Research report

The new Senate voting system and the 2016 election

25 Jan 2018
Description

Executive summary

• In 2016 the Senate voting system was changed to remove the use of group voting tickets; and to require voters to allocate six or more preferences above the line or twelve or more below the line on the ballot paper. The 2016 federal election—a double dissolution election—was the first to be conducted under the new system.

• The change resulted from recommendations from an inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters into the 2013 federal election, largely in response to the number of candidates being elected to the Senate from small and unknown parties on very low first preference votes. However, the changes were only legislated late in the parliamentary term, not long before the double dissolution election was held.

• A High Court challenge was launched almost immediately in response to the changes to the Senate voting system; however, the Court rapidly and comprehensively dismissed the case.

• When it was introduced, the new Senate voting system was criticised for a number of perceived problems, including that most voters would continue to vote 1 above the line; that the informality rate would be high; that many more votes would exhaust and not be counted; and that small parties would have no chance of election.

• None of these anticipated problems presented in the course of the 2016 election. Voters quickly adapted to the new system; informal voting rose only a small amount; and that the Australian Electoral Commission was able to implement the new system and count the votes with no major issues eventuating.

• The changes did not arrest the trend of fewer voters giving their first preferences to the major political parties in the Senate election. However, many of those who gave their first preference to minor parties also preferenced one of the major parties with their second and third preferences. While the 2016 Senate election resulted in a record crossbench, much of this is attributable to the reduced quota due to the double dissolution. Yet even under a normal half-Senate election, a number of minor party Senators would have been elected.

• Analysis shows that Australian voters’ use of above-the-line Senate preferences was complex; was not always along party lines; and, in many cases, was not consistent with the first preference party’s how-to-vote recommendations.

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CC BY-NC-ND
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2018
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