- 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.