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Senate reform: from voter confusion to voter power

By Neveshevida Balasubramanian - posted Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Later this year there will be a Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters which will conduct a review of the most recent election and lead the way for reform of senate voting. This would mean that senate voting would not only be less confusing but more democratic. We should all be watching this process closely.

Australia is one of the very few countries in the world that has compulsory voting. We live in a country that says every person should have a serious think about who our political leaders should be. The system is egalitarian – it calls for every adult citizen to exercise their equal power to decide who will lead the country and make key decisions on issues that affect every aspect of our lives.

But even well intentioned voters, marching to the polls on election-day to exercise the most powerful direct expression of their political opinion, face serious confusion when it comes to senate voting.


In national senate elections, voters are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Even thinking about voting below the line is daunting – for one, you can't even see who all the parties are because the ballot paper is too large, you don't want to suffer the embarrassment of using a magnifying glass, you have never heard of most of the parties, and even if you bothered to number all of them, mixing up the numbering by accident would make the vote invalid – why bother?

Most people choose to vote above the line by putting a number next to one party – sounds easy enough. This is how more than 95% of Australians vote. But this means that that most Australians concede control of their preferences to the chosen party.

Each party above the line has a 'group ticket' which is a predetermined preference flow. Most people never bother to check this –and even if you did, the preferences are confusing. Each party above line makes backroom preference deals that are neither transparent nor ideologically consistent; parties get away with this behaviour because they aren't held accountable to voters for these decisions. Under this system, you never really know who your vote will accidentally elect.

Votes are counted using a method where once a senator has reached a certain quota, they are elected. Their remaining votes are distributed according to preferences. Those parties with the lowest number of votes are excluded, and their votes are also distributed. So with the lottery of preference flows and the large number of micro-parties, you can have senators with no serious policy platform elected purely on the basis of transferred votes from perverse preference deals.

What becomes apparent is that Australia has a system of senate voting that is both undemocratic and farcical. But what can be done to change it?

Many changes have been proposed. At the core of the reform is the idea that senate seats should reflect voters' intentions in the most accurate way possible and reduce voter confusion.


First and foremost, abolishing predetermined preferences is crucial. This will cut out micro-parties that are established simply to enter into the game of lottery through preference deals. Each party must have serious candidates and a policy platform and garner solid support in the electorate.

Secondly, if voters want to vote above the line, they can choose to vote for one party, after which their vote would be exhausted. Or voters can choose their own preference of parties above the line – if parties want voters to preference a particular way, they have to campaign for this.

If voters choose the below the line option, rather than having to number every single candidate, they would just have to number a minimum of 6 (or 12 in a double dissolution election) – that is the number of senators being elected. This would make voting below the line easier and would reduce the chances of misnumbering.

Another suggested reform is introducing a 4% quota for first preference votes – this would stop candidates being elected on the back of the lottery of transferred votes. However abolishing group ticket voting would address the root cause of the current system's problems and introducing a first preference threshold risks excluding smaller parties that are progressively building wider support.

Other reforms include Robson Rotation – rotating the party names on each ballot paper so candidates aren't accidentally voted just because they are at the top of the list. And, making registration of a political party more stringent – increasing the minimum number of non-overlapping candidates to 750 and having to register one year before an election.

The Senate reform is promising – there is potential for it to fundamentally change the current system that is based on secret preferences and preys on voter confusion. Australia can move to a senate voting system that gives voters real control over who is elected to the Senate. We can move to a system that would not only be more transparent and democratic but encourage Australians to take the power of their vote seriously.

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About the Author

Neshevida Balasubramanian is an intern at the Gilbert and Tobin Centre for Law at the University of New South Wales. The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of other members or affiliates of the Centre.

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