preferences for all 300 votes, the voting tally is shown on the right. Only one candidate – Anne – has reached the quota of 101 votes in this round of counting, meaning she is the first elected Senator.
Step Three: Transfer any surplus votes from any elected Senators
In our example, Anne has been elected Senator as she received 140 votes – which is 39 more than the Senate Quota of 101 votes. Since Anne received 39 ‘surplus’ votes – and in a democracy, every vote should count – 39 votes need to be allocated to one or more other Senate candidates.
Rather than randomly picking 39 votes to allocate to another Senate candidate, the second preferences for all Anne’s 140 votes are counted. They are then allocated to the other candidates at a reduced value – so that in total, 39 votes are deducted from Anne’s tally and 39 votes are allocated across the other candidates.
The reduced or ‘transfer value’ of each second preference vote to be allocated to another candidate is calculated by the AEC as (Surplus votes / Number of votes for candidate = Transfer value).
In this case, the transfer value would be: 39/140 = 0.27857. Each second preference vote for another candidate is counted as 0.27857 of a vote, instead of as a whole vote.
Looking at the second preferences given by the 140 voters who listed Anne as their first preference – they were:
- 100 for Bob
- 20 for Edith; and
- 20 people didn’t list a second preference.
Bob and Edith are allocated extra votes as follows:
- Bob gets 100 x 0.27857 = 28 extra votes
- Edith gets 20 x 0.27857 = 6 extra votes
In regards to the twenty people who only marked ‘1’ next to Anne’s name and didn’t preference anybody else, their votes are classified as ‘exhausted’. This means they are out of the game and their views no longer count in determining who is elected as the second Senator for your state.
In our Running Tally – shown above on the right – after the surplus votes have been allocated, with 98 votes, Bob is close to being elected as the second Senator but is not quite there. So the AEC would then move on to Step Four.
Step Four: Eliminate the candidate with the lowest number of votes
In this step, the remaining Senate candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated, and their votes are allocated to the second preferences of those who voted for them.
The first candidate to be eliminated from our simplified election is Frances – who only had 5 first preference votes. The second preferences given by the 5 voters who voted for Frances as their first preference are as follows:
- Bob gets 3 votes
- Don gets 1 vote
- One person didn’t list a second preference – so their vote is exhausted.
With the extra 3 votes, Bob reaches exactly 101 votes and is declared the second Senator for this election.
Steps Five, Six etc: Repeat Steps Three & Four as required
In my example, both Senate seats were filled by the end of Step Four. But in a real election, Steps Three and Four would be repeated (as relevant) until either:
- all Senate Seats are allocated due to Senate Candidates reaching the Senate Quota; or
- the number of remaining candidates (those that haven’t been eliminated) equals the number of remaining seats.
Further, in my simplified example I have used rounded numbers in Step Three. I have no idea how the AEC deals with decimal places in practice – so if you’re interested in the detail behind these equations, you’ll need to contact them.
Senate voting explained from a Voter’s perspective – a simplified example
I’ve explained above how Senate counting works from a Senate Candidate’s perspective. Here’s how it looks from a voter’s perspective.
Sally (makes up her mind on the day)
Vote type: Exhausted
Sally doesn’t get too involved in politics – she just tunes into the news every so often. A few days prior to the election, she heard Senate candidate Frances interviewed on radio and liked what Frances had to say about renewable energy. On election day Sally rushed to the polling booths early to get her voting out of the way and put a ‘1’ next to Frances’ name on her Senate voting paper. She didn’t bother to indicate any other preferences.
As we saw above, Frances was the candidate with the least number of votes which meant that the votes of people who put Frances first on their Senate voting form were allocated to their second preferences. However, because Sally didn’t list any other preferences on her voting form, her vote was classified as ‘exhausted’ and didn’t count at all towards the final outcome. Had she indicated a second preference, her vote would have been allocated in full to her second preference.
Sally’s vote is classified as ‘exhausted’ – as it didn’t make the distance, and didn’t have any impact at all on which Senate Candidate was elected.
Tom (always votes for the same party and only that party)
Vote type: Lazy
Tom’s a loyal voter. He’s been a member of Senate candidate Anne’s party for over 20 years and always votes for her. On his Senate voting card, he marked ‘1’ next to Anne’s name – but didn’t put a ‘2’, ‘3’ or any other preferences next to anyone else.
In terms of outcome, Tom achieved his goal of getting Anne elected. However because the second preferences of everyone who voted for Anne were partially allocated to other candidates, he missed out on having 0.28 of his second preference allocated to another candidate and having a say in who won the second Senate seat.
In this very simplified example, the fact that Tom only voted for one candidate didn’t matter too much because there were only two seats and the candidates weren’t close (in terms of number of votes).
But in the upcoming elections there are 12 seats for each State and the outcomes could be close. So if Tom did the same thing in the upcoming Senate Election – and only put a ‘1’ next to Labor above the line for example, Tom’s failure to allocate preferences to other parties after Labor could mean the difference between Pauline Hanson being elected or not.
Tom’s vote is classified as ‘Lazy’ – because it did have some impact on who was elected, but he didn’t make the most of his vote.
Penny (informed voter)
Vote type: Fully Active
Penny is a progressive voter who keeps on top of the news and likes to know what’s going on. She – like Tom – has supported Anne for over 20 years. But she’s not a big fan of Anne’s policies about education. She’s still going to support Anne first in the Senate – because overall she’s loyal to Anne and thinks on balance, her policies are best.
