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Trying to understand how Senate votes are counted

After reading the AEC publication Counting the votes for the Senate, I rang them and asked the following question.

“Could you explain how above the line votes for a party combine with below the line votes for individuals in that same party. I understand about quotas and transferring surpluses and the reduced transfer value but I don’t understand how the above the line and below the line votes combine.”

(See above link for explanations of quota, transferring surpluses, transfer value and exhausted votes)

The girl I spoke to, who tried very hard, looking up countless fact sheets and FAQs and waiting for colleagues to answer her online question, was unable to answer me and suggested I ring my local member which I did. Both my local member and Mr Turnbull’s office referred me back to the AEC so I asked Antony Green.

His answer was as follows:

COMMENT: For the count all above the line votes are converted into an equivalent below the line sequence of preferences, and then all ballot papers are treated equally.

I am still unsure what that exactly means but my guess is as follows:

The top candidate’s individual vote would be counted and they would be allocated however many above the line (ATL) votes for their party as was necessary to make them up to a quota (7.7%). Subsequent candidates in their party would, in order, be given ATL votes for their party to top up their individual vote until the ATL vote was exhausted. Any surplus votes for that party will be distributed at a reduced value to the voter’s second preference.

Surplus votes are distributed before candidates are excluded. If no-one from your first preference party reaches a quota, or the individual to whom you gave your first preference is excluded (with the lowest count), your vote would pass on in full to your second preference.

I am by no means certain that this is completely accurate and would appreciate it if someone could verify or correct it.

One very important thing to understand is that you only have one vote for one person. You are not voting for the twelve people you wish to see elected. You will be voting for the first individual in your preferences who makes the cut. If none of your selected choices make the cut, your vote won’t count.

38 comments

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  1. Keitha Granville

    isn’t this exactly how they have planned it ? so that all of us who might vote independent actually don’t matter ?

  2. Kaye Lee

    Possibly so Keitha. I have tried to work out the implications of this but it is impossible to know how voters will react to the changes. I have also made a complaint to the AEC because I received a recorded phone call about Senate voting that instructed me on how to vote above the line and did not even mention voting below the line.

  3. DisablednDesperate

    Having worked at many elections I’m glad I’m not doing this one. It will be a bun fight. From my experience rules are diff depending on who is running that booth (in terms of what’s counted as a legit vote) It’s never exactly the same.

  4. Kaye Lee

    One way to make sure your vote will count is to include, somewhere in your preferences, someone you are sure will be elected. A protest vote only for minors is risky but you could certainly put them #1 provided you include a certainty somewhere just in case. Voting above the line could diminish the value of your vote if you are surplus to a quota and they go to your second choice.

  5. cornlegend

    DisablednDesperate

    I think you will be right on that
    I spoke to workers at 6 different electorates doing pre polling and from early feedback there are going to be bulk informal votes.People are saying it’s too complicated, they will just vote H.O.R and put in a blank Senate vote. They reckon about 50% are complaining

  6. townsvilleblog

    Thanks Kaye, what would we do without you, I’d rather not think about that. Thanks again.

  7. Slapsy

    Why are they even bothering with a line. I understand that previously it was impossible for some people to number every square,so it had to be made simple for them. Now that only a minimum of 12 boxes have to be numbered there is no need for the line,surely.

  8. Vicki Coppell

    Being away from our home electorate my husband and I have just voted at the AEC in Darwin. We’re enjoying a coffee on the way back to the car. For the Senate it was stated that you number at least 6 reps above the line OR 12 below the line. Provided we read the instructions correctly I can’t see a problem.

  9. Kaye Lee

    I don’t see a problem with informal votes either Vicki. The instructions are clear enough and they have savings provisions for people who don’t follow the changed instructions. It is hard to know how big a factor exhausted votes and the interaction between above the line and below the line voting will play. Those people who are at the moment saying it is all too hard to understand may well work it out well enough to cast a formal vote on polling day.

  10. Mike

    It’s as clear as mud. We who closely follow politics don’t understand it what chance has Joe Public got?

  11. Kaye Lee

    I don’t think Joe Public, or even most political tragics, are interested in the complexities of the Senate count. I admit to being a feral accountant so I like to know the rules about the numbers.

    All Joe Public needs to understand is the mechanics of how to cast a vote – minimum of 6 above or 12 below.

