Proposed Senate voting changes could lead to increase in 'exhausted' votes: experts

Exhausted votes could become the "new great controversy" in the way senators are elected, according to political academics.

Key points:

  • Proposed Senate voting changes will see ballots discarded if preferred candidates are excluded from race
  • 'Exhausted' votes could account for between 14 and 20 per cent of ballots in each state
  • Reforms focus on 'getting rid of micro parties', academic says

Under the proposed changes, voters who issue a limited number of preferences at the polling booth will have their ballot discarded if their preferred candidates are excluded from the race.

Monash University's Nick Economou said exhausted votes would become an issue at federal elections if voters continue to vote one above the ticket of their choice.

At the upcoming poll, voters will be encouraged to choose at least six boxes above the line, but parties will not be allowed to distribute preferences afterwards, with the banning of so-called group tickets.


Dr Economou warned voters had been voting above the line "at rates of about 90 per cent or more" since the system was introduced in the 1980s.

He said the new rules were likely to increase the number of exhausted votes.

"If we looked at the result of the last election and we applied the new rules, you'd be looking at exhausted votes in each state of anywhere between 14 and 20 per cent," he said.

"Normally, exhausted are only a handful. So the exhaustion process, I think, is going to be the new disenfranchising of voters."

Dr Economou said the Coalition would also lose out on the preference flows from the "Caulfield Cup field" of right-wing candidates, essentially "shooting itself in the foot".

The Government has stood by its proposal — supported by the Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon — with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull telling media last month the current system had been taken advantage of.

"The last Senate election was widely criticised," Mr Turnbull said.

"Australians were astonished to see people elected to the Senate whose primary votes were a fraction, in the case of one senator from Victoria, about half of 1 per cent of the vote."

Reforms focus on getting rid of micro parties: political academic

But political academic John Warhurst said the Coalition may not have considered some of the negative impacts of the bill, both for the party and the voters.

The Australian National University emeritus professor told the ABC "all the focus has been on getting rid of the micro parties and that's almost become justification for the reforms".

"Once you move to optional preferential, there is the exhausted vote syndrome," he said.

"It is a problem. It's almost the alternative problem. The problem with the old system was that you had preference networks all linked together by the so-called preference whisperers. So votes were counted again and again and again.

"In this way, there's possibility that a lot of people might just vote. If you're voting for a minor party, then you'll go out very quickly. You'll get a different type of problem."

ABC election analyst Antony Green has also weighed in on exhausted votes in his election blog, saying they will no longer count past the exclusion of the chosen candidate.

Source: ABC News

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