A Comparison of Overseas and Domestic Votes in the 2019 Senate Election

The changes that were first implemented in 2016 were used for the second time in the Senate election in 2019. The changes did not alter the use of proportional representation based on a single transferable vote, and they did not alter the use of the divided ballot paper that has been in use since 1984. 'Above the line' (ATL) refers to voting for parties and groups, and 'below the line' (BTL) refers to voting for candidates. A thick line continues to divide the ballot paper into these two categories of voting options.

As a result of the amendments, full preferential voting was replaced with partial preferential voting, and parties lost their ability to control how between-party preferences were distributed.

Before the changes were made, voters could only mark a single square when voting ATL, and the ballot paper would be interpreted as having the selected party's complete list of preferences as registered with the Electoral Commission.

ATL voters were given the opportunity to express their second and subsequent preferences under the new system, which eliminated the need for tickets and mandated that ballot instructions include at least six options. Above the line votes continued to give political parties and groups control over preferences between their own candidates, but they ended party control over preferences to other parties and candidates.

In the past, in order to cast a BTL vote, a voter was required to indicate their preferences for each candidate on the ballot. Instructions on the ballot paper for the new system required voters to indicate at least 12 preferences in order to participate in the BTL system.

In an earlier post, I discussed the political repercussions of these changes and how the system fared in its second test, which was the first time it was put to the test during a election for a half of the Senate. (For details on how the new Senate Electoral System fared in its first test during the Half-Senate Election, see How the System Performed.)

I'm going to take a look in this post at how voters responded to the new voting system and whether or not they voted above or below the line to determine how they felt the new system affected them. I count the number of preferences that voters have selected for each possibility.

This will be the first of several posts that will be published over the next two weeks that go into detail about how the Senate count transpired in each state, how preferences flowed, and what impact parties and their how-to-vote instructions had on preference flows.

About the Original Source of the Data

The information contained in each table was obtained from the ballot paper data that was made public by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). The data include a record of all of the marks that were made on the formal ballot papers that were counted. It takes into account all of the numbers that are legible on each ballot, both above and below the line. It was necessary to clean up the file in order to resolve ballot papers that were marked above and below the line and to get rid of additional preferences that went beyond breaks or duplicates in preference sequences. The data set does not contain any unofficial polls or votes.

What Exactly Is an Official Vote?

The instructions on the ballot paper instruct voters to circle at least six choices if they want to cast an ATL vote, and at least 12 choices if they want to cast a BTL vote. In addition, the Electoral Act provides counting staff with instructions on how to handle ballot papers that are not completed in accordance with the instructions. These provisions are referred to as savings provisions, and they are –

  • Any ballot paper that has markings above the line is considered formal as long as it had at least one preference that was valid. This includes a single checkmark or cross that is interpreted as a 1 value. According to this rule, a ballot is considered formal if it contains fewer than six preferences for ATL.
  • A ballot is considered formal if it has been marked below the line and contains at least six preferences.
  • After a predetermined number of candidates have been selected, a ballot can be considered official. On a formal ballot paper, if a subsequent preference breaks or duplicates a preference, the ballot paper is formal up to the point where the break or duplicate occurs.
  • In the event that the BTL preference sequence is formal, any ballot paper with markings both above and below the line will be counted as a BTL vote.
  • Any ballot paper marked above and below that was informal below the line will use the ATL preference sequence if it is formal even if it was marked informal below the line.

Due to these factors, the totals for votes that were cast but not counted officially due to the existence of savings provisions are included in the tables that can be found below.

A Synopsis of the Ballot Papers

The following table provides, for each state and territory, as well as nationally, the percentage of formal ballot papers cast in each category. The following are the categories:

  • papers for voting that have a single number "1" printed above the line
  • ballot papers containing preferences ranging from 2-5 ATL
  • ballot papers containing the recommended preferences for the six ATL positions
  • ballot papers with seven to twelve preferences above the line, with twelve being the recommended total number of preferences below the line
  • ballot papers containing preferences for more than 12 ATL
  • BTL ballot papers

Table 2 presents an analysis of the same data for the election in 2016. Next to the state code, the number of groups that are represented on the ballot is printed.

