Monday, April 16, 2007

Australia - world's best voting system

Australia has easily the best voting system in the world. For two reasons:

  • Preferential voting

  • Compulsory voting

The latter first.

Compulsory voting has been quite contentious over the last 80-odd years it has been in place. The biggest criticism has been that it forces voting on people who don’t know and/or don’t care – resulting in a vote that can be said to be wasted – or, even worse, a tool of ignorance or demagoguery.
Yes, it does force people to vote in ignorance, which is bad. But ultimately, I’m in favour of compulsory voting, because:
a) it results in a somewhat better informed electorate, due to those who feel obliged to increase their understanding of the political situation;
b) it confers a greater sense of legitimacy on the outcome that such a high proportion (typically over 95%) of the electorate has cast a ballot.
Those who object to voting per se can always turn up, get the ballot paper, and stuff it into the box unmarked. This is legal. But surprisingly few people do this. Once they turn up, they tend to mark the ballot paper.

Now to preferential voting, aka the transferable vote. There are actually several versions of this around the country, for State and for Federal elections. But the common thread is that the voter is presented with a list of n candidates, which one numbers from one to n in order of preference.
Counting. It’s not hard.

However, this gives rise to the concept of the donkey vote, which consists of numbering the boxes from top to bottom in order, without thought. Although not widespread, it happens enough for the top position to be seen to confer a slight advantage. (Positioning is decided by random draw.)
When the votes are counted, the candidates are ranked in order of votes received. the candidate with the least votes is dropped from the list, and their ballot papers are redistributed to the voters’ second preference. And so on.

Preferential voting is great! It allows people to select a second choice (and so on) if their candidate isn’t the winner. The electorate doesn’t have to put up with a candidate that the majority reviles. At the point where there are only two candidates are left, everyone is exercising their choice of which of the two they prefer.

This is particularly significant in the light of the French Presidential election of 2002. Like a number of countries, the French have a two-stage voting system: if no candidate gets over 50% of the vote, there is a run-off election between the top two candidates. This is very much like a preferential voting, except less efficient, less choice, and sub optimal.

Less efficient: two voting processes. Costs time and money, unnecessarily
Less choice: preference is only expressed twice, not between all the candidates.
Sub optimal: In the first stage of the above election, votes were split between quite a large number of candidates. In particular, the left vote was very fractured – to the point where the runoff choice was between a candidate on the right, and one on the far right. The second-round result was the biggest landslide in French history.
Yet, there were 12 parties whose vote (alone) would have put the other centre party ahead of the far-right candidate. At least five of those were left.

Whether you’re left or right, you can’t be too happy with a situation where 65% of the electorate doesn’t have a say in the run-off. It makes a positive mockery of the system.

And Australia’s voting system would have given a better, more legitimate result.

One further reason I like preferential voting: my vote is counted twice. My first vote is always for a minor party - and primary votes are significant for electoral funding. My preference then flows through to a major party, so my vote affects the final outcome.

Next up: an example of how Australia’s voting can also produce unexpected results. Not because of the core voting system, but because of the way in which deals are allowed to be done by political parties, which can stymie their own intention.


Anonymous said...

An interesting article, however for the other side of the debate here you go...

S Simmonds said...

Hi Matt,

Thanks for that. Had a bit of a look at it - it puts a case against compulsory voting.

I can't say that to date I have an absolute killer of an argument in favour of compulsory voting.

I see that article's main points as:
- compulsory voting is anti-democratic;
- political parties have to "work harder" for votes if voluntary;
- most other developed countries do NOT have compulsory voting.

My comments:

I actually think it's quite hard to assert definitively what is and what isn't "democratic". There's a lot of things in this world that have at least an element of compulsion. I'm thinking that if you want to remove all of those, you'd be looking at an anarchism.
In the spectrum of laws set down, I don't see compulsory voting as specifically more heinous than anything else. As I said, we're still free to stuff the ballot box with an unmarked paper.

I'm not actually sure about political parties working harder for a vote when it's voluntary. a) I don't know whether that actually happens in practice;
b) I don't know whether the difference - if there - counts for very much. Personally, I think it's anti-democratic to allow unlimited campaign budgets. And a party that has to "work harder" has to spend more money.

And how meaningful is it to compare Australia's voting system with others (which _may_ be inferior)?

The comment here I find most interesting is the one that some voluntary-voting countries achieve up to 80% voter turnout. I'm then led (in the comments) to the site that lists voter turnout:

Thoroughly fascinating!
The results are quite startling. Australia in 16th place! Only 84% vote!
The organisation "International IDEA" seems to be reputable. But there are aspects of the methodology that are questionable - for example, in Australia, citizens vote, but residents aren't allowed to.
Intuition leads me to suspicion too. I find it particularly unusual to see Italy and Indonesia ranked ahead of us.
Further, I have voted in New Zealand in at least three elections, and I can tell you right now that the turnout has never been anything close to as high as Australia's. There's simply more apathy in voting, since it's voluntary.
Maybe the chief issue is citizenship and other exclusions (such as prisoners).
This begs a completely different question - and discussion...

I _do_ like the first comment to that piece, about voting being a right versus being a responsibility. Philosophically, I would tend to see it as a responsibility. What about you?

lastly, it remains - to my mind - that Australia's system of preferential voting is a positive beacon in this world.