Saturday, January 29, 2011


This post first appeared as a guest post by John Davidson in  Larvatus Prodeo 1 Sept 2010:

The informal vote for the house of reps was 5.64% in this election with state figures ranging from 4.19 in Tasmania to 6.89 in NSW. Some of these informal votes would be due to the “pox on both your houses syndrome”. However, the rest would be due to votes being “accidentally informal” for some reason or other. Accidentally informal not only robs individuals of their vote but it may also skew the election results given that people with low education or poor English skills might be more likely to make mistakes on their ballot paper.
With these problems in mind it was interesting to read a recent analysis by POSSUM on the causes of informal voting for the house reps. He used statistics (linear regression) to estimate the effect of the number of candidates on a ballot paper, the percentage of people in the electorate who speak English poorly (or not at all) as well as whether the state in which the electorate was located had optional preference voting (OPV) for state elections. (Qld and NSW have OPV)

The figures for 2007 and 2010 were analyzed separately. The following table summarizes the key results:

The “C” value is the value the equation predicts for the hypothetical case of no OPV, all voters have good English and no candidates. If we assume that this figure is the upper limit on “deliberately informal” the implication is that the “accidentally informal” vote would have been AT LEAST 2.69% for 2007 vs 2.56% for 2010. It should be no surprise if the deliberately informal vote rose significantly for 2010
with not much change in the accidentally informal.
For those that are interested the Possum post provides more details of how these figures were developed and possible reasons for other differences between 2007 and 2010.
One thing Possum didn’t mention was that under the Howard government details of the voting system were included in English classes for migrants as part of the AMEP program using the “Lets participate – A course in Australian Citizenship” book. Unfortunately, this book has been withdrawn since the 2007 election pending the issuing of a new book. This may partly explain why the impact of poor English was higher this election. (Of course, many ESL teachers continue to put considerable effort into explaining the electoral system, but it would have been smarter to wait until the new book was ready before withdrawing the old.)
The impact of English skills was considerable. The following graph of Possum’s does show how important English skills were for some electorates.

This graph emphasises the desirability of doing more to reduce the effect of English skills. More effort into helping new Australians understand the way the Australian preferential voting system works as well making the ballot paper easier for people to use.
The big surprise was the size of the estimated impact of voting in states that have OPV. Adding 1.65% to the informal votes of Qld and NSW voters just because their state system is fairer than the federal system is a serious penalty and one that was large enough to have changed the election outcome.
The problem with the federal system is that it makes votes informal even when it is quite clear what the voter intended. The aim of a fair voting system is to take account of a voter’s intentions, not test how well a voter understood the intricacies of the voting system.
The fix for the OPV problem is to take account of a voter’s intentions to the extent that it is possible. This would automatically count the vote of someone who chose not to use the preference option. It would also allow ballots that went 1,2,2,5 to be used for all stages of the account except when deciding which party that got a 2 was the next party to be eliminated. This is the priority reform for the House of reps. It should help reduce the OPV, ballot length and English skills effects.
The senate informal vote at 4.74% was not as bad as the house of reps but still high enough to affect outcomes in close elections. There was no Possum analysis for this vote but it does not seem unreasonable to expect similar patterns, after taking account of the above the line option.
One of the key problems for the senate system is fixing the scandalous system of above the line voting that allows party backroom operators to allocate the preferences of those who vote above the line.
This party-controlled preference allocation is an invitation to corruption, questionable deals and the creation of artificial parties that direct preferences in unexpected directions. It is worth looking at this site that gives preference details for all the parties in each state. There are some surprises. For example, in Qld, both the Democrats and Carers split the preferences so that someone who voted above the line for them had an equal chance of putting the LNP or Labor ahead.
The other key problem is that, like the house of reps, votes are made informal even when voter’s intentions are clear.
There are a number of fixes required for the Senate system:
  1. The system that allows party backroom operators to allocate preferences should be scrapped.
  2. There should be the option of allocating preferences above the line. (With the added option of allowing excursions below the line if someone wants to change the order of voting within a group.)
  3. Counting should take account of voter’s intentions to the extent that this is possible.
There are a number of quite simple changes that could be made to make both the house of reps and senate voting systems simpler, fairer and less open to corruption.

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