Wednesday, November 30, 2016

SA's Voter Choice Bill Could Be Better

Earlier this year, the Australian federal parliament successfully passed Senate voting reform, which abolished the Group Voting Tickets that had trashed the 2013 election, and returned control over preferences to the voters.  I've had plenty to say already about how successful that was (performance review part 1, part 2, JSCEM sub (PDF) etc).  However, while Group Ticket Voting has been put in the bin at federal level, hopefully to remain there for good, it remains in place in the upper houses of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. (For completeness, NSW fixed its system after the 1999 debacle, Tasmania has a single-member-per-seat Upper House and Queensland has no Upper House at all).

I'm not going to expend a huge amount of energy on trying to get state upper house systems reformed in states other than my own.  But with South Australia the first state where a move away from GVTs is the subject of legislation since the 2016 Senate outcome, I think it's interesting to have a look at what is being proposed.  In attempting to get rid of Group Ticket Voting, the SA Labor government has come up with a near-polar opposite.  The proposed alternative, while still much better than keeping GVTs (as is just about anything really) is so inferior to the Senate and NSW systems that I wondered for a moment if it was built to be voted down.  It appears this isn't the case, so hopefully parties in the SA Upper House (where the Government holds just eight out of 22 seats) will be able to amend the legislation to improve it.  An interview with the Attorney-General in July did suggest he was open to different models provided that preference harvesting got the chop, which is commendable.

The name of the bill is the Electoral (Legislative Council Voting) (Voter Choice) Amendment Bill.  It is worthwhile quoting at some length from Attorney-General John Rau's introductory speech:

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The Electoral (Legislative Council Voting)(Voter Choice) Amendment Bill 2016 proposes to change the voting system used for Legislative Council elections and implement what is to be known as the 'voter choice' method of voting. Voter choice is a variant on the current system of voting used for Legislative Council elections. Voter choice would essentially work as follows: there would no longer be voting tickets in Legislative Council elections.

As is currently the case, voters would be able to vote '1' above the line for the party or group of their choice. This would be known as a 'group vote'. Unlike the current system, where the vote above the line is interpreted in accordance with the voting ticket lodged by the particular party or group, a group vote would be a vote for each of the candidates in that party or group in the order nominated by that party or group.

Below the line voting, or an individual vote, would be largely unchanged, although there is provision relating to the interpretation of ballot papers so that where a person just votes '1' for the lead candidate of a party or group below the line that would be interpreted as a vote for the party or group above the line. In other respects, the voting system for Legislative Council elections would remain largely unchanged. The methods of calculating the quota and transferring surplus votes remain the same.

The voter choice method of voting would limit the potential for parties to secure Legislative Council seats through preference harvesting. The proposal is intended to make it easier for people to understand the implications of their vote and to have control over their vote and preferences. Voters who cast a group vote above the line will be casting a vote for the members of that group or party and not for all candidates in the election in the order of the group's voting ticket, as is currently the case. Voters who cast an individual vote below the line will continue to be required to indicate a preference for all candidates.
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What is not so clear from the above is that if a person votes for multiple parties above the line, as they now can in a Senate election, then their preferences are simply discarded!  In the bill text see part 12 and the proposed new section 92 (3):

(3) If a voter marks a ballot paper in accordance with subsection (2) and also places other numbers in other group voting squares (but does not indicate preferences for individual candidates in accordance with subsection (4)), the voter will be taken to have recorded their vote in accordance with subsection (2) and all other purported indications of preferences will be disregarded.

Currently, the voter can choose to vote according to a group voting ticket or they can choose to vote below the line, numbering all boxes, to distribute their own preferences.  Under the Bill, the voter will be able to vote for just one party (with their vote then exhausting once all that party's candidates are excluded or elected) or vote below the line as before.  While the new system means the voter's preference can't be gamed by preference harvesting, it's really not much of a choice.

There are quite a few points to be made about this proposed system.

