Report of the Electoral Matters Committee

ParlVicThe Parliament of the Australian state of Victoria’s Electoral Matters Committee released the report of its Inquiry into the future of Victoria’s electoral administration. It’s a lengthy (144 pages) report, and much of it deals with the nitty-gritty of voting in the State of Victoria. Chapter 3, however, might be of more general interest to Canadians who advocate for the adoption of the preferential ballot (aka the ranked ballot, or the Alternative Vote).

There are two different voting systems used in the State of Victoria. Full preferential voting is used to elect Members to the Legislative Assembly, while single transferable vote (STV) is used to elect the upper chamber, the Legislative Council.

Full preferential means that for a ballot to count, what is known in Australia as a formal ballot, the voter has to rank, in order of preference, every single candidate listed on the ballot. If the voter fails to do so, theirs becomes an informal ballot and is not counted – what we here in Canada would call a spoiled ballot.

While one of the main concerns about voting here in Canada is undoubtedly the issue of voter turnout, this is not the case in Australia, which has compulsory voting. Instead, the main concern around the use of full preferential is the increase in the number of informal ballots. This isn’t a phenomenon limited to the State of Victoria; the rates of informal voting are increasing in most Australian jurisdictions, both at the state and federal level.

At the 2010 Victorian state election, the rate of informal voting for the Legislative Assembly was 4.96%, which means that just under 5% of the ballots cast couldn’t be counted because they hadn’t been filled in properly. This is the highest rate of information voting ever, and a 50% increase over the 2002 election. While I can understand why this trend would worry people, when contrasted to Canadian elections which see a voter turnout barely topping 50% at times, I can’t help but see this as a relatively mild concern. Yet, it is a problem, and Chapter Three of the report looks at ways to try to reverse this trend.

Long story short, the Committee put forward the following recommendation:

Recommendations 3.1: The Committee recommends the Victoria Government amend the Electoral Act 2002 (Vic) to introduce a system of optional preferential voting (OPV) for Victorian Legislative Assembly elections. In drafting these amendments the Victorian Government should examine the model of OPB used in NSW and Queensland.

Both New South Wales and Queensland use what the report calls “full” Optional Preferential Voting (OPV). Electors in NSW and Queensland have the choice of voting for one candidate, more than one candidate, or all of the candidates on the ballot paper. In other words, they don’t have to rank every single candidate on the ballot paper; they can rank only their first choice, or rank as many or as few as they please. Both states have lower rates of informal voting than Victoria; the rate for the 2011 Legislative Assembly election in NSW was 3.2%, while the rate in the 2012 Queensland Legislative Assembly vote was 2.2%.

While the rate of informal voting (spoiled ballots) might be better under full OPV, it has other problems associated with it. The report does reference these. The most glaring one, to me at least, is that because voters can choose to rank only one candidate on their ballot, there is a risk that full OPV becomes a de facto First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system. And indeed, there is evidence that this is happening. In 2011, the Queensland Attorney General reported to Cabinet on Queensland’s OPV voting system and noted that in the 2009 state election, 63% of ballot papers were marked “1” only. At the 2006 election, the rate was 62%. Up until 2001, the rate had been significantly lower – only 20.7% in 1995, for example.

Why does this matter? As I have explained in numerous past posts on this topic, the only advantage any type of ranked ballot has over FPTP is that it is supposed to eliminate candidates being elected without majority support. As we all know, under FPTP, it isn’t unusual for candidates to win with minority support, meaning, they receive less than 50% of the votes cast. A majority of MPs in both the UK and Canadian Houses of Commons were elected with less than 50% support – often a lot less.

There is significant support for adopting preferential voting in Canada – both federally and more recently, it has been proposed for municipalities in Ontario. I don’t think anyone in Canada is proposing full preferential – requiring voters to rank every single candidate on the ballot paper – at least, every single discussion I have seen on the topic here in Canada refers to optional preferential. However, I have also never seen anyone address this reality about OPV – that not all voters will bother to rank candidates, and if most ballots are marked with “1” only, then we’ll still be stuck with essentially a FPTP system.

Another problem with OPV is that it favours the candidate in first place on the first count. Or as Antony Green put it: “Optional preferential voting makes it easier for the candidate leading on first preferences to reach 50% of a shrinking pool of votes in the count, and harder for a second placed candidate to come from behind and win.” This again reinforces the FPTP-ness of OPV.

Full preferential is problematic in its own right, however. Most ballot papers here in Canada have more than 3-4 candidates on them. While it might be easy enough for most voters to rank candidates from the big parties, how do you then rank independents and candidates representing fringe parties you may never have heard of? Or take the mayoral race for the City of Toronto – while only a handful of candidates get any real media coverage, there are over 40 candidates actually running for mayor at time of writing. Who on earth would even want to attempt to rank all of them in some sort of order of preference?

While the Victoria Electoral Matters Committee is favouring OPV, I think my preferred option would be Modified OPV, as used in Tasmania. It’s sort of a hybrid of full and optional preferential. In Tasmania, for a vote to count, the voter is encouraged to rank at least five candidates. They can rank more than five if they want, but the rest are optional (but they can rank fewer than five too — it’s a recommendation, not an actual rule). I think this would be a good compromise for any jurisdiction in Canada that might adopt preferential voting. It would ensure that the system doesn’t resort back to a de facto FPTP system, but at the same time, wouldn’t force Canadians into making (too many) “artificial” choices. I would suggest, however, making it obligatory for a voter to rank a minimum of three candidates for the ballot to count.

If you’re interested in the Electoral Matters Committee report, it can be downloaded here.

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