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The View from Abroad Part II -- The Australian Election System

by: tmess2

Wed Aug 28, 2013 at 09:17:12 AM EDT


Australia is a constitutional monarchy composed of six states (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania) and two territories (Australian Capitol Territory -- think D.C. -- and the Northern Territory).  The de facto head of state is the Governor-General who is the local representative of the Queen (the de jure head of state).  A significant minority would support becoming a republic with an elected head of state.  The Constitution establishes a two-house legislature -- a House of Representatives and a Senate -- with both houses being elected.

The House of Representatives is composed of 150 members elected from single member districts (called Divisions in Australia).  The Senate is composed of 76 members.  Each state has twelve Senators and each territory has two Senators.

The members of the House are elected for a maximum term of three years.  The term begins on the first day that the new parliament sits.  However, the Prime Minister (normally the head of the largest party in the House, but in any case somebody who has the confidence of the majority) can request the Governor-General to call an early election.  If the Prime Minister does not request an early election, an election is automatically called after the term of the House ends.  (Because it can be up to 5 months between the dissolution of parliament for an election and the start of the new parliament, it is theoretically possible for the gap between elections to exceed three years).

The Senators representing the states are elected for six-year terms.  Normally, Senate elections are "half-Senate" elections in which six Senate seats in each state are up for election.  A half-Senate election must take place in the twelve months before the old term expires and the new term begins, but the Senators-elect do not take office until the old term expires.  (Currently, the next batch of thirty-six seats expires in July 2014.)  Unlike the Senators elected from the states, the Senators from the territories serve for the life of the Parliament.  Thus, the territories have a Senate election whenever there is a House election. 

While the Senators from the states are normally elected for a six-year term in half-elections, there is an exception to this rule called a "double dissolution."  Basically a double dissolution occurs when the House and Senate are unable to resolve differences over legislation.  Double dissolutions are rare (taking place six times over the past century). 

When Australia votes on September 7, they will technically be voting in three federal elections:  a local election in their Division for the House of Representatives, a state-wide election for their state's Senators, and a national election on a constitutional referendum (potentially amending the Australian Constitution on the powers of local governments).  If a state had previously scheduled an election for September 7, by law, that election would have to be rescheduled.  The Australian voting system works in large part because it keeps state and local governments from holding their elections at the same time as federal elections.

tmess2 :: The View from Abroad Part II -- The Australian Election System

Voting for the House uses what is called preferential voting.  (Some localities in the US use a variation on preferential voting called instant run-off voting.  There is a slight difference explained further below).  

There are two basic ways that candidates get on the ballot for a house seat -- either by filing as independents or as candidates of a registered party.  An independent needs to file a petition with a small number of signatures (100) and a deposit ($AUS 1000).  A registered party does not need signatures for each candidate (as it takes 500 members to become a registered party) but does need to make a deposit for each candidate.  The deposit is refundable if the party/candidate gets enough votes.  Needless to say, the deposit is not a big deal for the major parties which will get back their deposits in almost every division, but is significant for a new marginal party.

In the 2013 elections, four "parties" are running in every division.  The two major parties in Australia are the Australian Labor Party and the "Coalition."  The Labor Party is actually two parties -- running as Country Labor in 4 divisions.  The Coalition is actually four parties -- and is the product of a working agreement between the Liberal Party and the National Party.  In most of the country, the Liberal Party tends to be the urban and suburban center-right party with the National Party being a more rural party.  For the most part, the Liberal Party and the National Party do not run against each other in Divisions and run a unified Senate ticket (the primary exception being Western Australia where the National Party runs its own Senate slate).  In the Northern Territory, the Liberals run as the Country Liberal Party and, in Queensland, the two parties have merged into one party -- the Liberal National Party.

With four parties contesting every division and a multitude of other parties contesting some divisions, the number of candidates per division ranges from five candidates to sixteen candidates.  When given the House ballot, there is a blank or box besides each candidate for the voters to rank that candidate from one on down.  (For the ballot to count, the voter must rank all candidates.)  The initial count in each division is of the voter's top choice.  (On election night, they also guess at which candidates will be the final two and estimate the two-candidate preferred vote.  This estimate is a good guide as to who will ultimately win and allows the media to project who will form the government.)  After all the votes are counted (and given the absentee voting system it takes some time to get all ballots in).  The last placed candidate is eliminated and those votes are redistributed to their second choice.  This process continues until there are only two candidates and the candidate with the most votes after the final redistribution is elected.

Preferential voting differs from instant run-off voting in that preferential voting does not instantly go to the top two candidates, but starts by eliminating the last place candidate.  If the top two candidates have over 33.34% of the vote, the difference between these two systems is academic as there are not enough votes available to be redistributed to the third-placed candidate to allow that candidate to move into the top two, but in the case of a close three-way or four-way contest, it is possible for the candidate who was third in initial preferences to be elected in a preferential voting system.

The senate election uses a system called single-transferrable vote.  In the Senate election, each party runs a block of at least two candidates (independents can also form a block of candidates).  As in the House, independent candidates need a petition signed by 100 voters.  The deposit for Senate candidates is $AUS2000.

Each party or block can pre-file a list of preferences (or multiple list).  If  a party files such a list, a voter can adopt the list by voting for that party above the line.  Alternatively, a voter can go to the list of individual candidates below the line and rank each of the candidates.  (Not surprisingly, most voters choose to vote above the line.)  With six slots in the state, it takes 14.3% to be elected (33.34% in the territories).  Single transferrable vote is a cross between preferential voting and proportionate representation.  If a party meets the "quota" to be elected, that quota is deducted from their votes and their top candidate is elected. This process continues until all six slots have been filed (unlikely) or until all parties are beneath the quota.  At that point, the process becomes like preferential voting with the bottom parties/candidates eliminated and that party's votes redistributed according to the preference list.  Given the complexity of this system, the calculation of who wins is done entirely by computer.

The advantage of both systems is that it allows voters to express their true preference without fear of wasting a vote.  If your candidate finishes fourth or your party only gets 3% of the Senate vote, your vote gets transferred to your preferred major party candidate so you still get to have a say in the balance of power between Labor and the Coalition.  Admittedly in over 130 of the divisions, the final two candidates will be Labor vs. the Coalition, and in most states at least five of the Senate seats will go to the major parties, but the initial vote allows the 20% who prefer some other party to indicate which party best reflects their preferred policies.

As noted above, key to this system and to the broad rules on absentee voting that I will discuss in future posts is the fact that each voter is only voting in two (or in this year's election, three elections).  This allows separate ballot papers for each election and reduces the complexity of what is a very complex election system to manageable proportion.  In a state that puts county and state elections on the same ballot as federal elections (the norm in the U.S.), it would be very difficult to use preferential voting.

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