And so, here we are. Tomorrow, millions of Victorians will get up, locate their nearest polling booth, and vote. We will collect (or reject) How to Vote cards from the major parties and whatever random sprinkling of minor parties come our way; we will investigate the cake stall and secretly regret that we are too old and too heavy for the jumping castle; we will complain about the length of the lines and the ridiculous size of the ballot paper; and on the way out, we will probably succumb to the lure of the Democracy Sausage, or at least the veggie sausage or the egg and bacon roll. (And woe betide the rebel who puts the onion on top of his sausage!)
And then we will go home, secure in the knowledge that we have voted and that our vote will be counted.
Here are three things I want you to remember tomorrow.
1. It is not possible to waste your vote
Well, OK, it *is* possible to waste your vote if you are determined to do so – you could scribble all over it, fail to number it correctly, leave it completely blank, or draw the traditional meat and two veg. But setting aside the various ways to vote informally, so long as you number all the boxes consecutively, your vote will not be wasted.
We have this idea, which I think we have imported from America, that if you vote for a minor party, your vote is wasted, or somehow gives votes to the ‘other side’. While this can be the case in countries with ‘first past the post’ voting, where a result is calculated simply by who gets the highest number of votes, that is not how things work in Australi because of preferential voting.
For those who don’t know, preferential voting works like this. You number all the boxes consecutively, and when the votes are counted, your vote goes into the pile of votes for the party you put first. If that party has fewer votes than any of the other parties, those votes are redistributed, and your vote will go to whoever you put second on your ballot. If that party now has fewer votes than any other parties, your vote now travels to whoever you put third. And so on, and so on, until there are only two parties left.
What this means is that you can put your favourite tiny party that you know won’t get up in first place – and who knows? Maybe a lot of other people will turn out to feel the same way you do, and your vote will get further than you think! – and if that party doesn’t win, that’s OK, because your vote can still help out the party which you don’t love but which is certainly better than the cackling hyenas that you definitely don’t want in government.
And if you’re wondering what the use of that is, if your tiny party isn’t going to get up anyway, well, if that tiny party gets 4% of the vote, then they get $1.73 per voter to put towards their next campaign. So you can help your tiny party grow, without risking your more realistic electoral bet.
Patrick Alexander has a really good cartoon explaining this, and it’s probably more coherent than what I just wrote.
2. Vote below the line – it’s easier than you think.
Why would you let someone you’ve never met decide where your vote will go?
Look, the way the Upper House vote counting works is confusing, and I can generally understand it for about five minutes at a time before my brain starts melting again, but basically, what we have is something called proportional representation, and what that means is that in your region, you get five senators, and their votes are supposed to each represent what 1/5 of the population in your region wants. Sort of.
Usually, Labor and the Coalition will pick up one fifth of the vote each in a region on first preferences without difficulty, and they will often be close to a second fifth of the vote. This makes sense, if you think about it – they usually get about 35-40% of the primary vote in the Lower House, with the Greens picking up 10-15%, and the rest going to whichever other exciting and random candidates are available.
The battle is usually for the fourth and fifth quotas, and this is where it gets messy, because if you put the Labor or Coalition candidate first, that means that 1/5 of your vote has already been used up, so your preferences are counted, but once they arrive where they are going next, they are only worth 4/5 of a vote for the next candidate.
And that was the sound of my brain melting, so here, have a look at the AEC’s explanation which undoubtedly makes more sense.
Now, let’s add in the fact that you can vote either above or below the line. If you vote above the line, your vote will follow a path pre-determined by the party you put a 1 beside. This year, a lot of these paths lead to very right-wing candidates, or just candidates of extreme dubiousness, like Transport Matters and the Aussie Battlers and you may not want that to happen to your vote.
If you vote below the line, you, and only you, say where your vote goes.
