There’s been an awful lot of attention on the Australian Electoral Commission lately. In the wake of entirely unknown candidates getting catapulted into the Senate, Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is currently conducting an inquiry into the conduct of the 2013 election, and every man and his dog has an opinion on what needs to change.

So far most of the attention has been on the method of voting, with a shift to optional preferential voting and getting rid of group voting tickets amongst the popular ideas. But there’s one thing that’s not getting much attention: the method by which Senate votes are actually counted. 

As William Bowe pointed out last week in his analysis of Western Australian Senate results, the transfer value of HEMP votes depends on how early in the count the Palmer United Party is declared elected. On current projections, it is HEMP preferences that push PUP over a quota and get the party elected. When this happens, all votes that sit with PUP are transferred to the next highest preferenced candidate, at a greatly reduced transfer value.

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However, if PUP were to collect enough votes to fill a quota and get elected before HEMP is eliminated, then the HEMP votes transfer to Labor at full value. This entirely arbitrary line could mean a difference in the margin between the Liberals and Labor by as much as 3000 votes — possibly enough to change the result.

This weird abnormality comes about because of the way preferences are transferred. When a candidate reaches a quota and is elected, all of that candidate’s votes are transferred at a lower value to the candidate who has the next highest preference on each vote. The transfer value is calculated based on the number of votes by which the candidate exceeded the quota.

Once that transfer has been done, the rest of the count proceeds as though the elected candidate never existed. If a vote is transferred later that happens to preference the elected candidate, the vote simply jumps over that candidate and on to the candidate with the next highest preference, with no change in value.

The fact that votes can have different values based arbitrarily on whether or not they happen to be sitting with a candidate when they are elected runs counter to our idea that all votes should be treated equally and have the same weight.

There are a few methods that treat individual votes more equitably, and often these work by continually reiterating the count of the election. One such method is the Wright system, first proposed by programmer Anthony van der Craats in 2008.

Under the Wright system, when a candidate is elected their surplus is transferred in exactly the same way as is currently the case. However every time a candidate is excluded, the count is reset and restarted as though that candidate had never stood in the first place, with all votes for the excluded candidate transferred to the remaining candidates according to their preferences. The result of this is that every vote has proportionally equal weight.

In the context of the WA Senate count, it means that regardless of when HEMP is eliminated, all votes that preference PUP get transferred at the same value when PUP is elected.

Obviously this would be a laborious count to do by hand, but it can be automatically counted using software quickly. Given that the AEC already enters all Senate votes into a software system to perform the final count anyway, adopting this system would mean no extra work or change to AEC processes.

Additionally, if this system were adopted in isolation it would mean that voters do not need to change the way they fill out their ballots, and confusion around changes in the voting system can be avoided.

Alternate counting methods do not relate to the controversial success of micro-parties in the last federal election. Nonetheless, any review of the electoral system that seeks to tackle these issues ought to seriously consider alternate, fairer, counting systems as well.

Perhaps the right way for the Senate is the Wright way.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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