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Voting systems

We all have our funny ways and one of my idiosyncrasies is a love of voting. It is a democratic right that I value and take seriously. I happily go to the polling booth to cast my vote for the party I wish to govern our nation. I believe that voting is a powerful way for citizens to have a say in the political decision making which affects their lives.

Australia is one of only a few countries in the world that has compulsory voting. While it is a civic duty for Aussies, I would still vote even if I was not compelled to do so. Proponents of compulsory voting argue that it produces a high voter turnout rate which more accurately reflects the will of the electorate and gives greater legitimacy to the government. 

In contrast, opponents of compulsory voting assert that it is inconsistent with the freedoms associated with democracy. It is seen as an infringement of liberty and forces the ill-informed and those with little interest in politics to the polls. Critics believe that dragging politically apathetic citizens to the ballot booth to begrudgingly cast a vote is counter-productive. 

I have sympathy with the notion that citizens should not be legally forced into the electoral process. Moreover, I understand the disenchantment people feel towards politicians. Further, I acknowledge the increasing disconnect between young people and democratic politics and their resentment of mainstream parties.

Ironically, while we in Australia debate whether voting should be voluntary, other nations debate whether it should be mandatory. The US has one of the lowest voter turnout rates of any developed nation which means that the voices of the disenfranchised are not heard. The UK is also struggling with falling voter turnout with younger people cynical about the significance of their vote. 

Putting the mandatory/voluntary voting dichotomy aside, another issue which is periodically debated in Australia is the actual voting system we use. In the language of academics, many nations use a Plurality Voting System whereas, in Australia, we use a Ranked Voting System. Each system determines the way that votes are translated into seats in parliament. 

The Plurality Voting System is a first-past-the-post system. Under this winner-takes-all system, electors vote for only one candidate and the candidate who receives the largest number of votes wins. So, a candidate is elected with a simple majority of votes (i.e., the highest number of votes in the count) but not necessarily more than half the votes.

While the Plurality System requires voters to choose only their first preference, a Ranked (aka Preferential) System requires voters to rank all candidates in order of their choice. Voters put the number 1 next to their first choice, 2 next to their second choice and so on. Candidates are elected outright if they gain more than half of the first preference (primary) votes.

If not, the candidate with the least first preferences is eliminated and their votes are redistributed according to the second or next available preference marked on the ballot paper. This process continues until one candidate has half of the votes and is elected. In this way, candidates build an absolute majority of support i.e., more than 50 per cent of the votes.

An objection to the validity of preferential voting is that a candidate can win a seat with only a small percentage of the primary vote. This is because lower preferences can result in a “lowest common denominator” winner without much positive support of their own. 

Preferential voting is a system largely unique to Australia. While I don’t mind being told that I must vote (as I voluntarily would anyway), I don’t like being forced to express a preference for all candidates. Invariably, I don’t know every candidate on the ballot paper - particularly those who represent a single issue and/or a fringe micro party.

A better system, in my view, would be Optional Preferential Voting. Under such as system, I would have to express preferences only for the candidates I know and wish to vote for. No electoral system is perfect and people will find fault with any method used. However, I believe that Optional Preferential Voting would be a step in the right direction.


Paul J. Thomas, CEO

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Posted Tuesday, October 06, 2015    View Comments 0 Comments    Make a Comment Make a comment  

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