A vote for a minor party is not a wasted vote

I was in Stanmore this morning handing out flyers for The Greens and yet again I had to explain our preferential voting system to a number of people. These aren't stupid, uneducated people, just people who have never learnt how voting in Australia works.

Australia's lower house runs the voting system knows as instant runoff, or more commonly in Australia known as preferential. It works like this:

  1. The voter puts a number in every box, against every candidate, showing their preference from 1 (candidate the voter would most like) until all the boxes are filled in.
  2. When voting, the first preference (the ones) are sorted out for each candidate and counted.
  3. If any candidate has a clear majority (>50%) they are declared the winner, otherwise:
  4. The candidate with the least votes is removed from the running, and his second preferences (2) are sorted out and added to the other candidates' piles.
  5. This continues through all the preferences until there is a clear winner.

Now if you hear the nonsense that "a vote for a minor party is a wasted vote", what you're hearing about is other voting systems. In much of Europe and the US, they use a single box vote -- you tick one box and that's it. In that case, unless you vote for one of the top two candidates, your vote is indeed wasted. However in Australia, your vote continues until it ends up on one of the piles of the top two candidates.

So let's say you live in an ordinary electorate, you can register your true preference for the candidates of minor parties, but still ensure that your preference between Labor and Coalition candidates is expressed. So you can still vote for The Greens while still contributing to getting rid of Howard. The candidate you put as your first preference, assuming they get 4 percent of first preferences, will receive funding from the Electoral Commission, so it's worth giving the first vote to the party you really want.

Update: Raz writes in to point out that the rounds of preference distribution only continue until a candidate gets an absolute majority. That's correct, and I've amended my description.

Raz also argues that the reason I gave to give your "1" vote is a pretty bad reason. He suggests it puts voters' preferences on the table and therefore:

  • allows major parties (those who have a shot of ending up in government) to adjust their policies to suit a wider range of Australians
  • and/or

  • allows momentum to build behind a new party when there's a sea-change in voter sentiment.
4 responses
So would it be right to say that if you put all of the major parties deep down on your preference lists it is likely that they will never get these votes? ie the preference rounds will probably finish (a party receives greater than 50%) long before their placement on your preferences are reached. I am asking this because I would like to vote for one (or three) of the minor parties to express my agreement with their policies. However I also want my preferences to actually end up with one of the Green/Labor/Liberal candidates. My electorate will be touch and go for the Labor/Liberal candidate and I would hate for my vote to not help my preferred winner if it is way down deep on the preference lists. I suppose its not really that much of an issue for the House of Reps when there are only 5-6 candidates. The senate on the other hand it is more likely that if I put my preferred major party down at number 60 they will likely not ever receive the vote as the preference rounds will probably finish before then. Am I right that this is how it would work?
If my explanation wasn't clear enough, perhaps try the AEC's Scrutineer's Handbook. Better yet, get in touch with a party and offer to be a Scrutineer for them on election night and you'll get to see the whole process in action. In the lower house let's say there's three candidates. Candidate 1 gets 40% of primary (1) votes, Candidate 2 gets 31% of primary (1) votes and Candidate 3 gets 29% of primary (1) votes. No candidate has >50% so Candidate 3's ballots are allocated according to their second preference (2) votes. This process continues until a candidate has >50% at the end of counting of a round. So if your seat is a two horse race between two strong cadidates, it's likely that whichever of the two horses you put first (even if it's second last in your preferences) will receive your vote. But you SHOULD put them in the order YOU prefer. The Senate is more complex because there are multiple winners in each state race, but essentially the same process. My advice this (2013 Federal) election, Vote 1 Greens above the line in the Senate and then if you must attempt to number every box below, but beware "Smokers Rights", "Car Enthusiasts", "Sex Party", "Wikileaks" and a number of other benign-sounding parties are funneling preferences to the extreme right so do you really want to support them if you don't _really_ know them? If you make a mistake below the line, your above the line vote kicks in, so consider it Greens Insurance. ObDisclosure: I am a Greens member.
So based on the AEC site they do not specify that you can vote above AND below. Infact they specify you must leave the other section blank. http://www.aec.gov.au/Voting/How_to_Vote/Voting... I am not saying you are wrong I would just like some official information on this before I vote this way. I will ask at the booth on election day as well. I suspect not many of them will know you can do it either.
Yes, there is some debate on this matter on Antony Green's blog. I expect he'll post something clarifying the matter soon, he's probably waiting on clarification from the AEC. http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/2013/08/vot...