(If you don't recognize those names, that probably means you don't live in Victoria. Keep reading anyway, because I'm talking about stuff applicable in all Australian states. Hell, maybe even other countries, assuming your version of 'democracy' doesn't involve gladiatorial combat or ferrets down the trousers.)
Well, duh, many of you are thinking. But not everyone realizes this - every election day, people rock up to the polling booth expecting to cast a vote directly for the Premier/Prime Minister/God. And even smart people like you and me (well, you anyway) don't necessarily think through all the implications of representational democracy, or how the system dilutes - or occasionally magnifies - the power of the individual voter.
Let's start with the basics. No, you're not voting for who gets to be Premier. You're voting on how gets to represent your electorate in the Upper and Lower Houses, and they decide who gets to be Premier.
Many people find this frustrating, because they want to have a direct voice in who gets to run the state. These people are wrong. Electoral representation is a good thing, because it stops your single vote from being a dust mote under Steve Bracks' spare bed. (He's going to win the election, like it or not; it's a question of how, not if.) There are close to 3 and a half million voters in Victoria alone, and if each of them were choosing between the same 2/3/4 people, individual votes - individual voices - would mean almost nothing.
Instead, we vote in our local electorates. In the case of the Lower House, there are 88 in Victoria, each with roughly 37,000 electors. Right away, you can see the difference in voter significance - a single vote has a much bigger effect. You're still not the only voice in town, but being one in 37K is better than being one in 3.5 million, right?
But that's not how it works either, not really. It would work that way if we voted in a vacuum, but we don't (and let's be grateful, because explosive decompression really messes up your weekend). Elections work because votes have context, they're part of a historical and statistical record; they revolve, first and foremost, around swing.
'Swing' is a word that gets thrown around with little or no explanation every time the ABC does an election special. It's not about golf or car keys in the punchbowl; election swing is a measure of how much the electorate needs to alter its vote from last time to change representation. So if Kerry O'Brien says that Labor need a 10% swing in Suburb X, it just means that 10% of the voters in that electorate need to vote for Labor instead of the party they voted for last time - and that the old party, in turn, loses 10% of the votes they used to have.
Obviously, we can only gauge swing from the records of earlier elections, and fortunately for us voting plebs, you can look them up at the Electoral Commission website. Go have a look and work out what kind of electorate you live in - a safe seat for one party or another, a bitterly contested swing seat, or somewhere in the middle.
For voters, swing matters because it reduces the voting pool in the electorate - or rather, the voting pool that matters. The larger the margin of victory in the last election, the bigger the change in swing required to change things this time around; the smaller the margin of victory, the more each individual vote matters. Double the swing figure; that's the chaos at the heart of the storm, the amount of votes that can change everything.
If you live in Broadmeadows (to pick a random example), there's a 30.79% swing required to unseat Labor. So if you go against the trend, 30.79% of the 37K electors need to come with you - they need to take their vote away from Labor and give it to the Liberals. That's how important your vote really is in Broadmeadows - you're not 1 in 37,000, you're 1 in about 22,800. Better, but not amazing.
If you live in Nepean, just a .18% swing to Labor can upset the applecart. Every undecided/swinging voter is living in that tiny percentage; in Nepean, you're 1 in about 130. If everyone in your street or football club votes the same way, you could determine the outcome of the election. How's that for personal significance?
Okay. So you can work out how effective (or ineffective) a single vote - your single vote - is in your electorate. What do you do with that knowledge?
Political parties use swing to develop campaign strategy - to determine which electorates are safe and can be neglected, which are swinging battlegrounds that can be bribed with funding and promises. We can use swing the same way, as a tool for strategic voting; to determine how much impact our vote will have, and how to get the best effect out of it.
The best way to maximize your voting power is also the least practical - pick an electorate with a tiny margin, move there, and use your new power to protect the incumbent or boost the challenger. But we can't all move to Nepean; it's too late in the electoral cycle, and I hear the joint sucks anyhow. There is time to do this before the next federal election, mind you, or for other state elections - and if the outcomes of those elections are close and you want to give the fight all you've got, it's worth considering relocating to a low-margin electorate. You never know, you might like it there.
For the current election, though, strategy comes in two flavours:
1 - Low Margin, Strong Vote. In an electorate with a low margin, your vote has direct power, like a little gold meteorite aimed at a politician's head. Don't fuck about - use it. Vote for the candidate you want to win, and convince others to do the same if possible, because it may come down to a handful of votes (and preferences) that determines the winner. It's simple, but it works - like a stick with a nail in it. Alternatively, vote for someone you don't mind winning, but who isn't the person you don't want to win; vote against the enemy, because every vote you deny them is like stealing oxygen from their withered lungs.
2 - High Margin, Weak Vote. Congratulations - you're in a safe seat. Your vote counts for sweet fanny adams, so do whatever the fuck you like with it. Or more correctly, use it in a different way - use it as funding. As I pointed out a few days ago, your first preference vote can be worth $1.40 to the candidate who gets it, even if they don't win - so vote like an accountant and donate your voting dollars to someone you think needs it. Screw the Big Two; vote for the minor party or independent who can't win, but needs the money for next time. Again, try to convince others to do the same - the underdog still won't win, but the margin will shrink, and maybe next election will be different.
There are other ways to approach it, of course, nuanced to the size and shape of the swing, the power of the marginal parties, even silly notions like 'policy'. But for my money, those are the two main angles of attack, the two scenarios in the war room. Pick one well ahead of polling day and plan accordingly.
Strategic voting isn't necessarily about winning or losing; it's about making an informed decision about what kind of impact your vote will have. Don't vote by rote; don't jump and swing without checking where that vine will take you. Representative electorate voting narrows the playing field - so take some time and effort to make your vote as fat and wide as possible before throwing it into play.
And once you have a strategy, then we get into tactics - and in this military metaphor, your ammunition is the preference vote. But I'll talk about that later in the week.