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The real problem with STV: the Australian Senate projected results

The Australian Senate voting system worked exactly as it’s meant to. It’s not broken, it’s just bad to begin with.

In a sense, I’m glad at least some Australians are hearing the wake-up call. I’m glad that some are calling for reform of the system that might see senators elected to one of six vacancies with as little as 0.51% or 0.22% of the vote. What I hope now is that they realise that it’s not tweaks that the system needs, but replacement.

What happened? The conventional wisdom is that minor parties got together and exchanged preference deals, in a manner largely opaque to the Australian public. This is true, but it isn’t contrary to the system. The whole point of STV is that “wasted votes” instead trickle down to the next most preferred candidate. The idea is to prevent supporters of minor candidates from abandoning them outright, by ensuring that their vote will still count towards someone they semi-like.

So when 6.45% of Victorians voted for parties that said they’d rather someone from the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party (AMEP) than another candidate from Labor, Liberals, Nationals, Greens, Palmer United or the Sex Party, they got exactly what they asked for. And when 3.54% voted for parties that preferred the Sex Party over all those, but failing that, then the AMEP, they got that too. They voted against the major parties; they voted that they’d prefer the minor ones. And when they eventually added up to 14.3%, they got their quota.

Now, you might point out, correctly, that those voters probably didn’t know that’s what they’re voting for. But that’s the point of above-the-line voting: you trust that the party you vote for submitted a group ticket that is what you would have wanted. This is reasonable. After all, you’re probably voting for that party because you believe it aligns most closely with you. While I’m sure that minor parties did strategically exchange preference deals, the outcome can be explained more much simply: minor parties collectively want to seek to limit the capacity of major parties to ride over their interests.

If Victoria and Western Australia didn’t want any micro-parties to gain seats, they would have put all those parties much further down their preference list. It’s worth noting that Labor, the Coalition and the Greens are arguably just as guilty. Labor and the Greens each preferenced most micro-parties above the Coalition, and vice versa. So their excess votes, too, helped the micro-parties distort the final outcome.

The flipside
Obviously, it’s impossible to expect Australian voters to vote how they “should have voted” to prevent this outcome. That would essentially require almost all of them to vote below the line; when there are up to 110 candidates (as in New South Wales), that’s burdensome to say the least.

One way to side-step the problem is to abolish above-the-line voting, but not require voters to rank all (or at least 90% of) candidates. But then you would lose a key benefit of above-the-line voting, the ability to vote “for a party”.

And anyway, the real problem is more fundamental. Australia introduced its current voting system, the single transferable vote (STV), in 1948 when it decided it wanted its upper house to have proportional representation. The root problem, then, is straightforward: STV is not proportional representation. It is not proportional because it is not designed to be proportional. It is designed to minimise vote wastage, which is not quite the same thing, and which this year’s Senate elections achieved perfectly fine.

If you beg to differ, I challenge you to look at the projected results for Victoria and Western Australia and tell me why that is a proportional outcome. (Or read my earlier post on the topic.)

Ideas for reform
If Australia wants a transparent voting system for its Senate that produces a proportional outcome, the answer is simple: adopt a proportional system. Since their lower house is electorate-based, there is no need for a mixed system, as is the case in New Zealand. Instead, they could run a party-list proportional system with state-by-state contests. Even better, to improve overall fidelity to proportionality, they could look to Sweden: each multi-member constituency has its own proportional contest, with extra national “adjustment seats” designed to ensure that the national outcome matches the national vote as closely as possible.

I don’t have any hope that this option will get close to the table. Despite all the appeal of proportional representation, most nations find a true implementation too hard a bullet to bite. But at the very least, Australians should realise that the projected results of this year’s Senate elections are not just symptoms of flaws in an otherwise sound system. They are a show of a bad system working well.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wilbur #

    Excellent post CZ. The Swedish system makes absolute sense.

    (all opinions in this comment are my own.)

    11 September 2013
  2. speters855 #

    I just stumbled across your interesting blog. I am impressed by your knowledge of electoral systems, not to mention your writing skills. Have you seen Graeme Edglers (Legal Beagle) blog on the Public Address site, here in NZ?. It is a very good site for discussion concerning our elctoral system , and law. Graeme is a lawyer with a focus on electoral law. I agre with your views on STV, but more intuitively, as my IQ cannot, or perhaps will not, stretch as far as the calculus. I would like to see you debate with Steve Todd on the issue, as here is a tireless promoter of STV, and he too has a head for maths.
    Are you returning to NZ?

    2 October 2013
    • Chuan-Zheng #

      Hi, thanks for the comment! I have indeed seen Graeme Edgeler’s blog and read it on occasion, especially when the MMP review was on. I’m in California at the moment doing a master’s degree and will be returning to NZ after I finish 🙂

      8 October 2013
      • speters855 #

        Hi Chuan-Zheng
        Good to hear from you. We are having local body and hospital bored (oops) elections here. Many are complaining about the candidate based voting system, too much reading and you dont really know what candidates stand for, and that STV too convoluted. My interest is more at the national level at the mo. I am intrigued by the effects the 5% party vote threshold is having – its too high IMHO. – John Key may discover that to his cost, as he doesst have a viable coalition partner, whereas Labour has the Greens (or so they think – but I predict some real stumbling blocks).
        I am currently researching the lit. if a lower pvt would indeed cause ‘party fragmentation’ in NZ – ‘too many parties’ – as is alleged.

        9 October 2013
  3. speters855 #

    Here is a ‘new book’ reference I just came across after my post – which may be of interest to u. ‘Writing on the wall: social media – the first 2,000 years’ – Tom Standage
    Chronicles social media over two millennia, from papyrus letters that Cicero used to exchange news across the Empire to today, reminding us how modern behaviour echoes that of prior centuries and encouraging debate and discussion about how we will communicate in the future.

    9 October 2013
  4. Thabo #

    Interesting post. Personally I quite like STV (or Hare-Clark as we call it here in Tasmania) because of it is about voting for candidates rather than parties and particularly how it prevents safe seats. This isn’t very effective when you have large electorates (like Australian states) because it is impossible to know more than a few candidates. The other important thing is in Tasmania Hare-Clark usually produces a reasonably proportional result because voters stick to their party. STV without the current above the line system (which is going to be replaced) produces what voters want and that is a good thing.
    I would probably prefer a form of PR for the senate except than is never going to happen because of a clause in the constitution stating that senators must be directly elected and when the government tried to introduce PR for the senate (back post WW2) it was found to be unconstitutional.

    20 June 2014

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