Beth Spencer

Making the most of the Australian
preferential voting system:

how to double your vote's value
by voting 'one' for an alternative party




beth [at]
[dot] com


This piece was originally written for the Victorian State election in November 2006. A modified version was published in The Age Online, 20th November 2007 for the Australian Federal election

For Federal or State elections in Australia, the message is much the same
--if you want your vote for an alternative party to count for anything, you must put them first on the ballot form, followed by your preferences.)


Never having been a huge fan of the major parties in Australian politics I often spend a few hours on election day handing out 'how to votes' for an alternative party.

The first time was for the Greens in the early 1990s in the Sydney inner suburb of Marrickville. I was amazed at the apparent high level of support they had - so many people saying 'oh, good, the Greens' and 'thanks!' enthusiastically as they took a card, and 'I gave you a vote!' as they came out. I thought, wow, they're going to get about half the vote.

But when the results came in, they got four percent.

Some years ago the Democrats put up a bill to commit ongoing funding to educate the populace about the electoral system, about the different levels of government, and about the quite complex preferential and proportional voting systems. Given that voting in Australia is compulsory, this seemed a sensible idea.

(And a necessary one, if the number of people who seem puzzled that there are two different 'how to vote' cards, is any indication. 'No, I've got one,' is a frequent response. 'But you need this one too,' I'll say, 'for the Upper House and the Lower House.' Blank stares.)

The bill was defeated by the Liberal and Labor parties joining ranks against it.

So why might an ignorant population be in the interests of the major parties, and an educated one preferred by the alternative groups?

Or why, we might ask, do the 'how to vote' cards of the major parties rarely give information about the affiliations of the other candidates, even as they're telling you in what order to put them?

Perhaps because the backroom shenanigans that go on in the weeks before an election often result in some pretty dirty and hypocritical deals - as was seen in the past few weeks. And they'd rather not display this.

However thanks to some good thinking down at the Victorian electoral commission, it is now much easier to bypass these deals and make up your own mind. In the past if you wanted to vote 'below the line' (that is, choose your own order of preference) you had to consecutively and accurately fill in every box - no mean feat on the Upper House voting form, which is often the size of a table runner. Now, however, you can fill in as few as five boxes and have your vote count.

If you want to bone up on the party affiliations of the candidates in your electorate before you get into the polling booth, you can do so by going to Otherwise just keep pestering the spruikers outside your polling booth until you find someone - usually from one of the alternative parties -- who has a 'how to vote' card that actually gives this information.

Another reason an ignorant electorate seems to be more desirable to the bigger parties is that they can then run full page advertisements the day before an election to frighten people from voting for an alternative party. 'Don't waste your vote' is one tactic. Or 'Don't take the risk' is another.

Is there a risk in putting an alternative party first, and the party with the chance of actually winning the election second?

Well, theoretically it is possible that in a convoluted way, in exceptional and very precise circumstances, your vote could assist the 'wrong party' (neither your first nor your second, but your last choice) to win. What would need to happen is for more people to vote for
minor party A than for major party B, so that B is knocked out of the contest first and its preferences redistributed. What would also need to happen is that B had allocated its preferences not to A but to its enemy, major party C.

Which is to say that any risk only exists in the event of dirty dealing by the main parties, not because of your democratic right to vote for an alternative.

So it's a risk - if it exists at all - that they've created (and can stop creating by being more principled).

And even then it is an extraordinarily tiny one. A bit like saying, don't turn on that light, because you might get electrocuted. Whereas the benefits of voting first for an alternative party are much more certain, and quite significant.

Indeed far from 'wasting' your vote, by putting an alternative party first you can, in a sense, double your vote's value.

If the alternative candidate doesn't make the count for the final showdown, the full value of your vote is automatically redistributed to your second choice.

So you still get to vote to decide on which party forms the government. But you also get to first send a message that the concerns, policies and approaches of the alternative party are important to you, a message that can have a powerful resonating effect throughout the next three years.

Furthermore, on a practical level, alternative parties need funding to grow, develop policy, and to have an influence. For every member elected (to either House) they get a parliamentary office and an electoral officer. If they get five members, they get parliamentary party status, which provides a raft of benefits and resources, including offices in regional areas.

Even if they don't get elected, as long as they get more than 4% of the overall primary vote, then your vote is worth $1.31 to them in public funding to put towards their campaign costs.

But, all of this only happens if you put them first.

The tragedy of that voting day in Marrickville many years ago - a tragedy I've seen repeated over and over again in subsequent elections - is that so many people, uneducated in the subtleties of preferential voting, thought they were actively supporting the Greens by putting them second.

But if you put them second, and put a major party first, no-one will ever know. The effect is zero.

In a recent survey eighty percent of those polled said that global warming was the most important issue facing Australia today. It will be interesting to see how this ends up translating (or not) in the voting figures on Saturday.


Beth Spencer has recently completed a PhD in cultural studies at the University of Ballarat on
The Body as Fiction /
Fiction as a Way of Thinking


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About me




Teaching materials


The Body as Fiction /
Fiction as a Way of Thinking

(PhD thesis )

Cosmetic Surgery, 'Makeover Culture'
and the Privatisation of Bodies

(or 'Are Wrinkles Really All That Ugly?' The Age, October 2006)

'From the "Primitive Droop"
to the "Civilised Thrust":
Towards a Politics of Body Modification'

'D-Cups, Groin Guards & Supermodels:  Writing the Body into History'
Australian Humanities Review -
(note that this one is in two parts) 

Reality Television:
Big Brother is Watching / Watching 'Big Brother'
in Australia

(ABC Radio National,
May 2003)

'Bewitched --
Samantha every
witch way but lose' 

about the 1960s sitcom
(The Age, June 2005)

'Another Day, Another Dollar' -- Ability, disability, and the way welfare policy affects all of us
(The Age, May 2005)

'I'd like to have permission to be postmodern, but I'm not sure who to ask..'
(about my experiences with
copyright law)

'Reconciliation, &
Those Two Little Words'

Australian Humanities Review,
Sept. 2000

'Xed Again:
or whatever happened
to the Seventies?'

- reprinted from Australian Book Review, December 1995, about being part of the generation just younger than the baby boomers. 



Some useful links:

Australian Electoral

Antony Green's Election Guide:
How preferences work

(an excellent guide by the ABC's expert elections analyst)

Wikepedia entry on the Australian Electoral System

Make sure you register to vote -- or change your address details if you've moved -- now. With the new rules, if you wait till the election is called, it could be too late and you may lose your vote:
Don't Let Them Stop
You From Voting

other articles:

Water wisdom?
Healthy gardens,
water restrictions
& healthy communities

(The Age, October 2006)

new Print a free copy of Things in a Glass Box
(poetry book first published by Five Islands Press)

Download the novella
'The Faeries at Anakie Park'
How to Conceive of a Girl

(Random House)

'Giving It Away For Free: Spineless Books With Bite'
(The Age, November 2004)

The Beaumont Case Revisited: Who's Watching the Children?
(The Age, January 2006)

"The Museum of Fire"


About me




Teaching materials