The first is that federal Labor got aboard the Bob Day train in complaining about the potential for exhaust under the new Senate system.  Concerns about high exhaust were often based on spurious comparisons with New South Wales, where preferencing above the line is possible but not specifically encouraged.  The new Senate system directed above-the-line voters to number at least six boxes, leading to a high rate of preferencing and rather low rates of exhaust and just-vote-1s. Now SA Labor comes along with a system that doesn't instruct, encourage or even allow above the line preferencing, but bans it.  (This isn't completely news, by the way; the SA government previously explored introducing the Sainte-Lague method without any preferences at all).  So where is the crusade against exhaustion now?

The second is that the existence of differing above-the-line systems between state and federal parliaments can create issues.  At the 2016 federal election, the just-vote-1 rate in NSW was almost twice that of the next highest state, and while Ray Hadley had something to do with that, there were substantial differences for voters of all parties.  The NSW upper house system makes no attempt to dissuade voters from just voting 1 above the line, and most do.  If South Australia introduces the proposed system it is highly likely that some voters will attempt to preference above the line (thinking that it is like the Senate) and thereby imagine that they are expressing preferences when they are not.  This could cause some voters to unintentionally waste their vote.  It is also likely that over time the proportion of South Australians voting just 1 ATL in the Senate will increase.  (This isn't a massive issue though;  NSW's just-vote-1 rate of 4.7% of all Senate votes is nowhere near being a scandal, and is much less than just about everyone expected.)

The third is that a voter who wants to strongly control their own preferences can do that no more or less easily than they already could.  South Australia has radical savings provisions for its lower house, under which a vote that would otherwise be informal can become a group ticket vote lodged by a party.  But for the upper house its savings provisions for below-the-line voting are almost nonexistent.  A voter can get away with leaving the last square blank, but any repetition or omission makes the vote informal.  An interesting result of this is that in the current SA Legislative Council system, votes don't exhaust - at all (though some vote-values are still lost to fractions).

Voting below the line in the SA Legislative Council is so difficult that at the last election only 4.2% of all voters even attempted it, but among those diehards who did, 7.4% had their votes declared informal.  (Some of these may just have been hopeless cases.  In any system like this some voters will attempt to number the candidates in order within every column, producing a BTL vote with numerous number 1s, for example.)

It might even be argued that some voters will have less control over their preferences under the new system.  Under the existing system some voters may have perused the GVTs and decided there was one that acceptably aligned with their own views.  They may have then considered that voting 1 for that party above the line was better than numbering all boxes below the line, with the risk of casting an informal vote if they made a single mistake.  Under the proposed "voter choice" system the voter can only choose to vote below-the-line (and get it perfectly right or lose their vote), or else they can choose not to preference at all.  It is true that the choice to vote for just one party wasn't present in the old system, but it's not a choice that anyone should cherish, except maybe as an alternative to having their electoral system trashed by group tickets and preference harvesting.

Something else worth noting is an oddly limited savings provision that is contained within the Bill.  If the voter votes 1 below the line for the candidate who is at the head of a party ticket, and marks no other boxes, then their vote will be treated as a 1 ATL vote for the party.  However, if a party has six candidates, and the voter votes 1-6 for those candidates and stops (a vote meaning exactly the same thing as an ATL #1, and which would be saved as formal under the new Senate system), then that vote isn't saved.  Indeed the only BTL votes that will be saved will be those that most strongly differ from the instructions, but a vote that is less divergent and more clearly in line with the solution will not.  That is odd.

(Federally, under the new Senate system, 2.3% of all informal votes, or 0.09% of all votes cast, had just a single 1 below the line, though I do not know what proportion were for the lead candidate of a ticket.  Four and a half times as many votes were rendered informal by omissions or repetitions affecting the first six numbers alone. Again, some of these would have been hopeless cases.)

It still beats GVTs though

As limited as this legislation is in providing "voter choice", it would still be better to pass it than to allow Group Voting Tickets to continue.  Among other reasons, Group Voting Tickets are democratically illegitimate because they allow for the potential election of candidates with no real public support, and because they massively inflate the risk that small errors in the electoral process will cause elections to be voided.  At least under the proposed Bill, parties will need to poll a significant percentage of a quota (a quota being 8.33%) to be in the running.  At most recent elections, about 4% would have been needed had the same votes been cast under the new system.  It's possible in some cases that 2-3% will do it for one of 11 seats in a given year.

