Australian Federal Election Voting Explained

Posted on Fri 08/27/2010 by


There are some things about voting in Australia that ‘seem’ on the surface to be quite odd, when viewed from the perspective of a U.S. citizen who understands the processes they have there.

In an earlier post at this link, I explained some of the processes, and mentioned the main Parties, and the major players from those Parties. Refer to that link for more background information, but with this post, I’ll explain how something that may actually seem anathema, and look anomalous actually does work, and in fact, work quite well. I feel sure that if it didn’t work, it would have been changed, and even though situations have evolved over the years, giving the impression that change is needed, then that ‘change for the sake of change’ is something that would not really improve things. So, let’s look a little deeper into how a vote actually goes here in Australia.

First, voting is compulsory, for all persons over the age of 18, and as soon as you reach that age, you have to actually register to have your name placed on the Electoral Rolls. If you then change address, you need to register at that new address. Failure to register, or failure to notify of that change of address makes you liable for a fine, in the same amount as having registered and not voted, because failure to vote also makes you liable to a fine as well.

You may think compulsory voting is archaic in this day and age, but in a (relatively) small Country of only 22 Million population, then to get at least some result, then you need a fair cross section of the overall public.

To cater for compulsory voting then any election day needs to be on a day when people are free to vote, like not at work etc, and in Australia, then all voting days are on a Saturday. Those workers can have time off to vote, or vote pre poll date, or via a Postal Vote, or absentee voting, if they are out of their electorate on polling day.

The voting itself for the House Of Representatives means that you are only voting for the candidate in your electorate. Whichever Party garners the greatest numbers of Representatives forms the Government and the Parliamentary Leader of that Party then becomes the Prime Minister. So, you are only voting for the one person to represent your electorate. This means that on the actual voting slip are the names of the candidates for your electorate. There can be anything from 2 names up to ten names, but the average is around four to five. You must number every square on the voting slip of paper, and this is done manually by marking it with a pencil, folding the vote and then placing it in the relevant box. If you fail to number every square, then your vote does not count. No penalty is involved because they are supposed to be anonymous. You have your name checked off the roll and then in the private booth, you cast your vote.

So then, to explain something that might seem even more anomalous from all this let’s then look at some examples, and explain how what we call preferential voting works, the main reason behins why every square is numbered.

The average electorate has around 80,000 voters. In each of the following cases, the totals will not add up to the full 80,000, as there are voters who do not vote, around 2.5%, and informal votes, and that informal vote is usually around 2.5 to 4%.


CANDIDATE 1 (INDEPENDENT) 1152 (and this is around 1.45% of the vote)

CANDIDATE 2 (LIB) 5,678(57.1%)

CANDIDATE 3 (ALP) 28,765 (36%)

CANDIDATE 4 (GREENS) 3210 (4%)

In this case Candidate 2 is elected, as he already has an outright majority.


CANDIDATE 1 (LIB) 32325 (40.4%)

CANDIDATE 2 (GREENS) 11121 (13.9%)

CANDIDATE 3 (ALP) 28456 (35.6%)

CANDIDATE 4 (IND) 3,275 (4.1%)

CANDIDATE 5 (IND) 1,987 (2.5%)

Now, in this case, you might think that Candidate A who got the highest vote would be elected. Having said that, he did garner 40% of the vote. However, 60% of the people did not wish him to be the local member, so now we need to distribute preferences. The one who finishes last is the first eliminated, so his preferences are counted first. As is the case with most Independents, his preferences are split usually however the voter wishes, and they go more often half and half to those major parties. This now gives Candidate 1 around 41.5% and Candidate3, 37%.

Then we distribute Candidate 4, the next lowest, again fifty fifty. Candidate 1 now has 43.5% and Candidate 3, 39.5%.

Next we distribute The Greens preferences. These in the main go very tightly to the ALP, as is usually worked out prior to polling date, and is on all that Party’s how to vote cards distributed at polling places.

So, even with a small drift in those preferences of 1 to 2% of that primary vote, Candidate 1 now has 45% and Candidate 3 now leaps up to around 54%.

So, Candidate 3, even though he ran second on the Primary count has won the seat.

I understand it looks complicated, but it has worked very well now for more than a Century, and people are happy with it, so ‘if it ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.


Now let’s look at a decidedly more complex example, and see just how anomalous some situations might seem, and yet it still works out for a popular independent who is not a member of any of the major parties.

CANDIDATE 1 (GREENS) 5325 (6.7%)

CANDIDATE 2 (LIB) 23,456 (29.3%) (After the Primary vote this is 1st place)

CANDIDATE 3 (IND) 21,765 (27.2%) (Third Place after Primary vote)

CANDIDATE 4 (ALP) 22,325 (27.9%) (Second Place after Primary Vote)

CANDIDATE 5 (IND) 3,758 (4.7%)

CANDIDATE 6 (IND) 1,152 (1.4%)

So, while Candidate 2 got the greatest number of primary votes,it is still the case that 71% of the people prefer anyone else other than him, so preferences need to be distributed.

6 gets eliminated first, and in the main would rather see a fellow Independent elected than anyone from the major parties, so his preferences flow directly to 3, giving Candidate 3 now with 28.6% of the vote and moving up to second.

5 now gets eliminated, and again the Independent supports a fellow Independent so they all go to 3 giving him now 33.3%, and now up to first place.

1 now gets eliminated and his preferences, as with The Greens deal all flow to the ALP, lifting Candidate 3 to 34.6% and moves him into first place, and the guy who won the Primary now slips back into third place.

The Liberal Party would never ever give their votes to Labor, so now as the next one eliminated, all his preferences go to the Independent, giving him now a total of 62% and a comfortable win over Candidate 4 the ALP guy.

Keep in mind that the above examples are of a  hypothetical nature only, but a good indicator as to how voting is carried out and then counted here in Australia. Some electorates however were surprisingly similar to this on election night as results started to come in.

Preference counting is a long and time consuming thing because some votes do drift, and because of that, they need to be individually counted, hence the closeness of some seats results and the length of time to resolve them.

This might seem absolutely archaic, but it works very well in every case.

It just throws up some anomalies like this sometimes.