This piece is written to provide advice on the best way voters can use their vote effectively in the new Senate system. Many regular readers of the site will already be aware of many of the points below. I hope the main part of the post will also be useful, however, for those who want to know what advice to give less politically engaged (or more easily confused) voters. I will vote below the line and number every square under the new system, and I'm sure many other readers will too (at least in the smaller states!), but not everyone is up for that.
Under the old Senate system, you had a very simple choice. You could vote for a party above the line and your vote would be distributed according to your party's registered ticket, or you could vote for candidates below the line, in which case you knew you had to number nearly all the squares or your vote would not be counted.
That old system has been scrapped. Voting all the way below the line for sometimes 100+ candidates was too difficult, confusing or time consuming for most voters, and above-the-line voting was being gamed by micro-party preference deals that meant most voters would have no idea what their vote would actually do. Not only that, but problems with this system meant that the loss of a small number of votes in WA caused the whole WA Senate election to have to be re-run at massive cost.
The new system brings much more freedom - your preference will never go to a given party or candidate under this system unless you actively choose to send it there, so you have complete control over where your vote goes. This is a fantastic thing, but it's still going to take some getting used to. If you vote carelessly, you might end up helping a party you can't stand beat one you are merely disappointed by. This guide tells you how to avoid that.
On the Senate voting paper you will be asked to either number at least six parties above the line or at least twelve candidates below. Here I give some answers to the sorts of questions people are asking or likely to ask about the system. At the bottom there is a section on tactical voting for advanced players only. The vast majority of readers should stop when they get to that point.
Should I vote above the line or below the line?
You should vote below the line if any of the following apply:
1. You wish to vote for a range of candidates across party lines, rather than just putting all the parties in order of preference. You might be the sort of person who will really like some candidates from a given party and really dislike others, or you might want to preference candidates with a certain background or who you know, whatever party they're running for.
2. You are happy to keep your vote within party lines, but you want to put the candidates for some parties you vote for in a different order to the order their party lists them in. For instance you like a party but think it should have put someone else on the top of its ticket. Or you detest a particular candidate and strongly want to put them absolutely last, even if it means numbering three times as many boxes.
3. You wish to vote for an ungrouped candidate (an independent who does not have a party box above their name) or preference one or more ungrouped candidates higher than some other candidates or parties
If none of these apply, and you just want to put some or all of the parties in order of your choice without caring about specific candidates within those parties, then you should probably vote above the line. It's easier. And if you are mostly happy to just put parties in order but want to put a specific candidate last, you might want to consider whether it is really worth the effort if that candidate will be elected anyway.
If voting below the line, be extra careful with votes 1-6
If you vote below the line, you'll be asked to number 12 boxes and should ideally number more. However, if voting below the line make really sure you have put one and only one candidate number 1, one and only one candidate number 2 (etc) up to 6. If you omit any of the numbers 1-6 when voting below the line your vote won't count. If you double any of the numbers 1-6 when voting below the line, your vote won't count. If you make a mistake after number 6, however, your vote will still count up to the point where you made that mistake. Remember, if you make a mistake while voting at a booth, you can ask for another ballot paper. (Also, don't use zeros or negative numbers for candidates you dislike - this will cause your vote to not be counted.)
Be extra careful if you like to number a few boxes then number backwards from the bottom up. It's very easy to skip a number then end up with two 5s. If you like to do this sort of thing, best to practice at home first.
You might think this sounds simple. It's amazing how many people still manage to stuff it up.
So I should just number 6 boxes above the line or 12 below?
You can, but I strongly encourage you to number more! Whether you are voting above the line or below the line, the more squares you number, the more powerful your vote becomes.
I've numbered, say, 23 boxes and I don't like any of the other parties/candidates. Should I stop now?
You certainly can, but it's more effective to keep going. One of the most important messages in the new system is that while you can stop when you run out of parties that you like, this may result in a candidate you strongly dislike beating a candidate who you think is the lesser evil. Just voting for the parties you like and then stopping is not making the best use of your vote.
A lot of voters - especially a lot of idealistic left-wing voters - are a bit silly about this and worry that if they preference a party they dislike they may help it win. Well yes, but your preference can only ever reach that party if the only other parties left in the contest are the ones you have preferenced behind it or not at all! If that's the case then someone from that list is going to win a seat, whether you decide to help the lesser evils beat the greater evils or not.