Some might say that electoral wonks in Australia are a bit precious about the whole idea of preferencing in upper houses.  Globally, proportional representation systems are common, and generally they don't allow preferences. Our determination to graft preferencing onto PR might be seen as a legacy of our early adoption of preferencing in lower house elections, which was driven by the conservative parties wanting to avoid three-cornered contests.  However, that determination has its advantages.  For one thing, it allows similar parties to compete with each other without both destroying each other's chances - something that could be a problem with the proposed new system.  Australian voters are also used to the idea that you can vote 1 for whoever you like without wasting your vote, because you can preference another party.  They will take some getting used to the idea that a 1 vote for a micro-party is in fact a wasted vote and that they need to either think strategically or number all the boxes.

Looking at recent SA Legislative Council results as they might apply under the new system, the main difference is simply that preference-snowballing is stopped.  On the votes cast, a Liberal would have won instead of Dignity 4 Disability (who polled just 1.2%) in 2010 and the Liberals would have also beaten that obscure No Pokies dude who got up in 1997. As with the Senate reform debate, the issue is not about the quality of MPs who happen to have been elected under the current system; it is about whether they have a real mandate to be there (however good they might be) and the potential for the system to elect more or less any random MP who might be completely terrible.

Some other results might or might not have switched depending on the the patterns of below-the-line preferencing.  As with the Senate system the reform is designed to target preference-harvesters and the parties that most obviously suffer will be preference-harvesters.  As with the Senate system, micro-parties can get merging or go home, and with the ridiculous fragmentation of micro-parties we see in SA as everywhere else (63 candidates on 25 tickets in 2014) that can only be a good thing.

The questions remains - why isn't this bill better?  Why create a new system that, apparently unnecessarily, differs from the Senate system and will therefore cause avoidable confusion?  Smashing group ticket voting is good, but why smash it with the bluntest instrument in the room when we know there are better ways?  Why say it makes it easier for a voter to control their preferences when it doesn't?

Perhaps the answer is a purely practical one, that the increased data entry workload a Senate-style system would involve would be just too demanding for the Electoral Commission SA. However, if that is the problem it doesn't seem to have been ventilated.

The upper house parties in South Australia should explore amendments to at least allow for preferencing above the line, or alternatively allow for much more relaxed below-the-line voting.  Better still, both.  After all, the only even arguably sane point of SA's current shortage of effective below-the-line savings provisions is to prevent exhaust.  But if ATL votes are all votes for just one party, then exhaust will be a massive feature of the new system anyway so below-the-line voting may as well be liberalised.

I will continue to watch with interest. At least SA might be doing something about group ticket voting.  Last state to discard it is a rotten egg!

Further Reading: see also Henry Schlechta's post on this.  And Ben Raue has given the proposal the thumbs down.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Poll Roundup: Are Australian Voters Grumps?

2PP Aggregate: 52.1 to Labor (-0.3) - updated after Ipsos
Labor would win election "held now"

Another four weeks on since my last update on national polling and not much has changed.  We still have only two regularly active pollsters and their results continue to show a very gradual shift away from the returned Turnbull Government since the July election.  I'm expecting some improvement on the former front shortly, and may update this article should that occur.  As for the smoothed 2PP tracking, it looks like this:


Since last time there's been little variation in the released polls, all from pollsters that don't do a lot of variation anyway: two 53-47s to Labor from Newspoll, two 53s and two 52s from Essential.  I consider these two polls between them to have had a bit of form in skewing to Labor during the Turnbull phase of the previous parliament and so the current aggregate comes out at 52.4 to ALP. Before house effect adjustments, I've aggregated the recent polls at 52.7 and 53.0 from Newspoll and 52.5, 53, 53.4 and 52.6 from Essential.  However, the 53.4 currently isn't in the mix, because of the way I use only alternate Essentials at any one time.  Those who also follow BludgerTrack, which should be everyone reading this, may have noticed my aggregate is about 0.4 of a point more Coalition-friendly at the moment.  A fair slab of this is because I assume that all the pollsters know what they are doing with their 2PP calculations, though a lot of the time I have my doubts.

