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How many numbers is too many?

March 17, 2019 - 10:45 -- Admin

I wrote yesterday about the Queensland government’s slate of reforms to Queensland local government elections, most of which I think are excellent. I focused on the shift to proportional representation for undivided councils (which is mostly synonymous with small regional councils).

I would love for the government to go for PR for Brisbane City and other big councils, but recognise that’s a much bigger step which affects much more powerful forces and also would require a redrawing of ward maps. Another fight for another day.

But there is one proposed change that would be completely unworkable and set proportional representation up for failure: compulsory preferential voting (CPV).

Compulsory preferential voting means that voters must number every box (or close to it) for their vote to be formal. In the interests of encouraging voters to “make their vote count”, we punish them with complete informality if they don’t comply.

The Queensland government’s report justified many of its reforms on the basis of aligning local elections processes with state and federal equivalents. While it is true that CPV is used for single-member elections in Queensland and federally, there is nowhere in Australia which uses full CPV with a proportional representation system in Australia.

We used full CPV for the Senate from the introduction of proportional representation in 1949 until the Senate reforms in early 2016. From 1949 until 1983, voters did not have any option to vote ‘above the line’, so had to number every box correctly for their vote to count. As the number of candidates increased, the informal rate continued to climb. Eventually the problem was solved by allowing voters to outsource their preferencing to their party of choice using group voting tickets. This post from Antony Green shows the informal rate in the Senate before 1984.

It is not necessary to number every box under proportional systems in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania or the ACT. It is only required in Western Australia if you vote below the line, which few voters do. There is no proportional representation at a state level in Queensland. The only relevant example is the Senate, where voters are asked to vote 1 to 6 above the line or 1 to 12 below the line.

We have another recent example where requiring voters to number a large number of boxes can lead to a big spike in informal voting, even if they don’t need to number every box.

Voters in Tasmanian council elections are asked to number as many boxes as there are seats up for election, which can vary between councils.

Until the 2011 council election, half of each council was elected every two years for a four year term. Since 2014, the whole council is elected at once. This has doubled the number of boxes voters need to number to cast a formal vote.

At the 2014 election, all 28 councils had an increase in informal votes. The increase was over 50% in 22 councils, and more than doubled in ten. Statewide informal voting increased from 2.4% to 4.9%, and then 5.1% in 2018.

In 2018, more than one in eight votes cast in the Hobart City Council election (where voters needed to number twelve boxes) was informal. There is also strong evidence that all of the increase in informal voting came from voters either not numbering enough boxes, or making a mistake in their voting sequence. (Thanks to Kevin Bonham for his help with this research).

We also know that informal voting in the House of Representatives spikes significantly when we have a lot of candidates, say when 16 candidates run in one seat.

So what happens in, say, Toowoomba or Mackay, where ten seats are up for election. 37 candidates ran for Mackay Council in 2016, and 31 for Toowoomba. I can’t see the informal rate staying under 10% in either case.

Even for those voters who can successfully navigate this voting system, it will be a lot harder. How-to-vote cards will become crucial for people who could otherwise make up their own mind.

All of that is a problem without mentioning the morality of asking voters to express preferences possibly between dozens of unknown candidates in order to cast a valid vote for the candidates that they do know.

The Queensland government has an opportunity to fix this. You could legislate instead to require voters to number just 1 to 5, or (even better) tell voters to number as many boxes as there are seats, but count any vote with a valid first preference.