Voting in Australia is compulsory at all levels except local. In the upcoming WA State Election, many will be voting for the first time, or have had four years since they last voted in a State Election – with a Federal Election in the middle of that. Different governments and organisations use different voting methods. Everyone deserves the opportunity to vote and have their voice heard, to make an informed vote, and for their vote to actually be counted. In order to do that, we need to ensure voters are enrolled to vote and that they know what voting in a certain way means, how it can impact the final result, and how to ensure that their vote is cast formally (meaning it is filled out correctly).
Let’s start by quickly discussing what everyone will be voting for on the day.
What is the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council?
You’ll be given two ballot papers, one of which is for the Legislative Assembly (LA), the other for the Legislative Council (LC). Likened to the Federal system, the LA is the House of Representatives and the LC is the Senate. There are fifty-nine ‘seats’ in the LA, each one represented by one Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA). Whichever party can secure a majority of the fifty-nine elected MLAs will form government. The LC is a bit different; here, there are six districts each represented by six Members of the Legislative Council (MLC). Again, this is akin to the Federal system where the Senate has multiple senators representing each State Electorate. So, to summarise, you’ll be voting for one local representative to represent your area in the LA, and you’ll be voting to elect six members to represent your district in the LC.
Okay, but how do you actually vote for them?
Let’s start with the LA, which is pretty simple. You’ll be given a ballot that looks like the one below (this one is from the 2016 Federal Election).
You must number all the boxes. Number one is your primary vote: the person you most want to represent you. All subsequent numbers are your next preferred candidates. Don’t like one candidate? Then put them last, because you must fill in every box otherwise your vote won’t be counted. While we’ll get more into this later, if someone says voting minor party is ‘splitting the vote’ or ‘vote stealing’, know that this is completely untrue. You may be handed a “How to Vote” card by a political party volunteer. This is how that party or candidate would like you to rank everyone. You are under no obligation to follow these, even if you like that candidate and take their How to Vote card.
What about voting for the Legislative Council?
The LC becomes a bit more difficult because of the multi-member nature of it. We’ll get more into that later, but for now you want to know how to vote formally for the LC. This becomes either simpler or more complicated, because you have two options in how to vote: above the line or below the line (you’ll hear these words a lot when it comes to LC voting).
Voting above the line is pretty simple: you find the party you wish to support and place a 1 in that box, then you leave the rest of the ballot blank.
For below the line voting it’s a little more tedious. You can choose preferences for each individual candidate. However, you must fill in all the boxes below the line, or your vote will not count. You must also ensure that you don’t make a mistake with your numbering.
This latter option gives you more control over your vote, however, is considered riskier in terms of formality because even if you prepare yourself beforehand it’s easy to make a mistake. If you’re going to vote below the line, I recommend you plan out how you’ll be voting before you go in. Candidate lists for each LC district are available on the WAEC website. It’s really important to stress that this system is not the same as the Senate, as the Senate vote allows preferencing above the line, WA does not.
What’s the difference between the two options (above the line and below the line)?
In below the line voting, you control how your preferences are distributed. If you vote above the line, you are voting for that party’s ‘ticket’ which means your vote will follow the preferences that party has given to the WAEC. Simply put, you’re agreeing to give control of your preferences to your chosen party. Of course, a Party will vote for themselves first, but not all parties will get enough votes to be elected. This has previously led to minor party alliances that – through the work of Glenn Druery – enabled parties to elect someone through a complicated (and arguably undemocratic) preferencing deal. Sometimes this has meant someone with as little as 0.5% of the vote has been elected on preferences. This isn’t to say don’t vote above the line, just be informed when doing so. The WAEC has all of the group ticket votes on their website so you can see how your vote will flow.
You’ve voted formally! We love democracy.
But what does your vote actually mean?
As it’s easier, we’ll start with the LA. There’s a basic checklist we work through for determining the winner:
- All primary votes are counted.
- We check if anyone has received a majority (50% of the votes +1).
- If no one has, we eliminate the person with the least votes and pass their votes to whoever was listed as 2nd on their ballots.
- This continues until someone has a majority.
So, if you’ve voted for the candidate who was eliminated your vote still counts; it will go on to help decide who is elected. This means you can vote for who you truly support without ‘wasting’ your vote.
Now, as flagged earlier, the LC is a bit more complicated, so we’ll start with what a candidate needs to get elected. As there are six positions, to be elected a candidate needs a quota rather than the majority of votes to be elected. In WA, we determine a quota by the following formula: number of formal votes divided by the number of positions to be elected (plus one), plus one [V/(N+1)]+1. Take the North Metro district. Here, there are 391,167 voters and six positions to elect. So, we put those into the formula as [391,167/(6+1)]+1 giving us 55,882 (roughly 14.3% of votes) as the number of votes needed to be elected to the LC.
So that’s how we get quotas, but what happens if a candidate gets more than that? I mean Labor’s primary vote in the most recent Newspoll was at 59% – that’s way over quota! Well, it’s simple (kinda). We can only elect a candidate once, but we also don’t want the votes that are over quota to go to waste. So, we distribute the votes that are over the quota to their next preferred candidate. But how do we know which votes got the candidate to quota? We don’t, so what we do is we distribute them at a fractional value based on how many votes over quota they are. Let’s say the quota is 50 and Candidate A received 100 votes. We take how many votes over quota they are (50) and divide that by the number of ballot papers that need to be distributed (100) and produce a transfer value of 0.5. We then distribute all of the votes and multiply them by 0.5 giving each vote a value of 0.5 votes. So if Candidate B got 76 of these votes, it would be valued at 38 votes.
Okay, that’s the hard part out of the way. The rest of the process works relatively the same as the LA, in that we check to see if someone has reached quota. If they have, we elect them and distribute their surplus votes. If they have not, then we eliminate the candidate with the least votes. This process continues until all six positions have been filled. All done right? Not fully, but this is enough for now!
That’s voting for you. Now you know how to make sure your vote is counted formally and what your vote means when you cast it. Now you just have to keep updated with Pelican coverage of the State Election to make sure you’re informed about who you’re voting for. Happy voting everyone!
Mike Anderson is a Political Science and Employment Relations Student. Ask him about Psephology if you’re ever having difficulty sleeping.
Words by Mike Anderson