So, first question—why do we have preferential voting, and why does it matter?
Imagine you have three ice-cream flavours. You love chocolate, you don’t mind strawberry, but you hate vanilla (I’m sorry if this doesn’t match your ice-cream preference/you don’t eat ice-cream—this will be an exercise in imagination for you). If you can’t have chocolate, you’d probably prefer strawberry over your nemesis flavour, vanilla. Now, imagine those flavours are political parties. By giving the option of preferences, people can go down the list of parties and weigh up who they want to get in the most—and least—and arrange everybody in between according to their ideal outcome. If preferencing is done right,this means the majority of people will get who they want.
We have this system as an alternative to the ‘first past the post’ voting system; in Australia the party/candidate must win over half of all votes, but in first past the post, candidates still need to win a majority, but it might be under 50 per cent. Because you can only preference one candidate in first past the post, you can end up with a situation where more people vote against a candidate (say, if the votes for strawberry and vanilla were combined using our above example) than for them.This can result in some very strong disappointment for large swathes of the population after elections, and parties in power not being representative of the whole population.
Preferencing accurately matters because the preferential system relies on the validity of the people’s vote. Parties are obliged to follow their own policy, but if those don’t match what you believe in, it’s a lot harder to change outside of election time since it's assumed if they get in that they are representative of the people of their electorate/state.
Second question—How does the preferential voting process actually work?
The preferential voting system can get SUPER confusing very quickly, but here’s a cursory summary.
Voters will preference parties or candidates who will then be assessed on how many first preference votes they received in the first count (where election staff go through individual votes and tally up who in that electorate/state got the most “high value”—aka first preference —votes). If nobody gets the majority of first preference votes in this first round, the party/person who got the least first preference votes is eliminated and their votes get redistributed to the second preferences of the people that put them first.
This process continues until one party/candidate receives 50 percent or more of first preference votes. It's a bit more complicated than that in practice, particularly the results specific to each ballot, but by and large that's the way it works. No matter who you put in what order, it will not be a wasted vote if it is actually representative of who you want. So, you can put that tiny independent candidate first if it’s who you really want, or a major party, or a minor party—that's what representative democracy is all about, using your voice. As long as your preferences are in the right order from favourite (number 1) to least favourite, most people should get someone who they’d at least prefer to the party they hate the most.
You can find out more about preferencing here, or find out what to expect when voting on polling day on the AEC website. Listen to this super interesting podcast (from before the 2019 election) to find out why you should preference as many senate candidates as possible.
Image from Flickr.