This article was originally published on October 18, 2020.
Yesterday was the ACT Election. While many people across Canberra had pre-polled, others, including me, waited until Election Day — mostly for the satisfaction of enjoying the reward for our civic responsibility in the form of a democracy sausage.
That evening, I noticed a few things. Parts of social media flooded with concerns that they didn’t realise they needed to vote before or on October 17. I also noticed many people not understanding exactly what they were meant to write in order to have their candidates voted.
The most interesting thing I noticed was the swing towards the Belco Party and the potential implications of that trend.
In the ACT, we use the Hare-Clark electoral system. This is a proportional representation system. Basically, this means that, in the case of the ACT, we have 25 elected representatives, 5 electorates and therefore 5 representatives per electorate. Hare-Clark is a nasty system because it requires party colleagues to go head-to-head for the vote… while still working together. It requires five Labor or Liberal representatives to compete for possibly only two or three seats.
If you are aware of the manner in which Hare-Clark votes are counted, this next part can be skipped over until you reach the line below, which is where my analysis begins. If you need to understand the Hare-Clark system further (or even ‘below the line’ voting for Senate elections as the process is the same), please continue reading this next section. It is important all Australians understand Senate ‘below the line’ voting and all ACT and Tasmanian residents understand the Hare-Clark system.
Upon filling out the ballot paper, voters are instructed to fill in at least 1 to 5 on the form for their most preferred candidates. Any ballot paper without a number 1 or more than one number 1 is counted as an invalid vote.
The number of formal votes in a Hare-Clark election is extremely important as this number helps form the quota. The quota is the minimum number of votes needed to win a seat. This number is calculated as follows. In the ACT, the quota is calculated by the number of formal votes divided by 6 (the number of available seats per electorate + 1). Then 1 is added to this number to form the quota.
For example, let’s say there were 50,000 formal votes for a given electorate. This would mean the quota is approximately 8334 votes.
To count votes in the Hare-Clark system, first preference votes are counted first. This means all the names with a number 1 in the box are counted first. All candidates who reach a quota on first preference votes automatically win a seat. If a candidate wins the exact number of votes for a quota, their votes are put aside and not counted again.
If a candidate exceeds the quota, the number of votes over the quota is referred to as a surplus. The entire pile of these first preference votes is then taken and transferred to further preferences at a reduced number. This value is known as the fractional transfer value.
The fractional transfer value is calculated by the number of surplus votes divided by the number of ballot papers with further preferences shown. Continuing from our example above, this means that if a candidate received 10,334 votes and only 10,000 of these votes had further preferences, the fractional transfer value would be 2,000 divided by 10,000, which is equal to 0.2.
From here, second preferences are distributed at a reduced rate. For example, if 2,000 of these ballot papers had Candidate Y as a second preference, Candidate Y would receive 400 votes (2,000 x 0.2).
This is continued until all preferences have been exhausted.
If after these preferences have all been exhausted and there still have not been 5 candidates to meet the quota, the candidate with the lowest number of first preference votes is excluded and distributed based on subsequent preferences. From here, the process is repeated until all candidates filling vacancies have reached the quota.
This is an incredibly in-depth and complicated system, and it is practically set up for those who are unaware of the system not to be heard.
In the ACT, if your preferences do not get distributed to a major party (Greens, Labor or Liberal) at some stage on your ballot paper, chances are you didn’t really vote this election. The most interesting example during this election was the Belco Party. The party received an 8.2% swing towards them this year, most likely affecting the 5.8% swing against the Liberals. If you voted 1 to 5 down the column for the Belco Party, your vote was not technically counted during this election towards any of your representatives.
In the current political climate, the only way your vote gets counted towards a sitting representative is if you vote for one of the major parties at some point in your preferencing. This might mean that you vote Belco Party 1 to 5 but then 6 to 10 goes to either Liberal, Labor or the Greens.
The amount of misinformation around the voting system is part of the reason people feel so disengaged from the political process. The only way compulsory voting will ever be truly representative of the voting population is if the voting population is educated about the democratic process.
There are many people with political frustrations in Australia. Some of them are completely understandable and justified. Some, however, could be resolved through a more thorough understanding of Australian political processes and issues.
Literacy and numeracy are pushed as the main focus of education in Australian schools in the same way it was pushed when I was at school. The difference is now, most Australians carry a low-grade scientific calculator in their back pocket wherever they go. I personally cannot stress enough the importance of numeracy and literacy. A piece of me dies every time I see someone use ‘there’ or ‘your’ incorrectly. I want to cry when I see young people calculate 0.1 x 10 on their calculators. However, with spell check and the presence of calculators, a misunderstanding of the fundamentals does not impact people in the same way it used to do so.
However, political education is something that will affect all Australians in their compulsory voting lifetime. It is vital that people are not only educated about and aware of the political system they are required to participate in — but armed with knowledge and empowered to engage in that system in a meaningful way in order to see a better future for them and for their children and the future generations to come.