Australian and German elections


The Proportional Representation Society of Australia (PRSA) has issued very interesting reports – the best we have seen – on the recent general elections in Australia and Germany.

Like Fair Vote in the USA, PRSA campaigns only for preferential voting – specifically Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies – and sets an example to those electoral reform organizations that dilute the message and spread their resources thinly over peripheral reforms even though STV remains legally their core object.

As Australia uses a version of STV, one might think that there was little for PRSA to do, but Australia uses a perverted and artificial version of STV, distorted by politicians to suit politicians, especially the major parties, instead of voters.

First, voters have to express a full range of preferences. If they stop after the first three or four because they do not like any of the other candidates and do not want to express a preference for any of them, their vote is invalid; i.e. even their first three or four preferences are not allowed to count. This encourages the so-called “donkey” vote when, because they have to express preferences, voters just endorse the order on the ballot paper.

Next, ostensibly to make it easier for voters to cast valid votes, Australians can vote “above the line”; i.e. vote for the order determined by a political party. Because of the difficulty in choosing each preference individually, many do that which, of course, gives tremendous power to the parties, thus substantially reducing one of the most important advantages of STV over all other voting systems.

Whereas reformers in the UK and USA campaign for STV (ranked choice voting) to be used, Australian reformers campaign for a simpler and purer version of STV, which would benefit voters and produce results closer to voters’ wishes.

Some critics of the Australian system would like to tinker with the existing system by, for example, introducing artificial thresholds but, as PRSA points out, “Proposals to impose an exclusionary threshold usually betray either misunderstanding of how the single transferable vote works, or seem aimed at propping up the failed system of party boxes, without recognizing the potential for unstable or distorted results to arise whenever arbitrary interventions are made.”

Germany uses a mixed voting system. Voters elect single-member constituency representatives by first past the post like the UK and they have a second vote to top up the parties proportionately. In other words, it is reasonably fair to, and representative of the parties, but less fair to, and representative of, voters than STV is. However, parties that fail to secure the threshold of 5% of the national vote are denied top-up seats, so there is a bias towards the larger parties.

PRSA reports that nearly 16% of the votes were wasted in the German general election this year. This is partly because of the 5% national threshold. “While two parties obtained more than 5% of the party list vote in respectively six and seven of the sixteen states in the German elections held on 22 September 2013, they just failed to do so nationally, and therefore did not qualify for the apportionment of seats to the Bundestag…. Had the threshold been set instead at 4%, both the Free Democrats and Alternative for Germany would have emerged with more than thirty party list seats”.

This shows the distortion that artificial devices, such as thresholds, can produce. It also shows what a large difference a small change in the arbitrary choice of threshold can make to an election result and it shows that the German system is less fair to parties, especially small ones, than it could be.

Although opponents of STV may say that STV has a threshold, it is natural and not artificial. Moreover, it applies at constituency level – not national – so a strong local or regional party can win representation despite being weak nationally. Most important with STV, a vote that does not help to elect a candidate from the party of the voter’s first choice may nevertheless help to elect another candidate whom the voter likes. For example, if the Green Party is not strong enough in a particular constituency to win a seat, Green voters may help, with their later preferences, to elect other ecologically minded candidates.

You can read the PRSA reports at http://www.prsa.org.au/qn/2013c_.html#section1 and http://www.prsa.org.au/qn/2013c_.html#section2.

STV in Australia - deficient and exemplar

We have received the following comment from Geoffrey Goode,President of Proportional Representation Society of Australia (Victoria-Tasmania) Inc.:

"Australia's federal and mainland state PR elections definitely use what you describe as 'a deficient form of STV', although it is not the actual counting procedure that is most deficient, but far more the overlays that have been imposed relating, as your website page describes, to onerous and unnecessary provisions for the validity of a vote, and accompanying Group Voting Tickets that were introduced federally in 1983, have since spread to all mainland states, and have the effect of enticing nearly all voters to just tick a box to bring into effect the desired voting order of the party that registered the Group Voting Ticket in question.

Australian major party federal and mainland state political operatives have over-reached themselves in shutting out voter involvement in supporting their individual candidates by implementing Group Voting Tickets where nearly all voters effectively vote for just a party name. In New South Wales, the Australian Electoral Commission allowed a minor, rather libertarian right-wing party to have its name, Liberal Democrats, against its above-the-line box on the ballot paper, despite objections from the Liberal Party about the likely confusion of the Liberal Democrats name with its name.

The draw for positions from left to right on the ballot paper resulted in the Liberal Democrats achieving the position closest to the left hand side of the ballot paper, which was over a metre long. The Liberal Democrats gained 9.5% of the first preference vote, and ultimately a quota, leading to the election of their No. 1 candidate ahead of the Coalition's No. 3 candidate. The 2013 Senate result for South Australia had that state's combined first preference vote for the Liberal and Labor parties reduced to a bare 50.11% of the total first preference vote for the state, which resulted in 3 of the 6 senators elected being from minor parties or groupings that have never formed part of any federal government.

In Australia, there also exists, independently, a world-beating exemplar of STV, which is the Hare-Clark electoral system used for Tasmania's House of Assembly since 1909 and the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory since 1992."