  12. cornlegend

    And that in itself is a worry. called at a pub earlier to hand out some HTVs . Two mid 20s blokes a bit shocked to know there was an election coming.A third one wandered back from the bar and said” I knew, It’s to see if Abbott or that rich bloke will be President”
    I am home contemplating a Scotch :-{

  13. Bighead1883

    As some general information concerning Labor and Greens in WA

    Labor has HTV`s out for all 16 WA HoR seats and recommends that in the Senate their voters who are voting ABL place Greens at No 2

    Reminders that all Senate ABL must have all six boxes filled in for a FORMAL vote to be counted

    Labor has no recommendations for any BTL voting

    WA Labor voters or those interested in seeing first hand it`s here>
    http://walabor.org.au/howtovote

  14. Gregory Petchkovsky

    Excuse me if this is a dumb question, but if I number 6 boxes above the line, should #6 be the party most despise? Or should it be my sixth most favorite party?? I’m unclear how it’s counted.
    Basically, do I put something like liberal/nationals, or Pauline Hanson, or family first at 6? Or should I leave those parties un-numbered altogether in that scenario?

  15. Bighead1883

    Gregory Petchkovsky June 16, 2016 at 4:42 pm

    Obviously your question is about Senate voting and if voting ABL 1-6 you just leave out who you don`t like

    In HoR you have to number each box

    HoR = green paper

    Senate = White paper [huge thing]

  16. cornlegend

    Gregory Petchkovsky
    Pick thhe 6 Parties you LIKE BEST and number them 1 to 6 above the line in the order you like best {Preferably Labor 1 :-}
    all the rest you automatically reject by not numbering them so have no fear they won’t get your vote

  17. Gregory Petchkovsky

    Thanks BigHead1883 & cornlegend!

  18. Alan

    I think the answer is to put your preferences above the line making sure they include someone ACCETABLE to you who is almost certain to get in. Personally, I would not want my vote to go to One Nation (for example), I would rather it was exhausted. Have I got that right?

  19. cornlegend

    If you vote 6 above the line and DON”T number Hansons box you won’t get her. the Parties are above the line but you can read who their candidates are below

  20. Jexpat

    If you want a progressive Senate, you’re best off to put Greens # 1 and Labor after- but do not forget to mark Labor in the order.

    Do NOT place a number on any right wing or what looks in name to be a center or left issue based party, but that’s actually a scam.

    The simple reason being that Labor will get its quotas no matter what, whereas Greens may or may not benefit in terms of their quotas from Labor’s excess, vis a vis fundamentalists like Family First or bigots like Pauline Hanson’s party, etc.

  21. John Lord

    Its as clear as mud and it covered the ground and my confusion made my brain go round.

  22. Tim

    Excuse me for my language, but if Australians think this is how a democracy should operate, then we have to be the dumbest morons on the planet? There was hardly any opposition to these changes when the Greens and the LNP got into bed together. No negotiations on political donations though…? Seriously, our democracy is a laughing stock. Our politicians have shit all over our constitution and convinced the voting public it’s the ‘way to go’… Australia has lost the plot and we should be embarrassed by it, but I’m pretty sure we will arrogantly assume we are superior? Shame.

  23. Jexpat

    John:

    Ben Raue makes this observation:

    Despite the steady number of groups running, a record 631 candidates are running, thanks to parties running more candidates for the double dissolution.

    …One interesting element in the Senate nominations was the large number of ungrouped candidates.

    Ungrouped candidates have been largely a relic of an earlier era – candidates relegated to the end of the ballot paper, and not able to receive above-the-line votes. Generally ungrouped candidates have received extremely small votes, and are largely irrelevant to the contest.

    While most commentary on the recent Senate reforms focused on changes to above-the-line voting, the laws also made it significantly easier to vote below the line. It was previously necessary to number at least 90% of boxes. Any below-the-line vote numbered 1-6 will now be formal (although voters will be instructed to number twelve boxes).

    Now that below-the-line voting has become significantly easier, we’ve seen a response as a large number of candidates have nominated as sole ungrouped candidates. Before this year, the record for the most ungrouped candidates was 37 in 1990, and this number declined until only eleven nominated in 2013. This year that number is 79 – more than twice the previous record, and seven times the 2013 figure.

    More here: http://www.tallyroom.com.au/29634

  24. Kaye Lee

    If you vote 1 for the Greens above the line you will be electing a Greens candidate. Your second preference won’t be counted unless the greens have surplus votes in which case they will go to your second choice but at a reduced value. This is what I mean when I stress your vote will only go to one person, your other preferences will mean nothing once your highest number choice is counted.

  25. Bighead1883

    John Lord June 16, 2016 at 6:10 pm

    Nice little ditty John and the truth of the matter being is,we`ll see the greatest number of informal votes ever IMO
    People are lost in many more ways than one

  26. Jexpat

    Kaye:

    What we have is simply a version of optional Senate preferencing, like we have in lower house seats in some state elections.

