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How Your Vote Works: The Senate

The Australian Senate currently has 76 members. 12 each from the six original states, plus an additional 2 each for the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory.

Senate members serve depending on which state they represent. Senators from the six original states serve fixed 6 year terms, from 1 July to 30 June. Senators from the two territories serve alongside their House of Representatives colleagues, and serve approximately 3 years or so.

Each election for the Senate comprises of half of the fixed term Senators (six from each state) plus all four of the territory Senators. Fixed term Senators don't start their terms of office until July 1, while territory Senators start their term immediately on being confirmed by the AEC.

Your Senate ballot paper is white, and to be honest, somewhat scary. On it will be columns of candidates, with each column being a single political party, or coalition, and another column with any independents that have chosen not to form a coalition.

Your final ballot ends up with all of the candidates numbered from 1 to the count of candidates, in preference order similar to the House of Representatives. However, because of the sheer quantity of candidates (for example, the Victorian Senate election has 60 candidates) the voter has the option of placing a single "1" in the box above the column of the party he wishes to support (called voting "above the line"). That ballot paper is then treated as if it had been filled in according to a copy of the ballot paper the Party lodged with the AEC before hand. A party may lodge up to three of these "Group Tickets", and if more than one is lodged, all above the line votes are split evenly amongst the different group tickets.

Voting above the line is simpler, but at the cost of allowing someone else to decide where your preferences end up.

Voting below the line has the same difficulties as voting in the House of Representatives election in that all of the boxes much be filled in, and mistakes are easier to make. However, the same rules applies to the House of Representatives: all the boxes must be filled in, without missing any numbers, and if you make a mistake you can ask for a new ballot paper.

Voting below the line is recommended for those who want to make sure their voice is heard exactly they way they want it to be heard.

Once the polls are closed, counting begins. Due to the complexities of counting Senate votes, finalisation of the result may take a number of weeks.

Firstly, all the ballot papers are checked to ensure they are properly filled in (a Formal Vote) and the total number of Formal Votes is tallied. From that Formal Vote count the Quota is worked out. The Quota is the total number of Formal Votes, divided by the one more than the number of Senate seats for the state (fractions are ignored). This means that for the states, the quota is the Formal Vote count divided by seven, while for the territories it's divided by three.

Then the Primary votes are analysed, and any with more than the quota are elected to the Senate, starting at whoever has the most. Votes for these people are then reallocated according to their second preference, but don't count as a full vote any more. They only count as a partial vote based on how many votes more than the quota there were. For example, if the quota was 100,000 and a candidate received 250,000 Primary votes, each of those votes would pass on to the second preference as ((250,000 - 100,000) / 250,000) = 0.6 votes.

Once the all of the Primary votes above the quota are determined and reallocated, then the candidate with the lowest number of votes is excluded, and their votes reallocated according to their second preference. Then the votes counts are checked again and if anyone is over quota they are elected, and their votes reallocated as partial votes.

This repeats until all of the seats are filled.

An Example: 1998 New South Wales Senate election.

Formal Votes: 3,755,725
Seats: 6
Quota: 536,533

A total of 69 Candidates stood, and for clarity the bottom 50 aren't included.

After the Primary votes were tallied, this is how they stood:

NamePartyVotes%Notes
Steve HUTCHINSALP1,446,23138.5ELECTED 1
Hon John Faulkner *ALP2,91400.1Group H
Michael Forshaw *ALP86400.0
Ursula StephensALP2,55100.1
David OldfieldON359,65409.6Group K
Brian BurstonON57000.0
Bevan O'ReganON78500.0
Bill HEFFERNAN *Lib1,371,57836.5ELECTED 2
Dr John Tierney *Lib1,44100.0Group L
Sandy Macdonald *NPA1,68900.0
Concetta Fierravanti-WellsLib85500.0
Aden RidgewayAD272,48107.3Group M
Matthew BairdAD45700.0
Suzzanne ReddyAD2,16300.1
David MendelssohnAD80900.0
John SuttonGrn80,07302.1Group U
Catherine MooreGrn74800.0
Lee RhiannonGrn24900.0
Suzie RussellGrn54200.0


Steve Hutchins had the most votes, and had greater than the quota, and was elected into the first Senate seat. Bill Heffernan had the second most votes and was also above the quota so he was elected into the second seat. Both candidates had their votes reallocated as partial votes to the second preferred candidate. This resulted in the following:

