Australian Federal Elections: A Brief Overview of Preferences.

Trading Preferences: A Closer Look

As expected, the media is always rife with discussions on trading preferences whenever a general election or by-election is nearing. While this may sound like a concrete process, in reality, it is much more convoluted.

What is a Preference?

All elections, be it for the lower or upper house at the federal, state or territory level, require or encourage voters to allocate preferences to the candidates mentioned on the ballot paper. In a preferential voting system, like the one used in Australia for the House of Representatives, if a candidate manages to secure over 50% of the votes in the first preference, they are declared elected. However, if no candidate secures over 50% of the votes in the first preference, the candidate with the lowest number of first preference votes is excluded. The preferences on these ballot papers are then distributed among the remaining candidates.

When a candidate has at least 50% of the votes from their own first preference votes combined with preferences transferred from excluded candidates, that candidate is then declared elected. However, under a full preferential voting system like the one used for the federal House of Representatives election, the final two candidates in every contest, also known as the 'two candidate preferred' or 'TCP candidates', will not have their preferences distributed.

As a result, all the ballot papers that indicate a first preference for any candidate other than the final two will be counted towards either one of these two TCP candidates. This system does not allow for any formal ballot that does not count towards either of the two TCP candidates as all candidates on the ballot paper must be numbered, meaning a preference must be given to one of the two TCP candidates over the other.

Therefore, in a contest where the TCP candidates are from the Labor and Liberal parties, for instance, all formal ballots will count towards either the Labor or Liberal candidate's total, irrespective of whom the voter preferred or in what order. Hence, it does not make sense to say that 'candidate A beat candidate B on the preference of candidate C', given that the voters allocate the preferences and not the candidate.

While the majority of contests in a federal election have one TCP candidate from the Labor party and the other from the Liberal/National Coalition (136 divisions in the 2019 federal election), such contests are referred to as 'classic' divisions. The preferences from candidates of both parties are not distributed; therefore, they are not counted by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). As a result, the preferences of most voters who vote for Labor or the Coalition with their first preference remain unknown.

Distribution of preferences for Senate elections is far more complicated, and in these contests, a winning candidate's preferences may be distributed. In a Senate election, voters are allowed to allocate preferences above or below the party line. A detailed account of how the ballot count in Senate elections works can be found in the prior Library publication.

How do Candidates Direct Preferences?

Technically speaking, candidates cannot allocate preferences; voters do. The only way a candidate can dictate preferences is by informing their supporters what order they would like candidates to be listed on their ballot paper. This is typically done in an Australian election through the creation of a How To Vote (HTV) card that specifies the candidate's preferred preference distribution. The HTV cards are then distributed to the candidate's supporters. The candidates have a stake in where their votes end up, that is ballot papers that give them a first preference.

Moving up the count, a candidate who lacks sufficient support to become one of the final two candidates in an election may opt to throw their support behind another candidate with whom they share ideological principles. In so doing, their first preference votes will count against that candidate.

Occasionally, a candidate's allocation of preferences may serve a more symbolic function or signify a particular stance. For example, a candidate who is highly likely to become one of the two final candidates may state that they are placing a particular candidate last on their HTV card, despite the slim chance that their preferences will actually be distributed in such a way.

The success of an HTV card in directing preferences ultimately hinges on two factors: whether the candidate's supporters receive the cards, and whether they choose to follow them.

Distributing HTV cards is typically accomplished by party members and volunteers at polling places. Some states require parties to register HTV cards for state elections with the state electoral commission, which then hosts those HTV cards on a centralized website as a repository for voters seeking to follow a specific candidate's HTV card. For instance, this is the case in New South Wales, Queensland, and South Australia. The state of South Australia even prints HTV cards on voting screens within polling places. However, none of these options are available for federal elections.

Smaller and newer parties that lack a substantial grassroots membership base and the financial resources to pay people may find it difficult to direct their preferences, particularly in a general election where polls abound. Reports from various media outlets have documented several methods used by smaller parties to mobilize volunteers, including hiring backpackers and posting tasks on job outsourcing websites. Nevertheless, covering approximately 7,000 polling places at a federal election would get expensive, with costs at around $100 per person. Therefore, parties with limited resources may need to focus on directing their preferences to a more manageable number of seats.

Chart - Voters who used a HTV card in 2016 and 2019, by party voted for in the House of Representatives

Ultimately, a voter's allocation of preferences is still up to them, despite a candidate's recommended ordering on an HTV card. Due to the anonymity of voting, it is impossible to know whether voters who receive HTV cards actually follow them. Nonetheless, the results of the Australian Election Study (AES) illustrate a significant variation in HTV card use among different parties. In both the 2016 and 2019 elections, half of all Liberal voters admitted to using HTV cards, whereas turnout among other parties ranged from around 30-40%.

Less than five percent of voters for One Nation adhered to a how-to-vote (HTV) card, albeit figures for smaller parties may not necessarily represent all voters for those parties due to the sample size being quite small.

The use of HTV cards in the 2016 and 2019 elections is another way of determining the voters' preferences. However, it could be difficult to establish if a voter followed an HTV card or if they coincidentally ranked their preferences the same way as an HTV card.

Determining preference compliance for major parties like the Labor and Coalition can also be complex as their preferences are usually not distributed in federal elections. In a number of contested seats between the Greens and Labor, where Liberal preferences were distributed, it was found that a relatively high level of Liberal voters followed HTV cards in those seats.