    If in this scenario a Greens candidate doesn’t get a quota then all their preferences flow on, until the votes are either counted for a candidate whose sum equals or exceeds the requisite (and receding) quota, or the vote exhausts (resulting in a vote split, or a “wasted vote,” as we commonly see in first past the post systems like the US, Canada and the UK).

    That’s why- if voters want a progressive Senate, the smart play (regardless of whatever beefs one may have) is to number progressive parties in a sequential order.

    An example might be:

    1. Pirate Party

    2. Greens

    3. Labor

    Pirate party preferences flow to Greens, if Greens don’t get their qouta, then Greens preferences on this ballot flow to Labor.

    All of them.

    The counter example would be:

    1. Labor

    2. Greens

    3. Pirate party.

    With this ballot, Labor will receive first preferences and get their usual quotas (and generally not affect Labor’s numbers in the Senate in terms of adding ANY additional Labor Senators).

    The remainder of the Labor “excess” may be passed on to a Greens or Pirate candidate- or may exhaust. In which case we risk (and have in the past gotten) a Hanson or a Leyonhjelm instead.

  27. PC

    I love your work Kaye Lee. You’re a gem.

    I have been watching with increasing disbelief followed by sadness as the social structures, which helped me, are being systematically dismantled before my very eyes by the LNP, the Liberal National Party.

    I just hope for this country’s sake they strongly reject the LNP, which is nothing more than a ganon of leeches slithering around our feet in between meals.

    I hope they cop a pummeling.

  28. corvus boreus

    Kaye Lee,
    I much better understand the senate voting system and how to best allocate my vote largely thanks to your efforts.
    You have provided some crucial and accurate information to help inform my choices.
    You truly are an exceptional teacher and a wonderful human being.

  29. my say

    I am sure this is why Turnbull is so cocky saying that they will win,there is so much confusion with the voting system that he hope’s voters will just give up,
    I don’t care which way people vote as long as they put Liberals last or leave them out altogether where possible
    If you vote for 12 BTL can you put a cross in remaining boxe’s ,or is it better to mark every square,BTL,

  30. Matters Not

    Labor … recommends that in the Senate their voters who are voting ABL place Greens at No 2

    Can’t be. ? ? Surely, Labor and the Greens haven’t done a deal. (Shock horror). Have negotiated an ‘alliance’ of sorts. Let ‘pragmatics’ guide ‘principle’. ? ?

    Fact is, it was always going to happen. And after the election the same ‘pragmatics’ will apply if the ‘opportunity’present itself.

    Then there’s this

    If you vote 6 above the line and DON”T number Hansons box you won’t get her.

    you won’t get her. Really? That’s a potentially misleading statement (depending on the meaning given to ‘you’ (singular or plural). Whether Hanson is elected or not is simply not down to an individual and how his or her vote is cast. Given most voters on this site won’t have the intention to vote for Hanson in any shape or form and therefore won’t put any number in Hanson’s column/box is a guarantee of nothing.

    It’s the ‘others’ that will trump you. IMHO Hanson will be a Senator from Queensland. We will keep the tradition of electing ‘freaks’ alive.

  31. col gradolf

    Just remember to include at least one électable’ candidate’or group with an electable candidate on your ballot to ensure that your vote is actually counted. Every exhausted ballot is as good as a vote for the other side; ie they need one less vote to counter yours and thus make it easier to make quota for their side.
    It will be interesting to look at the number of exhausted votes after the final count and wonder how the results might have been affected if people got this one thing. The optional preferential system in Queensland saw many electorates where the number of exhausted votes were sufficient that if all voters had filled every box the results could have been different.

  32. cornlegend

    “you won’t get her. Really? That’s a potentially misleading statement ”
    FFS, you personally won’t be voting for her
    that help ?

  33. wam

    Spot on kaye no cuties it is too dangerous.
    This time the loonies will not be in my mix but neither will greedy slimeX or turnball. I will try to pick the best performing independent to send my excess labor vote to(wish I was in qld for lazarus or tassie for lambie)
    jexpat you assume the pirates get excluded if not your second will not count.as no preferences are passed on.
    All laborites should vote 1 labor and 2 3 4 5 6 independents above the line or labor number how ever many there are, if you have a preference then list them
    my meagre brain says the 1 votes are piled and eg labor 40 lib 43 loonies 11 rest 6 % there is no exclusions till the point of no one high enough for a quota. eg 5 labor 5 lib 1 loonie excess labor 2% libs 5% loonies 4%
    the process then is the smallest pile has the second distributed then the new smallest pile is distributed until a quota is reached. provided the independent voters put labor and the libs last a second green and 5 5 2 senate.
    Whatever happens it is a shame the greens and xenophon agreed to the changes.