Since Essential started using the 2016 preference distributions for its 2PP figures, I have its average published 2PP as 52.2 for Labor, but the average 2PP derived from the published figures without any knowledge of decimals or state breakdowns would be 52.72.  So the Coalition has done better on the published 2PPs than would be expected from its primary votes, by about half a point.  In contrast, Newspoll has had a published average of 51.72 for Labor but its derived average would be effectively identical to the published figures at 51.84.  The differences in Essential's case could be caused by rounding, but rounding differences should be randomly distributed.  If this continues for another, say, ten polls it will be strong evidence that something unusual is going on - not necessarily an error, as state breakdown factors could be at play.

We're still not seeing any panic-stations 2PP polling, and the rate of change is slower than the last time the Coalition lost support in a more or less steady fashion over a few months (in late 2014).

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

New Tasmanian State Poll: Rolling Comments

ReachTEL Liberal 45.6 Labor 30.9 Green 15.1 Other 8.4 (Undecided removed)
On raw numbers, it is a tossup whether Liberals would just retain majority (c. 13-10-2) or just lose it (c. 12-10-3)
Adjusted for house effects, Liberals would be likely to retain majority (13-10-2)

Introduction (15 Nov)

A new Tasmanian ReachTEL poll of state voting intention, with a large sample size, is about to be released by The Mercury.  As noted in the teaser, the poll points to the probable loss of two or three seats if the government were to face the music today.  A loss of two seats would leave the government with a majority of one while a loss of three would create a hung parliament.  This will be familiar territory for those who have followed my state polling coverage in the term, as my aggregated polling model has pointed to either 12 or 13 Liberal seats for a long time now.

Polling in Tasmania was inaccurate at the federal election, and has shown large pro-Liberal house effects at both the last two federal elections (but not at the 2014 state election) so there will always be some room for doubt about it.  Another important factor is the potential for a tactical bandwagon effect as seen in the 2006 election - if one party has a realistic chance of majority government and the other does not, voters may gravitate to that party.  While polling says the government's majority would be touch and go if an election were "held now", that assessment has very little predictive value because of this kind of strategic voting.

I have seen some of the results for the purposes of expert comment, but a recent business model change by The Mercury means I will be going about posting analysis of this poll in a slightly different manner.  As I understand it, many of the results will be released behind a paywall in the first instance and then published in the print edition the next day.  I won't be posting analysis of the results until they have appeared in the print edition, at least in basic form, or been freely reported.

As results are revealed over the next several days, in-depth coverage will be posted below.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Nats Under The Gun In The Orange Postcount

ORANGE, NSW (Nat 21.7 vs ALP)
GAINED by Donato (Shooters Fishers and Farmers) by 50 votes after recount

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Key questions:

1. Will Labor overtake Shooters Fishers and Farmers for second place?  (If yes, Nationals win)
Assessment: No

2. If no to 1, will the Shooters Fishers and Farmers catch the Nationals on preferences?
Assessment: Very close, currently Shooters appear to be ahead

Three state by-elections were held in New South Wales today.  Labor very easily retained Canterbury against token opposition, and held Wollongong now that their regular Independent opposition there no longer has the Noreen Hay factor to capitalise upon.  But the third by-election, the one that was always likely to be the most interesting, has lived up to its billing, and then some.

In the by-election for Orange, held by the National Party (and its precursor the Country Party) since 1947, the Nationals have suffered a primary vote swing that is currently running at 35.4%.  Their candidate Scott Barrett leads on primaries on 30.27% with 73.6% of enrolment counted, but is closely followed by the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers' Philip Donato on 24.73%, with Labor's Bernard Fitzsimon on 18.85%.  The rest of the field includes one Green, one Christian Democrat and three independents.