You are free to look through the tables in their entirety down below; however, the most important takeaways are as follows:

  • There was not a significant amount of shift in the way that voters filled out their ballot papers in either 2016 or 2019.
  • At both of these elections, the proportion of votes cast in NSW that were only for an ATL first preference was the highest of any state. 3% in 2016 and 5 5% in 2019 Both figures pertain to the use of optional preferential voting at elections held in New South Wales (NSW), including on the ballot paper for the upper house of the state's legislature. Two months prior to the national election, a state election was held in New South Wales. During House elections in New South Wales, the percentage of people voting informally is almost always higher, and this is typically due to a high rate of voting "1" only.
  • The percentage of ballots that had fewer than six preferences for ATL candidates ranged from 3 to 7 percent overall. 6% in the ACT, compared to 9 6% in NSW In the absence of the provision for savings, these ballot papers would have been considered informal.
  • 80 percent of votes counted had at least six preferences, which was the minimum number of choices suggested. 0%, which is a slight decrease from 81 6% in 2016 The rates that were the lowest were 60 3.0% in Tasmania, and 65.0% in total 4% in the ACT, where many voters chose the BTL option because they were familiar with the Hare-Clark system from previous local elections. The low percentage of 6-preference ATL votes that were received in the NT (66 5%) was not due to BTL voting, but rather due to a significantly higher rate of voters selecting more than six preferences on a 9-column ballot paper. A higher percentage of voters chose more than six options on the ACT ballot because it had seven columns.
  • As the size of the ballot paper was reduced, the percentage of voters who selected more than 12 preferences increased, going from 0 to 100. 8% in New South Wales with 35 columns, compared to 4 0% on the island of Tasmania, with 16 In either the ACT or the NT, there were not enough columns to go beyond the number 12.
  • Tasmanian (27 7%), as well as on the ACT (22 2 percent) recorded by far the highest rate of below the line voting, again most likely as a result of previous experience with the Hare-Clark electoral system during local elections. The number for Tasmania fell from 28 to 27, a marginal decrease. 1% in 2016, an increase from the ACT's previous 15 2% in 2016 Jim Molan, who was fourth on the Coalition ticket but campaigned for below the line votes and recorded 137,325 votes or 2 percent of the total, was largely responsible for the increase in below the line voting in the state of New South Wales (NSW). 92% of the votes cast in the state Molan tallied a total of 42 6% of the vote in the BTL in New South Wales
  • From 2006 to 2008, there was a marginal increase in the number of ballots cast below the line at the national level. 5% to 7 3%
  • The number of voters in each state who filled out all squares above the line was as follows: New South Wales 16,854 0 4%), Victoria 8,845 (0 2%), Queensland 11,579 (0 4 percentage points), Western Australia 18,733 (1 3.0%), South Australia 29,372 (2.0%), and 7%), Tasmania 6,038 (1 7%), ACT 24,074 (8 9%), as well as Northern Territory 8549 (8 1%) It's possible that a lot of extra voters tried to fill in all the numbers but made a mistake. All official ballots were counted for these percentages.
Number of Voting Papers as a Percentage Number of Preferences That Are Considered to Be Above the Line Below Groups of the State 1 2-5 6 7-12 >12 Line NSW (35) 5.5 4.1 78.6 4.2 0.8 6.9 VIC (31) 3.1 3.6 83.0 3.8 0.7 5.8 QLD (26) 1.7 3.1 82.5 4.6 1.2 6.9 WA (23) 2.7 3.1 80.8 5.9 2.0 5.5 SA (16) 3.0 2.7 79.6 3.8 3.3 7.6 TAS (16) 1.3 2.4 60.3 4.9 4.0 27.1 ACT (7) 1.6 2.0 65.4 8.9 22.2 NT (9) 2.6 3.0 66.5 19.5 8.3 Australia 3.5 3.5 80.0 4.5 1.2 7.3 Number of Voting Papers as a Percentage Number of Preferences That Are Considered to Be Above the Line Below Groups of the State 1 2-5 6 7-12 >12 Line NSW (41) 4.3 4.1 81.3 4.3 0.6 5.4 VIC (38) 1.9 3.5 83.9 4.5 0.8 5.3 QLD (38) 1.6 3.3 83.6 4.6 0.8 6.1 WA (28) 1.9 3.4 83.7 4.2 1.2 5.5 SA (23) 2.0 2.9 79.5 5.3 1.8 8.5 TAS (21) 0.9 2.1 61.3 5.0 2.7 28.1 ACT (10) 1.2 1.7 70.7 11.1 15.2 NT (7) 2.1 2.4 51.3 35.6 8.6 Australia 2.6 3.5 81.6 4.9 0.8 6.5

