What the F is: Preferential voting
Our preferential voting system in Australia is extremely important, as many elections will be won on preferences. Conservative governments have historically benefitted from voters not understanding how the process works. Most of us didn’t learn about the political system and preferential voting in school, which means we’ve either had to figure it out for ourselves, or we go into elections not fully understanding.
What is preferential voting?
In most elections, Australian voters will use preferential voting, meaning a numbering system when filling out their ballot. In federal and state elections, you must use full preferential voting for your vote to be counted. Rules vary in local elections depending on your area. Full preferential voting means you must number every box listed on your ballot paper for the Legislative Assembly paper, which will list the candidates running as MPs in your area. Senate ballot papers may look slightly different, and you will have to follow the instructions listed to make sure your vote counts.
How does preferential voting work?
When polls close on voting day, officials will begin to count the votes. They will first allocate votes to every candidate with a ‘1’ next to their name – this is the primary vote.
Let’s say in this example, there are candidates from the Labor Party, Liberal Party, Greens Party, and one independent candidate. In most electorates, the major party candidates will get most of the votes, so that’s the example we’ll use.
After the first count, when officials will allocate votes based on the candidates with a ‘1’ next to their name, there is no clear winner, ie. no candidate has over 50% of the vote. This means preferences have to be allocated.
The candidate with the least votes after the primary count is the independent, which means they are dropped from the race. Officials will now go back to the ballot papers that put the independent as ‘1’, and redistribute those votes based on the number ‘2’ votes.
One ballot looks like this, so the vote will now be given to the Greens candidate.
This process will continue until there is a clear winner: the votes are counted, the candidate with the least votes is disqualified, and their preferences are allocated, etc. etc., until there is a clear winner.
WTF is a HTV?
If you’ve voted in an Australian election, you’ve probably seen volunteers out and about on election day, giving out How To Vote cards. These cards are produced by each candidate and show how that candidate or party wants you to vote. It’s important to remember that How To Vote cards are not instructions – they contain advice from each candidate about how they suggest you vote.
‘Preference deals’ are made by the candidates ahead of the election about where each candidate will place their competitors on the How to Vote cards. For example, the Labor Party will almost always preference the Greens, and the minor conservatives (think Pauline Hanson, Katters, Palmer) will almost always preference the Liberal/Nationals. These deals are commonplace, but it’s important to remember that they have no real bearing on your vote. You can allocate your preferences however you see fit.
You may like to take a How To Vote card from your preferred candidate, but you are not obligated to follow its suggestion exactly. On the same note, you are free to follow your preferred candidate’s How To Vote card if you want to. If you have questions about a candidate’s How To Vote card, you can ask volunteers or electoral officials on election day - if you want unbiased advice, make sure you are asking the AEC officials, not the candidates' volunteers who will be handing out the How To Vote cards.
The Liberal Party came under fire in 2019 for publishing misleading election signs in now-Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s electorate in Victoria. They created ‘How to Vote’ signage designed to look like official Australian Electoral Commission instructions, written in Chinese, to mislead voters. There is always the chance that they (or other candidates) will try to do this again, which is why we are much better off when we understand the process before entering the polling booth on election day.