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Crikey says: how broken is our electoral system?

How Clive Palmer won the west — ads and clowning around. Selling the climate: master spinners on rebooting momentum. Revenue raising: why land tax should be on the table. Fairfax’s super journalists: the cadets who survived. The independence push from SBS. Mark Scott v Chris Mitchell: will it happen? D-Day for Channel Ten. And the art exhibition that went to court.

Voters in Western Australia, vox-popped ad nauseam by media outlets this week, aren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of returning to polling booths tomorrow to decide Senate seats. Prime Minister Tony Abbott — who had secured three crucial red benchwarmers in September, only to have to risk them all again — has plenty of sympathy. And he’s directing his anger at the Australian Electoral Commission. He warned today:

The tragedy of the vote last time was that in the end, due to the ineptitude of the Australian Electoral Commission, we couldn’t be confident in the results in the last two seats. I think the Australian people are entitled to expect much better performance from the Australian Electoral Commission this time.”

Voters, indeed, are entitled to have faith in the process. That 1370 votes vanished in the general poll last year is at least careless; that 75 votes from an aged-care home had to be declared invalid during voting yesterday hardly restores faith.

But nor can this be a witch-hunt by politicians — led by Clive Palmer, whose bluster on the issue has been embarrassing for a federal MP — inconvenienced by the results. As Crikey’s William Bowe has long argued, the AEC has a pretty faultless record — and our paper-based, hand-counted system will never be flawless.

The Australian today quotes Liberal sources saying yesterday’s blunder is the “final straw” and a “growing group of MPs” are “agitating for root and branch changes at the AEC”. That will concern many electoral watchers who maintain the system isn’t exactly broken.

If there’s a better system that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg — and there are plenty of problems with many of the alternatives — let’s have a proper inquiry and make the transition. A fair dinkum debate in public, not among disgruntled party players in Canberra.

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  • 1
    wayne robinson
    Posted Friday, 4 April 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Agreed. The AEC isn’t exactly broken. But the method used for counting and declaring election results is.

    It has been noted several times that some elections are just too close to be absolutely certain of the results. If you count 1.3 million ballot papers 10 times, you’ll certainly get 10 different answers. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter, because the results are clear cut.

    In the previous senate election, it did matter, because the results weren’t clear, with a difference of just 14 votes.

    In Washington state, with 3 million voters, several years ago the Republican candidate won by around 300 votes. An automatic recount reduced the lead to 30 (a worry, because it meant the winning margin was much less than the uncertainty). So they then had a manual recount, and the Democrat won by 12 votes. They then found 170 votes for the Democrat not previously counted, so they declared the Democrat the victor.

    It’s been suggested that since some elections are very close, with recounts giving widely different divergent results, in the case of very close elections - one count only should be done - and the result decided by the equivalent of a toss of a coin.

    In elections, I’d define ‘too close to call’ as 0.01% (around 130 votes in the WA senate election- meaning that counting is 99.99% accurate). Whenever a decision needs to be made, if the difference is less than 130, then allow chance to determine the result.

    The 1400 lost votes were counted, just not able to be recounted. If they had been available, a recount might have given a result 14 votes the other direction. Or a much larger difference in the original direction. It’s likely that with such a close result, half of an infinite number of counts would have given one result and half the opposite result.

  • 2
    Jaybuoy
    Posted Friday, 4 April 2014 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    its the preferences what done it..

  • 3
    David Brooks
    Posted Saturday, 5 April 2014 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    Broken! Crook? Certainly over burdened! Our electoral system, once the envy of the world, has never been other than broken. It is now the envy of Big Brother.
    The two parts (a) The administration of all the absurd rules the politicians have dreamed up (egged on by the Public Service) to control who, and how the who, may stand for parliament, and (b) the administration of voting, should be separate.
    The former part (a) has nothing to do with voting. It is purely a political activity designed to restrict entry to the parliament to “acceptable” groups. “Acceptable” of course to the political heirarchy of the day. The Rules for this are Machiavellian to the extreme.
    The latter part(b), is surely what the Commission was set up for. Counting votes. Counting by hand is slow, labour intensive, costly and probably the only honest way there is to find out what the people want. All the shenanigins in the U.S. in recent years, hanging chads etc., surely afford good warning against a completely computerised system.

    There are, I believe, voters; the people, those trying to have their tiny say in matters. And our system does not allow that! OMG no! The voting in September 2013, if it were counted correctly (seats allocated in proportion to the numbers voting) would be:
    Labor = 50. Liberal +LNP + Nats+ Country Pty =68. Greens = 13. PUP = 8 Others = 11 We have:

    Labor =55 . Liberal +LNP + Nats+ Country Pty =90. Greens = 1. PUP = 1. Others = 4.
    This is voting? No! It is a sham.

  • 4
    David Brooks
    Posted Saturday, 5 April 2014 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    And a shame!

  • 5
    CML
    Posted Saturday, 5 April 2014 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    David Brooks - I presume your first set of numbers are the results which would have occurred IF we had a nation wide proportional representation system of voting for the House of Representatives (similar to the Hare-Clarke in Tasmania?) We do NOT!
    Our system is a preferential voting one, which presumably produced the second set of numbers you quoted. Both are accepted forms of voting in a democracy, and there are a few others as well. Until the rules are changed, preferential is what we have, so you are being disingenuous in suggesting that somehow preferential is not kosher. We have a form of proportional representation in the Senate, and that is working out well at the moment - NOT!! That is because some people vote differently in each of these systems. It is always the losers in any form of voting that blame the system.
    Then there are yet others who would like to have the whole process computerised. IMHO that would be a disaster. Even a cursory examination of how such a system can be ‘gamed’ in the USA, should be enough to cure anyone of that idea! So the AEC stuffed up in WA. So what? It is a rare occurrence, and is being fixed. Everyone should get over it, especially Clive Palmer, who appears to see a conspiracy around every corner!

  • 6
    AR
    Posted Saturday, 5 April 2014 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    The swamp created by Keating created above the Line voting in the mid 80s allows dubious characters like the “preference whisperer” (does anyone know how much he charges - in cash or kind - for his mathematical machinations?)to slither into the democratic process.
    It was said by PJK (and NOT sotto voce)at the time that this was necessary in the Senate because ALP voters had to take off to take of their shoes to count beyond 10.
    Far simpler would be to abolish the Line (which hugely favours the majors - 97% of the electorate uses that option)and simply legislate that a minimum proportion of the candidates be preferenced, say 10-20%.
    This would help those of us who are spoilt for choice in who to put last as we determinedly number every box.

  • 7
    zut alors
    Posted Saturday, 5 April 2014 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Hear hear, to AR’s suggestion @ #6.

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