I know that there are a LOT of candidates to number below the line, and in some cases it’s hard to choose between them. And there is always the fear of losing count and mucking up your ballot. But you only have to number 1-5 in this election. Obviously, I think it’s better if you number as far down as you can, so that your vote doesn’t ‘exhaust’ before it hits a candidate who might be able to get in – and Antony Green agrees with me, so it can’t be too mad an idea! However, your vote will still be formal so long as you get those first five right.
Also, if you totally and utterly muck up your numbering below the line and have to cross things out and write things back in and it’s all illegible? That’s OK. All you have to do is go and ask the nice person at the election desk to take your old ballot away and destroy it and give you a new ballot. They are not very keen to do this – they would rather you tried to find a way to make your first ballot legible. But if it’s irretrievable, they will help you.
(Ask me how I know…)
(Yes, the person who writes a ridiculously long voting guide AND her own how to vote card STILL managed to muck up her ballot beyond repair last Federal Election. In my defense, I was jetlagged. But still.)
Anyway, the point is, yes, voting is important and you should take it seriously – and please, I beg of you, vote below the line – but you don’t have to be scared of mucking it up.
You are not going to waste your vote. I promise. Not unless you actively try to.
3. Love your Electoral Commission!
Every so often, someone starts talking about how we need to reform our electoral system in Australia. I am always wary of this, because our electoral system is actually very good. It’s transparent, it’s difficult to rig (except, I suppose, by deceiving the entire population, but no system would be proof against that), and, most importantly of all, it is geared to making sure that everyone gets a vote and every vote has an approximately equal weight.
I don’t know if we realise how lucky we are on that score. I don’t want to pick on other countries’ electoral systems, but I have to say, I was completely astonished to learn that in the USA, electoral boundaries are determined by the party in power in that area, and that it apparently isn’t illegal for someone contesting a race for Governor to be in charge of all the arrangements for that race. This seems like an absolute invitation to corruption and gerrymandering, frankly. And as for the way voter suppression seems to be a deliberate strategy in some areas – the mind just boggles.
Is our system perfect? Of course not – no system could be. But it’s pretty good. We are incredibly lucky to have it.
First, let’s consider the Australian Electoral Commission and its daughter bodies, the various state Electoral Commissions (for this election, we get to love the Victorian Electoral Commission, but this song of praise really applies to all of the Electoral Commissions in Australia). These bodies are independent of the government, and you can’t work for them if you’ve been a member of a political party, or been otherwise politically active. (This blog would be enough to disqualify me, for example.). The AEC is responsible for drawing up electoral boundaries, and they look at census data regularly in order to make sure that no electorate is getting either too big or too small, and if they are, they redraw the boundaries accordingly. I’m not saying gerrymandering is impossible, but it’s much, much harder to get away with. As far as I can find out, nobody has even tried for at least two decades, and probably longer.
And if you don’t trust the AEC to count your vote, that’s OK, because any candidate is allowed to supply scrutineers to look over the shoulders of the people counting votes and object if they think anything has been miscounted or is fishy. I’ve done that job a few times and it’s fascinating – scrutineers also supervise the opening of the ballot boxes, and confirm first that they were properly sealed, and then, once the votes have been removed, that they are empty. AEC workers also check that the number of votes counted match the number of people whose names were ticked off the list. I’ve been there when they didn’t, and had to recount. (And when the names still didn’t match, someone had the fun job of going to check the recycling bin for ballots that might have been ‘lodged’ there…)
Our votes are paper, too which means that they can be recounted, and they are, again and again and again during the course of deciding who wins a seat, and then again some more if the vote is close enough to warrant it. There has been talk of an electronic system, and I believe this has been trialled for people with disabilities that make writing difficult – but even then, the votes themselves were printed out and tallied manually. Yes, manual counting takes longer – but it’s much harder to manipulate.