NameVotes DistributedTotal After%Notes
HUTCHINSElected536,53314.3ELECTED 1
FAULKNER *908,567 (99.9)911,48124.3ELECTED 3
Forshaw *196 (00.0)1,06000.0
Stephens130 (00.0)2,68100.1
Oldfield186 (00.0)359,84009.6
Burston6 (00.0)57600.0
O'Regan4 (00.0)78900.0
HEFFERNAN *Elected1,371,57836.5ELECTED 2
Tierney *13 (00.0)1,45400.0
Macdonald *1 (00.0)1,69000.0
Fierravanti-Wells1 (00.0)85600.0
Ridgeway278 (00.0)272,57907.3
Baird5 (00.0)46200.0
Reddy3 (00.0)2,16600.1
Mendelssohn4 (00.0)81300.0
Sutton66 (00.0)80,13902.1
Moore2 (00.0)75000.0
Rhiannon1 (00.0)25000.0
Russell054200.0


Most of Hutchins preferences went to Faulkner resulting in more than the quota, and Falkner was elected for the third Senate seat. After Falkner's preferences were distributed, no one remaining had more than the quota. This resulted in the following equivalent results for those still in with a chance:

NameVotes%Notes
HUTCHINS536,53314.3ELECTED 1
FAULKNER *536,53314.3ELECTED 3
Forshaw *375,58710.0
Oldfield360,26309.6
HEFFERNAN *536,53314.3ELECTED 2
Tierney *536,53314.3ELECTED 4
Macdonald *300,31308.0
Ridgeway273,10907.3
Sutton80,18602.1


At this stage, candidates at the bottom end get excluded and their votes reassigned. 50 exclusions later, the results look like this:

NameVotes%Notes
HUTCHINS536,53314.3ELECTED 1
FAULKNER *536,53314.3ELECTED 3
Forshaw *450,44612.0
Oldfield402,15410.7
HEFFERNAN *536,53314.3ELECTED 2
Tierney *536,53314.3ELECTED 4
Macdonald *357,57209.5
Ridgeway286,15707.6
Sutton112,60203.0


Tierney had enough to exceed the quota (finally) and was elected into the fourth Senate seat.

Sutton was then eliminated. 80% of Sutton's preferences went to Ridgeway, giving Ridgeway more votes than McDonald. McDonald was then eliminated, and 93% of his preferences went to Ridgeway, thus giving him a quota and the fifth Senate seat. Ridgeway's surplus was then distributed, and 96% of his votes went to Forshaw, thus giving him a quota and the sixth seat. Oldfield was the last remaining unsuccessful candidate.

(Large thanks to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_electoral_system) when I stole this example from)

As you can see, Senate elections are very complicated when working out the maths, and it is for this reason that the latest a Senate election can be is five weeks before 1 July. This ensures that there is sufficient time to determine the results. Senate elections are usually held at the same time as House of Representative elections, even though the majority of the elected candidates don't take over their new position until the following July 1. The exception is the Senators from the territories who take over immediately the AEC confirms their election.

Currently, the Australian Senate is comprised of the following:
Australian Labour Party: 32
Liberal/National Coalition: 37
Australian Greens: 5
Family First: 1 (Steve Fielding)
Independents: 1 (Nick Xenophon)

This means that for the Labour party to pass bills in the Senate, they need the support of the Australian Greens and either Steve Fielding or Nick Xenophon if the Coalition chooses not to support the bill.

In the next election, the following Senate seats are being contested:
Australian Labour Party: 16 (including 1 NT and 1 ACT)
Liberal/National Coalition: 21 (including 1 NT and 1 ACT)
Australian Greens: 2
Family First: 1 (Steve Fielding)
Independents: 0

If the ACT and NT Senate elections progress as "normal" and both end up with a single Labour and a single Coalition senator, the make up of the current Senate won't change until July 1 next year when the new fixed-term Senators take office. However, if any of the four are taken by other than the major parties, or switch sides, then the Senate will change immediately.

While voting under the line in a Senate election is difficult, it is a better way of ensuring your voice is heard exactly the way you want it to be. One resource that people may find useful is Below The Line that allows you to see where your preferences will fall if you vote above the line, and customise a Senate election How to Vote card for yourself if you wish to vote below the line. I strongly recommend you at the very least look and see where your preferences end up.

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July 2016
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Desert Rose

I dream of rain
I dream of gardens in the desert sand
I wake in vain
I dream of love as time runs through my hand

I dream of fire
Those dreams are tied to a horse that will never tire
And in the flames
Her shadows play in the shape of a man's desire

This desert rose
Each of her veils, a secret promise
This desert flower
No sweet perfume ever tortured me more than this

And as she turns
This way she moves in the logic of all my dreams
This fire burns
I realize that nothing's as it seems

I dream of rain
I dream of gardens in the desert sand
I wake in vain
I dream of love as time runs through my hand

I dream of rain
I lift my gaze to empty skies above
I close my eyes
This rare perfume is the sweet intoxication of her love

I dream of rain
I dream of gardens in the desert sand
I wake in vain
I dream of love as time runs through my hand

Sweet desert rose
Each of her veils, a secret promise
This desert flower
No sweet perfume ever tortured me more than this

Sweet desert rose
This memory of Eden haunts us all
This desert flower
This rare perfume, is the sweet intoxication of the fall

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