  34. Matters Not

    you personally won’t be voting for her that help ?

    So that’s what you meant to say but didn’t. Hence your need to clarify. Always helps when you choose your words carefully. That always ‘helps’ the reader and therefore those who are in the business of ‘communicating’.

    In short, one shouldn’t proceed on the assumption that the ‘meaning’ you intend will be the ‘meaning’ that will be given, particularly by those who are relatively unsophisticated when, in this case at least, there is a lack of conceptual clarity re the ‘new’ voting arrangements. ? ?

  35. Athena

    This is on Antony Green’s blog post from about 2 weeks ago:

    Thanks Antony. I have a question about distribution of preferences. Will my vote be distributed to another candidate at its full value if one of my preferred candidates achieves a full quota? Will there be a difference in transfer value depending on whether I vote ATL or BTL?

    COMMENT: If you vote is with a candidate at the point when they pass a quota, then your vote is distributed at a reduced value equal to the surplus votes divided by the total ballot papers held.

    There is no distinction between ATL and BTL votes. They are treated equally. All ATL votes are converted to the equivalent of a BTL vote when admitted to the count.

    http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/2016/06/2016-senate-calculators.html#more

  36. JohnB

    This comment is based on an analysis of the actual (NSW) senate count in 2013.

    The so called ‘transfer value’ of votes is a needless (unhelpful) complication that gets in the way of gaining a clear understanding of the simple maths processes involved in counting the senate vote.
    The ‘transfer value’ is simply a ratio factor determined after the event of awarding a (senate position) quota – derived from dividing the remaining number of votes surplus to filling that allocated quota by the total (initial) number of first count primary votes received by that party.

    eg LibNats (NSW 2013, with multiple candidates on the ‘ticket’) on first count records the highest primary vote (1,496,752).
    Since a 2013 senate quota was 625,085 primary votes, the first candidate on the LibNat ticket is declared elected, with the ‘over quota’ excess votes allocated to the next candidate on the LibNat ticket.
    1,496,752 less 625,085 = 871,667; this is mathematically expressed as 0.5824 primary vote ‘transfer value’.
    ie 871,667/ 1,496,752 = 0.5824
    I have mimicked the NSW senate count on a spreadsheet, using nothing other than basic addition/subtraction functions throughout – it mirrors exactly the AEC count. ABC 2013 NSW senate count here.

    When candidates/party’s with the lowest accumulated primary vote are excluded from the bottom of each stage count list, the AEC don’t use ‘transfer value’ terminology. They simply transfer residual votes (unused to form a quota) to other party candidates as per directed preference at a one:one transfer value.

  37. Matters Not

    The so called ‘transfer value’ of votes is a needless (unhelpful) complication that gets in the way of gaining a clear understanding of the simple maths processes involved in counting the senate vote

    Exactly my sentiments as well. This ‘transfer value’ is a ‘technical’ complication that does more to ‘mask’ rather than ‘explain’ the reality of what actually ‘results’. It’s a needless and unhelpful complication for the average voter. Adds very little and confuses many, resulting in a loss of confidence.

    Most people, for example, don’t really understand the concept of ‘electricity’ but that doesn’t prevent them turning the lights on and off. And doing so with confidence.

  38. Matters Not

    Yes KL, for all the reasons you cite the transfer value is important (absolutely necessary) but it is also somewhat confusing to most voters. It’s this confusion that causes people to lose confidence in the ‘method’ and therefore in the ‘system’. The examples you use all end in zeros making for simple calculations while in the real world a transfer value that is likely to present will have many, many more decimal places.

    Further, most people want to simply put a 1 in a box (and that’s what they do if they are given half a chance) which means the transfer value is so close to 1 that it doesn’t really matter. If what cornlegend is reporting is as widespread as he believes then the number of informal votes will be unacceptably high. While the ‘technical’ information should (must) be available I’m not sure there’s much to be gained by ‘scaring the horses’ as it were. Democracy is not well served.

    Vaccination, for example, is important but I wonder how many less people would seek vaccination of their children if they were presented with all the complicated details of the chemistry involved before the needle was inserted.

    It comes down to ‘judgement’ I suppose.

    (KL, your post I was responding to has disappeared. Perhaps you could disappear this one as well.)

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