But knowing how the Senate voting rules work, Penny does some research into the other Senate candidates’ policies about education. She likes what Senate candidate Bob has to say about education, and agrees with most of his other policies so she decides to put him 2nd on her ballot paper. She checks out the rest of the Senate candidates and decides she likes what Frances has to say, but doesn’t agree with either Carl, Don or Edith as they are all fairly conservative.
On voting day, Penny puts a ‘1’ next to Anne’s name, a ‘2’ next to Bob’s name and a ‘3’ next to Frances’ name. She doesn’t put anything next to either Carl, Don or Edith’s name.
Penny’s vote is the most powerful of all three voters. Her vote helps to get both Anne and Bob elected. In fact, as Bob only just got to 101 votes, if Penny hadn’t put a ‘2’ next to Bob’s name, he may not have been elected, as they would have moved to another stage of vote counting, and who knows how the next round of preferences would have been allocated.
Penny’s vote is classified as ‘fully active’ as her vote had an impact on two candidates being elected.
The Strategic Guide to making sure your vote in the Senate REALLY counts
In the Senate, your vote can – and if you follow these guidelines, probably will – count towards electing multiple Senators for your State or Territory. Importantly, even if you allocate your preferences firstly to a Major party, you can still influence which of the Minor Parties or Independents holds the balance of power in the Senate.
Here’s what you need to do:
BEFORE YOU VOTE: Make a list of at least six parties you would support being in the Senate
Unfortunately there’s not a lot of indepth scrutinised information around covering the policies and pedigree of Minor parties/Independents standing in the Senate. The media focuses almost exclusively on the two major parties with a smidgen of Greens, Tony Windsor, Jacqui Lambie and Nick Xehophon thrown in. I’m going to do a Quick Guide to Minor Parties in the next few days – but that will just be my perspective on it, so you’re going to want to take at least a quick look yourself. Here’s some tips:
- DO look at Antony Green’s ABC’s election guide for the Senate – it’s a great place to start as it lists the parties/candidates for the Senate in each State – and shows each Party’s “How to vote” recommendations.
- Check out the Weasels’ incomplete guide – as it gives a good run down.
- DO google each of the parties you’re interested in and take a good look at what their platform is and how they are likely to vote across a range of issues. If they don’t have a website, they’re probably not worth voting for.
- DO check out Getup as it also has some interesting comparative information about some of the policies for a few of the smaller parties in a table which you may find interesting.
- DON’T just pick a minor party based on their name – they aren’t always what they appear to be. For example, the Sustainable Australia party sounds like it would be primarily focused on environmental issues when it’s main platform is actually about ‘lower immigration’.
- DON’T just follow the ‘How To Vote’ cards in the Senate for your preferred party – I’m not sure what’s happened here – the parties must have done some strange preference deals. For example, some of the ALP ‘How to Vote’ State Senate cards preference the Katter party and the Lib Dems – who are clearly conservative parties that are also preferenced by the LNP.
- DON’T pick single issue parties without looking at their broader platform – Senators have to vote on ALL Bills that come before them, not just those relating to one issue. There are some great ‘single issue’ parties out there – like the Arts Party or the Voluntary Euthanasia party – but make sure you know where they stand on broader issues like health, education, the economy and immigration before throwing your vote behind them.
WHEN YOU VOTE: Take your list with you and vote for AT LEAST six parties above the line or 12 candidates below the line
- DO use your list to vote for at least six parties of your choice above the line or 12 candidates below the line -it doesn’t matter whether you vote above or below the line, but ideally don’t do both. You can technically do both and still have your vote count – but you REALLY need to know what you’re doing to try this.
- DO vote ONLY for parties that you support – voting in the Senate is not like voting in the House of Reps where you put the party you like least last. In the Senate you should ONLY put a number next to parties and candidates that you DO support.
- DON’T just vote ‘1’ – if you do, you are wasting your vote – even if you have a preferred party you vote for (like the ALP), you should still come up with a list of five or six minor parties/independents you would support after the ALP. Your vote will always count towards your first preference party until it no longer can – and will only be allocated to your second preference party once the last candidate in your preferred party is no longer in contention. For example, if you vote 1 above the line for the ALP, your vote will continue to be allocated to the list of ALP Senate candidates in contention for your state until all ALP Senate candidates have either been elected as Senators or eliminated (because they had the lowest number of votes).
- DON’T put parties you don’t support last – this is a catchphrase for the House of Reps – to ‘put the LNP last’. The ONLY time you should do this in the Senate is if you number ALL the boxes (either above or the below the line). Otherwise, you should just not vote for parties you don’t support at all. Whatever you do, don’t put a ‘6’ next to the LNP because you are only voting for 6 parties and want to put them last. This is actually a vote FOR the LNP and not against them.
As usual, the pollies have made this election all about themselves. But don’t let them steal the show.
Democracy is about us – the average Aussie voter – and not the politicians. Democracy is about us making an informed decision about the future of our country and having a real input into Australia’s future direction. If you follow the guidelines I’ve outlined above, you can make the most out of your vote. So as a progressive voter in the upcoming election, take the time to make your vote count. Your informed vote in the Senate could make a real difference to what happens in the next three years. So don’t pull a #Brexit and end up with “voter’s ‘Bregret'” next week – take the time to make an informed decision this week.
(One final note regarding my example above – please feel free to check my interpretation of the rules and my calculations. I don’t work for the AEC and as an independent writer don’t have the luxury of a sub-editor to check my work – so if I’ve made any mathematical errors, please post a comment and I will happily rectify them!)
This article was first published on Progressive Conversation.
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