To make best use of your vote, you should only stop when one of the following happens:
1. You could not care less which of the remaining candidates wins (assuming that at least one is elected).
2. You so strongly dislike all the remaining candidates that you feel morally opposed to even helping them beat each other.
3. Although you actually dislike one of the remaining parties less than one or more of the others, you want to exhaust your vote in protest to encourage that party to listen to your concerns. (To make your point effectively, I suggest you send that party a letter after the election telling them you did this, since they won't be able to work it out from your vote.)
Of course, some voters just "don't have the time" to number more than a few squares. It's up to you whether voting effectively is a priority for you or not. I'm just suggesting what you should do if it is.
I want to vote below the line for a candidate, and I want to put a certain party last, but I don't want to number 150 boxes. Is
there a shortcut?
Yes! Bear in mind that with the exception of Labor, the Coalition, the Greens, and NXT in SA, the great majority of tickets have no chance at all of getting more than one seat in any given state. So there is no need for you to send your preferences to all the candidates for every micro-party, just the lead candidate will do. Make sure you still preference all candidates from the bigger parties if doing this though (except the party you are putting last.)
Can I vote above and below the line?
There is not much point in voting both above and below the line. Under the old system voters sometimes voted both above and below the line so that if they made a mistake below the line their vote above the line would still be counted. This still applies, but it's so much easier to just make sure you don't make a mistake in the first six numbers if you vote below the line.
Also (and this is one to watch for when telling confused elderly relatives how to vote!) do not cast a vote that crosses the line (eg a 1 above the line, then a 2 below, then a 3 below, a 4 above etc). At best this will cause your vote to exhaust very quickly and at worst it will not count at all.
This is all confusing! I just want to do what my party wants!
That's up to you. If your party is popular and you are voting at a booth, your party will probably hand out how-to-vote cards that tell you how they suggest you vote in the Senate. If you are voting for a little-known party, you may need to check their website to see what they recommend (if anything).
Be aware that it is possible your party will deal with parties you do not agree with and hence recommend you vote for someone who you would not actually like. However, this is much less likely in the new system.
I've heard that I can just vote 1 above the line and stop and my vote will still be counted!
That's true, but only to a limited degree. If you do this then your vote will only count for the party you've voted for. Once all that party's candidates are elected or excluded, your vote will exhaust and will play no further role in the election. It might make sense to vote this way (despite what the instructions say) if you only liked one party and couldn't care less about any of the others, but really if this is true you should learn more about the different parties. You will almost certainly find some of them appeal to you more than others.
(Likewise, if the voter stops after filling six squares below the line, their vote will still count, but it will have reduced power.)
This party I've never heard of has a cool-sounding name. Should I preference it?
That's up to you, but again I suggest being cautious about parties you don't know much about. Their name may misrepresent what they are really on about, or some of their candidates may go off on a completely different track if they're elected.
If you don't have time to research parties before voting, then the best place to put parties you've never heard of is probably somewhere between the ones you moderately dislike and the ones you really cannot stand. If you don't dislike any parties, best to put the ones you've never heard of at the end.
Do you have a video on this?
I don't, but the Vic-Tas branch of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia do. I'm not associated with them, and I don't agree with all of it (they're very anti-above-the-line, but under the new system above-the-line voters have a greatly increased amount of control over their preferences, even if slightly less than below-the-line voters). But on the whole it's OK and does at least explain why people should keep filling in boxes, and not just stop when they reach the minimum.
Are there tools to help planning my vote?
Depending on where you live, there will probably be a lot of parties on the Senate ballot, as a large number of micro-parties with no chance of winning have decided to run this time anyway. (This may be a deliberate ploy by some of them to discourage you from voting below the line.) If you want to vote below the line and go more or less all the way, you may want to prepare your ballot beforehand so you have something to take to the booth and copy.
It's taken a while at this election, but a few such sites have emerged:
Senate voting card creator
These are sites where you can prepare your ballot firstly by rating parties and then ordering candidates within those parties. I recommend the voting card creator site as the best I've so far seen. The main advantage of ClueyVoter is that you can give the parties ratings to assist in sorting them, but ClueyVoter is also prone to assign numbers to parties you haven't preferenced, is not very user-friendly on candidate reordering, and above all else don't press the minimise preferences button!