Voting Below the Line (or BTL)

The ATL analysis presented in the tables above is repeated below in Table 3, which covers below the line votes for 2019. When votes were cast below the line, ballots that contained fewer than six preferences on the BTL were considered informal. The provision for savings that allows a vote to be cast with only six of the twelve suggested preferences filled out ensures that any voter who completes a BTL vote after having read the ATL instructions will ultimately finish casting a formal vote.

The following categories of BTL vote are broken down into their respective percentages in Table 3:

  • ballots containing at least six preferences, as required by the provisions governing savings
  • ballots containing seven to eleven different preferences
  • ballot papers bearing the 12 BTL preferences that were suggested
  • ballots containing between 13 and one fewer preferences than there are candidates (Max), depending on the number of candidates. This maximum allowed varied significantly from state to state.
  • ballot papers on which a voter was able to successfully complete a sequence of preferences for every candidate listed on the ballot (Max)
  • The final columns provide an average of the number of preferences that were recorded correctly on the formal ballots. The median value was 12 across all states, with the skewed distribution indicating that the average was significantly higher than the median.

On the left, next to the state code, is a listing that provides the total number of candidates.

Although I do not have data from 2016 to compare them with, the following observations can be made based on the data from 2019.

  • The number 7 had the highest rate of preferences for only 6 2% in both New South Wales and Victoria, which together account for 10% of voters who have fewer than 12 preferences. The number of respondents with ten or fewer preferences was highest for the NT. 8%), and the ACT scored the lowest of all three ( 0%) On a national level 5 2% of ballots had only six formal preferences, and a total of eight preferences overall. 0% of people preferred fewer than 12 different options. In the absence of the provision for savings, these ballot papers would have been considered informal.
  • In the same way that was observed with the ATL votes, the number of completed preferences increased while the number of candidates decreased. If a voter had to search through the massive ballot paper in New South Wales (35 groups ungrouped, 105 candidates), they might have been more likely to give up after finding only 12 candidates, in comparison to voters in South Australia (42 candidates) and Tasmania (43 candidates). ACT (17) and NT (18) used ballot papers that were more manageable in size and could be read without having to fold the voting screen's side up.
  • Because there were fewer candidates to choose from in the ACT and NT, the proportion of voters who filled in every square was significantly higher.
  • New South Wales (NSW) had the fewest preferences, on average, for each BTL sequence, compared to the other states (13). 9) and Washington having the highest (18). 7) Because there were fewer people interested in the position, the numbers in the ACT and NT were lower.
  • The number of voters in each state who filled out all below-the-line squares was as follows: New South Wales 3,450 0 07%), Victoria 10,147 (0 27%), Queensland 7,569 (0 26%), Western Australia 6,975 (0 48 percentage points, South Australia with 12,333 (1 16%), Tasmania 11,938 (3 39%), ACT 20,055 (7 42%, and the Northern Territory with 2,224 12%) It's possible that a lot of extra voters tried to fill in all the numbers but made a mistake. Take note that the percentages shown above are based on all of the formal votes cast, whereas the percentages shown in the Max column below are based on votes cast below the line.
The percentage of ballots that were marked below the line Condition (Cands) 6 7-11 12 13 to

< Max

Max Avge
Prefs NSW (105) 7.2 2.8 72.6 16.3 1.1 13.9 VIC (82) 7.2 2.8 55.7 29.6 4.7 17.5 QLD (83) 3.8 3.0 70.2 19.3 3.8 16.2 WA (67) 4.2 3.0 61.0 23.1 8.8 18.7 SA (42) 2.7 2.3 61.9 18.3 14.9 17.3 TAS (44) 2.4 2.7 62.2 20.1 12.5 17.0 ACT (17) 1.0 2.0 58.8 4.8 33.4 13.7 NT (18) 5.5 5.3 57.8 6.0 25.5 13.2 Australia 5.2 2.8 65.2 19.8 7.0 15.9
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