Hobson’s Choice – guide to preferential voting

Hobson’s Choice – preferential voting sand photo by Bob Wilson

By Laurel Wilson

I wasn’t born in Australia, but I got here as quick as I could, and have been here a long time, having been educated in Brisbane (or at least I went to school and University there.) But I don’t recall being taught anything about our voting system. Perhaps it was considered to be not all that relevant, as the minimum voting age was 21 at the time.

After finishing a Dip.Ed. at the University of Queensland, I eventually landed a teaching job in Stanthorpe – regarded in those days as a ‘hardship’ post, perhaps because it was considered to be a long way from Brisbane and it was rumoured to snow there at times in winter.

As most teachers would have experienced, the newer teachers were generally assigned to what was considered to be the ‘less desirable’ classes – in my case, this included the 9B2E2- Industrial Boys class. I really liked those kids and found them to be intelligent and respectful. We all struggled through sessions of ‘Citizenship Education’, known, it must be confessed, by teachers and students alike, as ‘Shit Ed’, such was the turgid quality of the textbook.

Having to teach the subject did, however, result in my having first to grasp and then explain the concept of ‘preferential voting’ to my class of young boys.

So, dear readers, it has come to this – there’s an election on in Queensland tomorrow to decide whether we’re to have three years of a Labor Government (we will have four year terms from 2020 onwards), or whether the Liberal-National Coalition will resume where they left off nearly three years ago. There is, of course, the possibility that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation may get the nod.

In a system which I understand is particular (some would say peculiar) to Australia, voting is compulsory and elections are decided by a system of ‘preferential voting’, rather than the more common ‘first past the post’ system used in most other countries. To add to the complications, Queensland has reverted to ‘full preferential voting’, rather than the ‘optional preferential’ system used last election. This means that we must now place a number next to every candidate on the ballot paper in order of preference. Until recently, I was unaware that this change had occurred. I suspect this move was done rather quietly in some midnight Parliamentary sitting, but it may have just been the fact that I have, for some time, eschewed reading newspapers and watching TV news.

Those who already have a grasp on our voting system may choose to stop reading now, or continue if you’re curious to see whether someone who wasn’t born here can actually understand and explain the intricacies of ‘preferential voting’….

[For those not living in Queensland, the main parties contesting the election are Labor (incumbents- centre-left oriented, the original ‘workers’ party’); LNP- a coalition of Liberal (not the North American version of Liberal) and National parties (centre-right); Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (further to the right on many issues, populist); The Greens (emphasising environmental and social issues) and Katter’s Australia Party (rural conservatives). Some electorates will also have ‘Independents’- not officially aligned with any party.]

The ‘first past the post’ system of electing representatives has never been the case in Queensland. Preferential voting was introduced here in 1892 – 26 years before Prime Minister Billy Hughes introduced it for Federal elections, including the Senate. The rationale apparently was to allow competition between the conservative parties without risking seats. That worked out just fine, then.

The drawback of the preferential system is that a person can win a seat with as little as 35% or even less of the popular vote, providing there are more than 2 candidates vying for election in that seat. Of course when there are only 2 candidates, ‘preferential voting’ is not really relevant, as one candidate is bound to secure more than 50% of the valid votes on the first count. (I did ask Mr FOMM what would happen if there was a draw – we came to the conclusion that there would have to be a by-election. Any better ideas?)

To give an example of the ‘first past the post system’: – in this imaginary electorate, there are 1000 valid votes cast.

Candidate A from the ‘Let’s Not Party’ party gets 350 votes

Candidate B from the ‘Up the Workers’ party gets 300 votes

Candidate C representing the ‘Treehuggers’ gets 200

Candidate D from the ‘Please Explain’ party gets 125

And Candidate E – an Independent gets 75

If this were ‘first past the post’, candidate A from the ‘Let’s Not Party’ party would win, leaving 650 electors NOT getting their choice of candidate.

Under the full preferential system, electors must vote for all the candidates in the voter’s order of preference – e.g. candidate A was the ‘first preference’ of 350 voters, candidate B was the first preference of 300 voters and so on. A candidate must get 50%+ 1 of the votes to win. In the above example, no candidate has gained 50% +1 of the votes on ‘first preferences’, so that is when ‘second (and often third) preferences’ come into play.

Every valid vote must have a person’s preferences marked 1 to 5 in the above example, as there are 5 candidates. The next step is to count the ‘second preferences’ of the candidate with the lowest number of ‘first preference’ votes. This candidate is then eliminated from the count. In this case, the second preferences of those who voted for candidate E are counted. Say 50 of these go to candidate B and 25 to candidate C

The new count is:

A gets 350 +0    = 350

B gets 300 + 50 = 350

C gets 200 + 25 =  225

D gets 125 +0 = 125

(Candidate E eliminated)

Still no-one with 501 or more, so the 2nd preferences of candidate D are counted and candidate D is eliminated from the ‘race’. 100 people voting for candidate D have marked candidate B as their second preference and 25 have marked candidate A as their second preference

A gets 350 +0    =   350+25= 375

B gets 300 + 50 = 350+100= 450

C gets 200 + 25 =   225+0= 225

D gets 125 +0 =   125- preferences distributed and candidate D eliminated

STILL no-one with 500+1, so the 2nd preferences of candidate C are counted and candidate C is then eliminated from the ‘race’. 100 people voting for candidate C have marked candidate A as their next preference and 125 have marked candidate B as their next preference. (At the risk of losing the plot, but to be completely accurate, I must add that the 2nd preferences of 200 of candidate C’s voters are counted, as candidate C was their first choice, but the 3rd preferences of 25 people are counted, as candidate C was their 2nd choice)

A gets 350 +0    =   350+25=375+100=475

B gets 300 + 50 =350+100=450+125=575

C gets 200 + 25 =   225+0=225 preferences distributed and candidate C eliminated

Finally, we have a winner – candidate B from the ‘Up the Workers’ party is the first,  second (or third) preference of the majority of voters. I guess you could say this means ‘B’ is the least disliked of the candidates, so gets the nod.

So over to you, good Queenslanders. Be sure to vote on Saturday, and don’t forget to number all the squares on the ballot paper to be sure that your vote counts. And in the true tradition of elections, have a polling day sausage in a blanket and be nice to the people distributing ‘how to vote’ cards – they might just come in handy this time.

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