Some state electoral commissions carry out audits of HTV card compliance. In South Australia, where HTV cards are printed on the voting screen, increasing accessibility to voters, an audit showed that in the 2018 state election, 37.7 percent of all formal ballots followed HTV cards. It was also noted that polling places in South Australia had better HTV card compliance.

The survey after the 2019 NSW state election reported HTV card compliance, but no specific details were disclosed. It should be noted that the data for smaller parties was based on a limited number of respondents and may not accurately represent the entire group.

A study was conducted regarding the usage of How to Vote (HTV) cards, which revealed that the majority of voters (63%) did not use them in the Australian Senate election of 2016. Of those who did use HTV cards aligned with a political party, 53% of Coalition voters and 80% of Greens voters ignored them, similar to the findings of the Australian Election Study. The research also reported that the highest number of HTV card usage among voters (83%) belonged to those considered "rusted on," although it is unclear what the term means in this context.

The Parliamentary Library's examination of the 2016 Senate election's preference distribution found that HTV card compliance varied significantly. For example, nearly one-third of Coalition voters in New South Wales, followed the party's HTV card as their third preference, while only 1.4% of Labor voters did. In contrast, in Queensland, where One Nation performed well in the Senate, only 10.36% of One Nation voters selected the Australian Liberty Alliance, the second-party listed on One Nation's Senate HTV card, as their second preference. Nearly the same proportion, 9.95%, preferred the Liberal National Party of Queensland instead.

Chart - Percentage following ‘How to Vote’ card for House of Representatives

It is worth noting that 2016 was the first time in recent memory that HTV cards were used for the Senate, and it's possible voters are still getting used to them. Furthermore, according to the Australian Election Study, people are using HTV cards less over time. For instance, while in 1996 more than half of House of Representative voters used an HTV card, but by 2016, only a third of voters did.

HTV cards play a role in helping voters cast formal votes - those that are correctly filled out and counted in the election - in addition to guiding a candidate's supporters on how to vote. According to Kevin Bonham, a respected election analyst, HTV cards' main purpose is promoting formality. This is particularly true in constituencies with a high number of non-native English speakers or in races with a large number of candidates, leading voters to be prone to numbering errors.

Research conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) about informal voting in the 2013 federal election found that regions with high levels of social exclusion often had more informal voting. The paper argued that factors like low educational attainment and a lack of English proficiency could contribute to voters submitting blank ballots because of linguistic difficulties or insufficient comprehension of the Australian electoral system. Similarly, when the number of candidates on the ballot paper rose, the AEC observed an increase in non-sequential or incomplete numbering that resulted in an increased informality rate. Additionally, if the number of candidates changed between elections, then voters would be more inclined to misnumber ballots.

In 2013, Dr. Andrew Leigh, a Labor MP for the ACT's Fraser electorate (now known as Fenner), issued a How-to-Vote (HTV) card that preferred himself as the first choice and right-wing parties like Rise Up Australia over the Greens. He justified this decision on the basis that Fraser was a safe Labor seat, and his preferences were unlikely to be distributed, as it turned out to be true. He prioritized formality over anything else since pointlessly worrying about the minuscule chance of Labor preferences getting distributed was futile.

How-to-Vote cards are an effortless way for candidates to ensure that the votes of their supporters are counted accurately, as accidental errors can occur while allocating up to 22 preferences.

Preferences play a vital role in Australian Federal Elections because they are now being counted more frequently due to the declining use of HTV cards. When no candidate has garnered at least 50% of the primary vote, preferences come into play. Over time, the number of seats won by candidates with less than 50% of the primary vote has been increasing (Figure 3).

Chart - _Percentage of seats in federal elections where preferences were counted to determine the winner

Despite preferences being counted more frequently, candidates who are ahead in primary votes usually win, and in recent elections, the preferences resulted in the candidate with the highest primary votes losing only in around 10% of the cases. Preferences play a small part in changing election results.

Preferences may also be important for candidates and parties since they can be 'traded' or directed towards other parties for mutual gain. In some cases, featuring as a preferred party by a major party on their HTV card provides free publicity and a boost to the party's vote. They may also qualify for more funding per-vote.

Public funding has been a topic of interest in political campaigns, particularly when it comes to the distribution of How-to-Vote (HTV) cards. While some may argue that these deals are more about ideological signaling than strategic electoral success, they are still pursued aggressively as elections near. Despite debates about the effectiveness of HTV cards in directing preferences, their value in terms of signaling and potentially securing additional directed preferences ensures that preferencing discussions will continue in the foreseeable future. Every vote counts during an election, making the perceived benefit of securing HTV deals and distributing cards likely to outweigh the financial costs of production.

Before 2014 in the Senate system, voters above the line had their preferences distributed according to a group voting ticket provided by their chosen party to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). Only voters who elected to number every box below the line could direct their own preferences.

For those interested in accessing linked materials, please note that some items are only available to members of Parliament due to copyright restrictions.

This publication, excluding the Commonwealth Coat of Arms and any third-party copyrighted materials, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia license. Essentially, you may copy and communicate the work for non-commercial purposes as long as you attribute the work to the author and comply with all other license terms. The work may not be modified or adapted in any way. When referencing the content, please provide the author(s), publication title, series name and number, publisher, and date. If third-party copyright material is present, you must obtain permission from the original owner before using the material.

This work has been prepared to support the Australian Parliament and was based on information available at the time of production. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Parliamentary Library and do not constitute professional legal opinions. Any concerns or complaints should be directed to the Parliamentary Librarian, who is available to discuss publication contents with Senators, Members, and their staff. To access this service, please contact the author or the Library's Central Entry Point for referral.

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