Preferential Voting how do they count in an election

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Preferential Voting how do they count in an election

Party preferences could prove all important at the federal election, especially in marginal seats.

Journalists assume that we all understand how preferences or preference deals work, but we don’t … can you please explain?” voters have asked us to simplify it.

The main thing to remember is only you can decide where your preferences go — not the parties.

But let’s take a closer look.

What are preferences and why do they matter?

In Australia, we have a preferential voting system.

That means when you go to vote at this federal election, you’ll be asked to number the candidates or parties on your ballot papers in order of choice.

You’ll do this by putting a number one in the box next to your first-choice candidate, a two in the box next to your second choice, and so on.

On your House of Representatives ballot paper, you’ll need to number every box.

On your Senate ballot paper, you’ll have the option of numbering at least six boxes for parties above the line or 12 for candidates below.

If you don’t follow the instructions carefully, your vote may be informal and will not be counted.

How are preferences counted?

For the House of Representatives, polling officials will begin by counting all of the first preferences.

If there’s no clear winner — candidates need to receive more than 50 per cent of the vote — the candidate with the fewest votes will be excluded.

If you voted for that candidate, your ballot paper will then be re-examined for your second preference.

This process will repeat until a candidate has achieved the necessary number of votes.

In short, this means your vote can live on through the count beyond your first selection, which isn’t the case in other systems.

For the Senate, the counting process is more complex and candidates need to reach a quota of formal votes.

The Senate’s electoral system was reformed in 2016. Where parties had previously controlled preference flows, the new system gives voters control.

So do political parties have any say over my preferences?


Forget preference deals. All that matters is what you write on your ballot paper.

For all the talk of preference deals, the reality is that parties cannot direct preferences.

The only preferences that count are the numbers written on ballot papers by voters themselves.

All that parties can do is try to influence what voters write, either by distributing how-to-vote material or by sending subtle messages to minor-party voters about what they should do with their preferences.

What is how-to-vote material?

When you line up to vote at a polling station, you may be handed a leaflet that explains how to vote for a particular political candidate or party.

These are called “how-to-vote cards” and will suggest a specific way to order your preferences.

For example, a Liberal candidate may recommend you preference Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP) ahead of Labor, while a Labor candidate may recommend you preference the Greens over One Nation.

There are a number of reasons political parties distribute these cards, according to Green.

Firstly, they want your first preference. And secondly, they want to make sure you number all the boxes so your vote will count.

But you do not need to follow the party’s instructions. Your vote is entirely up to you.

If you do want to know your candidate’s preferences ahead of the election, you can contact them directly or check their website.

Political parties and candidates do not have to formally declare their preferences with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).

How many people actually follow how-to-vote cards?

Many Australians relied on how-to-vote cards.

One of the problems with the alternative vote is it’s actually quite complicated for people, the more complicated you make something, the more voters will depend on the parties to help them navigate the system.

Speaking to candidates who have very large ethnic communities in their electorates, they tell me one of the hardest things they need to do is educate people on the need to number all the boxes.

A survey conducted at the 2010 Victorian election showed 38.7 per cent of voters across eight electorates appeared to follow how-to-vote cards.

Most voters knew which party they wanted to support, but decided the order of their preferences for themselves,

The data showed vote card conformity was strongest among supporters of the major parties while voters for the other parties tended to be much less compliant with their party’s cards.

Who is recommending preferences for who at this election?

The Liberal Party has struck a deal to exchange preferences on how-to-vote cards with the United Australia Party.

That means Liberal candidates will place Clive Palmer’s party above Labor on their cards in Lower and Upper House seats.

Scott Morrison has said the party will also preference One Nation below Labor, following revelations Pauline Hanson’s party solicited donations from a powerful gun lobby in the US.

The Nationals, however, are free to do as they please and have agreed to swap preferences with One Nation.

Leader Michael McCormack said the Nationals’ policies were more closely aligned with One Nation than with Labor or the Greens.

“You have to do what it takes to get votes and to win at an election,” he said.

Labor has not announced any formal preference deals, however almost every vote lost to the Greens comes back to Labor as a preference.

Is preferential voting here to stay?

The AEC says there are  no indications  the system will change in the near future.