Second, the AEC tries to make sure that everyone gets a chance to vote, and that their vote is counted (this is the upside of compulsory voting – if every citizen must vote, then every citizen must also have a reasonable opportunity to do so). We’ll start with the simple things – holding our elections on weekends, when fewer people are working, and making sure you can vote no matter which booth you show up at, even if you are interstate (with the rare exception of polling booths dedicated to interstate voters, all polling booths have a handful of ballot papers from every single electorate where an election is being held, so that visitors are catered for). There’s the fact that we have polling places overseas, at our embassies and at airports, and postal votes for people who can’t get to those, and early voting for people whose trip is planned such that they will be overseas but won’t be able to use either of the other options (or who are working on Saturday, or for whom it is the Sabbath, or…). There are the mobile polling places that go to retirement homes and hospitals and prisons and remote communities. And yes, they’ve been known to screw up that last one, but on the whole, the effort is made. And there are the aforementioned technological advances to help people vote, and there are people at the AEC who will fill out your vote according to your instructions, and as much material as possible is provided in multiple languages.
Then, once you have voted, there is a real effort to make sure it is counted accurately. Did you know that if you vote in roman numerals, your vote will still count? (Please don’t do that, it’s no fun for the people counting your ballot…) Or if you draw little flowers, or, well, the other thing that people really like drawing on ballot papers, that doesn’t invalidate your vote, so long as you’ve numbered all the boxes correctly? You can add other random candidates to the ballot paper, too, or write your learned political commentary about the current government or opposition, and none of this invalidates your vote – provided you have numbered the *actual* candidates correctly from 1 to the second last number on the ballot (because the AEC helps you out here, too – if there are six candidates on your ticket and you’ve numbered your ticket from 1 to 5 but left the box beside one of them blank, that blank is presumed to be standing in for a 6, and your vote is valid.)
The intent of the voter is paramount, and the AEC’s workers will do their very best to make sure it is discerned and respected.
On the paper in the upper house, if you vote both above and below the line (do not do this), and muck up one of these, the other half will still be a valid vote. (If you vote both above and below the line and do so correctly, they will count what you did below the line, and ignore what you wrote above it).
And third, of course, we have preferential voting, which brings me back to my point about not wasting your vote.
Are there things I’d change about this system? Well, I’d love it if people could be automatically registered to vote – or at least automatically reminded to register – when they turned 18 (Edited to add: I am informed that if you are issued a driver’s license, this automatically adds you to the electoral roll, which is definitely a step in the right direction). And this election has finally convinced me that Group Voting Tickets have to go – to be honest, they were never great at reflecting the will of the voter, and they no longer even serve the purpose of telling you who someone’s allies are. So that’s no good.
And if we’re going for really crazy Cate reforms here, I’d love to limit parliamentary terms so that politicians have to spend at least part of their life working outside politics and having to deal with the laws they create. I’d love to make parliamentary pensions a lot less grandiose. And I’d love a jury-duty-like system where a certain proportion of the upper house was randomly selected from the general population. Because I think we *do* need more representation in Parliament from people who haven’t made a career of getting there. I want those random veterans, motoring enthusiasts, farmers, perpetual students, taxi drivers, teachers, scientists, unemployed people, single parents, abuse survivors, people with disabilities, and yes, even the odd xenophobe, because they are Australians too, even if they think nobody else is, to have a voice in our Parliament. I want our politicians to have to negotiate on a daily basis with the random Australian from the street. Who I probably won’t agree with on a lot of things. But I still think both our politicians and our Parliament would benefit from this sort of compulsory engagement with the people they are serving.
But I seem to have wandered somewhat off track here.
So I’ll just finish by saying once again, please vote tomorrow. Vote below the line, vote with thought and vote with kindness – and make sure you count all the boxes twice to make sure you don’t miss a number!
If you’ve been reading all these posts, thank you for joining me on this strange journey into the world of Victoria’s tiny political parties. I hope you enjoyed the ride! (If you did enjoy these posts, and would like to express your support in a tangible fashion, I have a tip jar of sorts at Ko.fi.com. But please don’t feel that it is necessary.)
Good luck tomorrow, and may your democracy sausage always have just the right amount of onion on it.