Even if the Nationals retain the seat, the result is still dismal.  This is best seen in the stunning booth swings.  The Nationals were down well over 20 points in all but two booths.  This is partly down to the greater number of candidates running (the SF+F and three indies have replaced only No Land Tax at the last election).  However in three booths they are down by 60 (!) points or more and in two more by over 50.   If these were tiny rural booths with small samples this might be less surprising but one has over 1200 voters!  SF+F are the main beneficiaries of the swing.

At some booths over 80% of voters who voted National last time didn't do so at the by-election.  These are staggering numbers, even by by-election standards, and will come as a very rude wake-up call to the party after a strong performance at the federal election.  The swing is thought to be driven primarily by proposed forced council amalgamations, with the now-retracted ban on greyhound racing also prominently in the mix.  Some are even seeing a Donald Trump factor at work, which seems a pretty long bow to draw, though there is little doubt the US result emboldened the Nats' opposition in the final days.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trump Wins: Another Major Poll And Modelling Failure

Well here we are again.  As with the UK election, as with Brexit, as with many other voluntary voting elections we have an unexpected result with the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the USA.  Pollsters are in disrepute because most had Clinton with a modest popular-vote lead, but overconfident modellers deserve their share of the blame for the level of public surprise at the result.

A few days ago, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight was the target of a terrible Huffington Post article and an argument broke out about whether it was more accurate to say Donald Trump had about a one in three chance of becoming President, or virtually no chance at all.  HuffPo was to double down with this rather pretentious piece by a stats prof accusing Silver of overstimating Trump's chances - a piece that has proved to have an exceedingly short shelf life indeed.  Silver's model might not look crash hot in the wake of what has happened, but it still looks a great deal better than those that were saying Trump had only a 1% chance of winning.

Friday, November 4, 2016

WA: How Bad Is Barnett's Latest Polling?

I last covered Western Australian state polling in March, in an article called A New Species Of Strangeness In The West.  At that time, despite increasingly bad Newspolls for the Barnett Liberal government, there was a bizarre and very short-lived call to replace Opposition Leader Mark McGowan with former federal MP Stephen Smith.  Since then it is Barnett who has gone through the normal process of leadership speculation and challenge that strikes leaders who are actually polling badly.

It came to a head in mid-September when then Transport Minister Dean Nalder quit Cabinet and launched a leadership challenge, in which his proposal for a spill managed to get 15 votes out of 46 although there was almost no public support for him as leader (5.5% in ReachTEL) and a widespread perception that his challenge was hopeless from the start.  This would normally be the beginning of the end for an incumbent Premier, but the difference here is that if someone is going to throw Barnett under the bus, they will need to get a wriggle on.  It is just over four months til the election.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Bob Day Chaos Thrills The Crowd

It's so crazy it's beyond even poetic.  Firstly now ex-Senator Bob Day takes the government to court using money that may not even exist to argue that the new Senate system has prevented his re-election.  Then he proves his own case multiply wrong by winning.  Then it turns out he might not be eligible to keep his seat and he says he'll resign, then he flags that he'll hang around a bit.  Then he resigns, and then it turns out that he might never have won in the first place - for a different reason to the one he first flagged resigning over.  And it has been cited as a factor in the blowup between George Brandis and the former Solicitor-General, Justin Gleeson (though it's now emerging that that was erroneous and advice involving a different Senator, Rod Culleton, was the issue there.)

What happens now?  Firstly, while Day's seat remains vacant until we find out whether it is a recount or a casual vacancy appointment that will fill it, the Coalition benefits.  The Senate is reduced from 76 seats to 75, meaning that a majority is now 38 not 39, which is effectively the same as having Bob Day automatically voting with them on everything, with the added bonus of him not even being there to do it.  They're probably hoping the court has some really long adjournments.

(Update: The paragraph above was written before Culleton threw a spanner in the works by flagging his intention to abstain on contentious legislation while his own eligibility is sorted.  If Culleton abstains then the combined absence of Day and Culleton is very harmful to the Coalition,  meaning they need 8/9 non-Green crossbench votes instead of 9/11.)