If just planning to vote above the line, donkeyvotie.org has cheat-sheet preparation tools. (It also has its own assessments of the parties, which I don't necessarily endorse, although quite a few of them are on the money.)
That concludes the simple questions (but feel free to ask me more in comments). On to the tricky, slightly naughty bit! The bit below the line is rated Wonk Factor 3/5 and is mainly for serious election and voting system junkies.
Disclaimer: If you have read this section and are not sure that you completely understand it, please ignore it and pretend you never read it.
Most voting systems are prone to tactical voting of some kind; indeed, in some it's necessary. Under the first-past-the-post system in the UK it is often necessary for voters to vote tactically for their second or third preference party to ensure their vote isn't "wasted". Our preferential system is much fairer than first-past-the-post, of course, but there are still ways of voting that can waste part of your vote's value, and ways to get around that if you want.
In this case I am not arguing that voters should vote tactically - I'm just explaining how they can do it if they want to. The ethical decision involved (since voting tactically effectively reduces the value of other voters' votes) is up to them.
Here is a good example. A voter really likes two candidates. One is on top of a major party ticket, the other is in a lowly position and considered in danger of not winning. They slightly prefer the first candidate, but might it actually be worth voting 1 for the second and 2 for the first instead?
Generally, the answer is yes, but only if not everyone does it, since if everyone did it then the first candidate wouldn't be so safe anymore. However, it's a fact that not everyone will do it, and you can rely on the party vote being high enough at this election that top-of-the-ticket major party candidates in states will definitely win.
The one principle of tactical voting I recommend to those who really want to do it is do not vote 1 for any candidate who you know will get elected more or less straightaway. Generally a strategic voter would therefore avoid a 1 vote for the first four major party candidates in a state, and in most states they'd avoid voting 1 for the top Greens candidate. Voting below the line and starting at the bottom of your preferred party ticket - if you're a major party voter - is a common trick. But another one is to vote 1 for the second candidate (just to be really safe) of an agreeable micro-party which has no chance of winning at all, and then number the rest of the squares as you would normally. (The possible downside of this method is that your originally preferred party misses out on a few dollars of public funding. For people who think no parties should be funded, that's a benefit.)
You can also do this above-the-line if you want to, under the new system. Instead of voting 1 for any party that will poll more than 7.7% of the primary vote, you can deliberately give your 1 vote to a micro-party with absolutely no hope of winning and your second preference to your preferred party (then continue numbering parties in order). Your vote will flow at full value to the candidate from your party who is most likely to be fighting for the final seat. However, this does get a bit risky, because if too many people do it and select the same obviously hopeless micro-party, that micro-party might someday actually win!
Here's the mechanics behind all this. If you vote 1 for someone who is going to be elected right off the bat, you are giving them a vote they do not need. A portion of your vote is in effect left behind with them when their surplus is passed on, and your ballot paper in effect carries on to other candidates at a reduced value. (In some cases its value may be reduced to zero, through "loss due to fractions".) However, your vote also slightly increases the total passed-on value of all your chosen candidate's other votes. Effectively, 1 vote is still passed on, but instead of it being your vote at full value, it's a mishmash of your vote and bits of the vote of everyone else who voted for the same person.
This can make a big difference if you're voting across party lines. In some cases, voting 1 for a very popular candidate and then 2 for someone from a different party could actually harm the candidate you put second! (Note: don't do this deliberately to try to harm an opposing candidate, since you can harm them more then by just voting as you normally would.)
Advanced players may like to engage in a form of preference-running in which they try to strategise their vote so that it never gets caught with anyone who is elected until right at the end, and stays in the hunt at full value. It is actually really hard to pull this off, because multi-seat elections are so unpredictable. It often involves making difficult decisions about whether you would rather be sure of your vote reaching a favoured candidate, or take some risk of it not doing so to greatly increase the chance of another candidate you like. This sort of thing is so easy to misunderstand that I am not going to publicly give any advice on how to do it.
Those interested in some real examples of the principle I recommend should see this old Tasmanian Times article (wonk factor 4/5). That article covers the Hare-Clark system as used in Tasmanian state elections. There is a slight difference with the Senate system in that in the Senate, if your vote reaches someone who is elected with a quota at a later count, part of the value of your vote will be passed on (though often not very much).