The current voting system for the Western Australian upper house is set to be overhauled after the WA state government accepted the recommendations of its expert panel earlier today. The panel has recommended the abolition of all regions used to elect the upper house, with 37 members1 to be elected by one statewide electorate, thus abolishing the severe malapportionment that has given far more power to rural voters. The panel also recommended the abolition of group voting tickets, making it easier to vote below the line and allowing voters to mark their own preferences above the line.
The new voting system will be far more proportional and equal, but will lead to a larger ballot and require voters to mark many more preferences if they want their vote to have maximum power.
The report proposes the abolition of group voting tickets, which is definitely a good thing, and will allow voters to number preferences above the line. They do also propose making it easier to vote below the line by not requiring voters to number every box (although I’ll come back to this later).
The panel’s report is worth a read, as they explore the options they had in terms of splitting up the state. They run through various ways in which dividing the state up into multiple regions limits voter equality (most of which are reasonably easy to overcome), but also explore various models. The biggest barrier to simply redistributing the current regions to be equal in size is that so much of the state’s population is in Perth – close to 75%.
You can divide the state into four regions, with one massive nine-member region covering all of rural Western Australia, or have smaller regions with a small number of MLCs which fail to provide much proportionality (they discuss 3-member regions). But once you are electing MLCs to represent a region stretching from the Kimberley to the south-west, you might as well elect MLCs at large.
So they have instead opted to go for a single state-wide electorate, as seen in New South Wales and South Australia. The difference is that those two states only elect half of their upper house at each election, so the quota is higher. The panel does consider electing 18 members per election for a total of 37, and thus giving MLCs an eight-year term, but doesn’t end up recommending it. I don’t see how it could be politically feasible to introduce eight-year terms in a chamber currently elected for four-year terms.
To be clear, I think a low quota is good. Proportionality is good, and I see no issue with allowing minor parties to win a seat off a relatively low vote. The quota would be about 2.63% of the total vote. Electing an upper house via regions would limit the proportionality, and would mean minor parties as large as the Greens wouldn’t be guaranteed any seats. In contrast, a 37-member electorate will ensure at least two Greens MLCs. They probably won’t have a chance of winning five seats (as has happened on occasion) but it’s hard to see them dropping to one, as happened earlier this year.
So what is the problem with electing so many members on one ballot? Basically, the low quota will attract a large number of groups and candidates, all on the one ballot. Larger parties would be encouraged to run at least twenty candidates, and a wide range of parties will be attracted by the prospect of winning a seat off just 1-2%.
A voter who is marking their preferences above the line could number many boxes and still see their vote exhaust. It will be even more difficult below the line to ensure your vote flows to a range of candidates.
The panel has expressed concern about exhaustion rates below the line, and have proposed that voters should be required to number at least 22 boxes to cast a formal below the line vote, which means that below-the-line voting won’t be much easier than it is now.
There really isn’t any system in Australia where below-the-line voting can be used to modify the party’s candidate list in practice. It requires a lot of voters to vote below the line, since preferences cast above-the-line will follow the party’s list. Lisa Singh’s election to the Senate in 2016 required a very high primary vote for a single candidate and a bit of luck.
When you have to number twenty-two boxes to vote below the line, it just isn’t a feasible option for many voters. So in practice this system will be a closed-list system. If you are, say, the tenth candidate on the Labor ticket, you would need 27% of the primary vote to win, and nothing else matters.
If we’re going to elect 37 members in a single electorate, we should consider simpler systems used in other countries. Many European countries use party list proportional representation (list PR) to elect more than 37 candidates in a single electorate.
I personally like the single transferable vote, either with Hare-Clark or with above-the-line voting. I think it works great if you’re electing up to, say, nine members in an electorate. In those situations, preference flows between different parties can make a significant difference, and in some cases the number of seats up for election means many voters won’t be able to be represented by their first choice.
But when you are electing larger numbers in a single electorate, such as the 37 proposed for the WA Legislative Council, or if you were to elect all 42 NSW MLCs in one election, a simple divisor method of list PR would achieve about the same outcome while making the ballot much simpler. When the quota is around 2.6% you don’t need to use preferences to ensure a fair outcome.
You could use a closed list system, but there are open list options where voters cast a ballot for an individual candidate. Seats are allocated to parties based on their share of the vote, and those seats are then allocated to the individuals with the most votes. It gives real power to voters to decide which candidates within a party win seats, a power they don’t have under any system using “above-the-line” voting around Australia.
Yet it seems like Australians are fixed to the idea that a fair voting system needs to use preferences, even when the voting system reaches absurd levels of complexity.
There have been a number of attempts to introduce list PR for elections using a large district magnitude. When the NSW Legislative Council shifted to direct election in 1978, the Wran Labor government proposed using list PR to elect 15 members per election, but compromised for single transferable vote after Liberal/National opposition.
South Australia’s upper house was first elected using universal suffrage in 1975, and used list PR at the 1975 and 1979 elections.
And the first two elections to the ACT Legislative Assembly in 1989 and 1992 used a modified list method which was mangled in the Senate to include elements of preferences that massively complicated the system, and was eventually replaced by smaller Hare-Clarke districts in 1995.
It appears that list PR would violate the Western Australian state constitution, but I still think it’s worth discussing this alternative. An STV election conducted with 37 seats up for election is far from the ideal way to use that voting system.
1 The actual report seems to recommend a 36-seat electorate, but the Attorney-General has confirmed that the legislation will increase the chamber to 37.