August 10th, 2010


How Your Vote Works: An Introduction

I've been enrolled to vote now for almost 18 years, and I think I understand very well how the electoral system in Australia works. However, there's a lot of people out there who don't have that understanding, and I'm in the mood for explaining how it all works.

Firstly, an introduction as to how the Australian Parliament actually works.

The Australian Parliament has two houses. The House of Representatives has 150 members, and each represents an electorate. Each electorate has approximately the same number of enrolled voters in it, so the House of Representatives gives an approximately equal voice to each enrolled voter in the country. The count of electorates in Australia (and therefore the count of members of the House of Representatives) is based on population counts, and as a result periodically the Australian Electoral Commission must do a redistribution of the electorate boundaries when the population shifts have changed things enough. The last change in numbers was in 2001 when it went from 148 to 150 seats, while the last redistribution was in 2003 and resulted in South Australia losing one seat, Queensland gaining a seat, and Victoria kept the same number of seats but one seat was abolished while another new one was created.

The Senate has 76 members, with 12 members representing each of the 6 States (Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania) with 2 members each representing the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. The Senate gives each State a theoretically equal voice.

Those numbers are governed by the Constitution of Australia. In the Constitution it states that each of the original six States of Australia must have have at least six Senate seats, and must be an equal number. Each of the original six States much have at least five seats in the House of Representatives, and the total number must be "as nearly as practicable, twice the number of Senators".

Bills (the things that get turned into the Laws of this Country) can be introduced by members of either house, except if is an appropriation bill (the bill is to do with proposing an expenditure or levying a tax). Appropriation bills can only be introduced by members of the House of Representatives.

The procedure to turn a Bill into Law is theoretically simple. The Bill is introduced into one of the two houses by the appropriate member. It is discussed, possibly amended, and eventually voted on. If it passes the vote, it is then sent to the other house for the same treatment. If it is amended in the other house, it must return to the first house for another round. Once the bill has been passed by both houses in exactly the same form (so no new amendments) it becomes law. The only variation to this is that in addition to not being allowed to be introduced into the Senate, appropriation bills can not be amended in the Senate either, only passed or rejected.

Theoretically, as the Queen's Representative, the Governor General can refuse to allow a bill to pass into law, but that power is nowadays nothing more than a formality.

The leader of the Country, the Prime Minister of Australia, is not directly elected. The PM is the leader of the Majority power in the House of Representatives. Currently, the Australian Labour Party holds 83 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives, and therefore the Leader of the Party is the Prime Minister of Australia.

How Your Vote Works: The House of Representatives

The House of Representatives currently has 150 members, and in each Federal Election all of the seats are up for election.

The elected member is considered to be serving once the AEC has confirmed their election, meaning changing over is fairly quick.

Your ballot paper for voting in for the House of Representatives is green, and will list the nominated candidates in a randomly selected order. You are required to number all of the boxes next to the candidate names, from 1 to however many candidates there are. So, if there are seven candidates, place a 1 next to the person you most want elected, then a 2 next to your second preference, then a 3 next to your third preference, and so on, down to a 7 next to the person you least want elected.

Please remember to make sure you have numbered all the boxes, and not skipped any numbers. If you number them 1 to 6, and then 99 (which I'm sure you've had the urge to on occasion) it will be counted as an informal vote, and won't be used at all.

Another thing to remember: if you screw up your ballot paper, ask for another one. Voting is a serious business, and the people there are there to help you out, and that includes replacing screwed up ballot papers.

So, you've filled in your ballot paper and dropped it into the correct ballot box. Now what?

Once the polls close at 6:00pm, all the ballot boxes are taken to a secure counting room, and counting begins. Firstly all the ballots are checked to ensure they are properly filled in (a properly filled in vote is call a Formal Vote), and the total count of these is made. Half of this total count (ignoring any fractions) plus one is the number of votes required to be elected in that electorate, an Absolute Majority.

All the votes are tallied according to their first preference. If after the Primary votes are counted anyone has an Absolute Majority, they are elected to the seat and no more counting is needed. If an Absolute Majority hasn't been reached (more likely), then whichever candidate has the least votes is excluded from the running, and all of their votes are reallocated according to their second preference. Again, a check is made to see if an Absolute Majority is reached. If there is, the election is over, otherwise the lowest remaining is again excluded and their votes are reallocated. This repeats until someone has the Absolute Majority. At times this can be until only two candidates remain, but usually it is over before that.

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It is theoretically possible for the final two candidates to have the same number of votes at the end of the preference counting. This is where the Division Returning Officer comes in. The Division Returning Officer is the one person ultimately responsible for ensuring the election runs smoothly in that Division (aka Electorate). When a person is appointed Division Returning Officer, their electoral enrolment is immediately transferred to the electorate they will be administering, however they are not entitled to vote. Instead they will have two special powers. Firstly, if there are two candidates with equal lowest number of votes, the Division Returning Officer chooses which one gets excluded first. Secondly, if it does end up with only two remaining with the same number of votes, the Division Returning Officer gets to cast the deciding vote.

An election for the House of Representatives must occur on a Saturday 33 days of either the Expiry or Dissolution of the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives automatically expires exactly three years after it first meets after the previous Federal Election. The House of Representatives can be dissolved at any time by the Prime Minister getting the approval of the Governor General (on behalf of the Queen). The next election could have been called at any time after the last one (including straight after, if desired), but the latest it could have been is Saturday, 16 April 2011.

Elections for the two houses can be held independently, but are usually held at the same to to reduce costs.

The current make up of the Australian House of Representatives is as follows:
Australian Labour Party: 83
Liberal Party: 54
National Party: 9
Independents: 4 (Tony Windsor, Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott, Michael Johnson)

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.

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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.

How Your Vote Works: Vacancies

So, the election is over, the politicians are in Canberra, and something happens to one of them. How is that handled?

Well it depends on what happens.

No matter how the parties like to spin it, elections in Australia put people into those seats, not the Party. As a result, if a politician has a falling out with the party and leaves the party, they are still the member. They are now an Independent, or the member of whatever party they choose to join.

However, if something more permanent happens, like a politician retiring, being forced to stand down due to illness or other activities, or passing away while in office, then what happens next depends on which house they are in.

If they are in the House of Representatives, then a by-election is called. This is treated exactly the same as a normal House of Representatives election except only for the affected electorate. If a regular election is due soon, the by-election may be skipped.

If they are a Senator, then a Casual Vacancy is filled. The State Parliament of the affected Senate seat holds a joint sitting of both houses and an appoint a replacement to serve the remainder of the term. Usually this is a person from the same political party as was vacating, but not always. Queensland only has a single house, so a joint sitting is not required. For the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, the decision is made by their Legislative Assembly.