The thing is, politicians don't like preferential voting either. Which is enough reason on its own to keep using it - because anything politicians don't like must be good for the rest of us.
There are a variety of preferential voting systems in use in Australia, depending on where you're voting and for what. In this post, I want to spell out the details - and the implications - of voting for the Lower House in next week's Victorian elections. Those in other states should still find the basic principles sound, while international readers can marvel at this thing called Democracy.
(Preferential voting is apparently known as 'alternative voting' in the rest of the world, which makes me think of electoral commissioners drunk on Stones Green Ginger Wine while they listen to Nirvana in their bedroom. Perhaps that's just me, though.)
At its core, preferential voting is about one thing - you need a majority of votes to win. This is a marked difference to the 'first-past-the-post' system used in America and many other places, where whoever has the most votes wins. You still need the most votes here, but you also need at least half the total votes (50% +1, to be exact). If that happens in the first round of vote counting, it's called an 'absolute majority'; it's not unheard of, especially in safe seats, but it's not the norm. Most of the time, one candidate has the lead, but still less than half the total, so preferences are used to eliminate candidates and redirect their votes until one candidate gets a majority.
Say there are six candidates (4-7 seems about the usual range); every election ballot lists all six (in random order), and voters number them 1-6 in order of preference (you have to number them all - no blanks). When the polls close, all the first preference votes are tallied (which is where the $1.40 kickback from The Man gets added up). If anyone has an absolute majority, then it's game over red rover. More likely, though, is that the candidate with the lowest votes (let's call him #4) gets kicked off the island. Candidate 4's votes are then redistributed according to their second preference, and the numbers are tallied again. If no-one's got a majority, then the new lowest-scorer is booted, and their votes are distributed to the next preference. Lather, rinse, and repeat until someone has the majority and becomes Queen of Summertime.
Is that clear? Elimination rules, basically, in descending order of okay-fine-let-that-guy-win. It may only take one or two rounds to establish a clear winner, but most of the time it turns into last-man-standing between the Libs and Labor - or, very rarely, some-other-party and one of the Big Two. That's how it played out in Northcote '02, for instance, in a tussle between Labor and the Greens - but that's the exception, not the rule.
(Have a look at the breakdowns on the VEC site, and you'll notice that they analyze the final preference distribution in every electorate in Libs-vs-Labor terms - even if one of those two parties wasn't in the deciding distribution. What better way to enforce the point that Minor Parties Don't Matter? Thanks, guys.)
Why is preferential voting good? Three reasons.
First, it's about majority desires, and that really should be paramount in the democratic process - yes, even when the majority is wrong and keeps electing Howard, damnit. Preferential voting may not elect the candidate most voters want, but it does elect the one most voters are prepared to tolerate - or at worst, the one least hated. That's not perfect, but few things are on this bastard planet.
Second, preferential ballots are information rich; they're nuanced strings of if/then statements, rather than binary yes/no signals. That's important when we start thinking in terms of tactical voting, which I'm going to come back to in a second.
Third, politicians don't like it (diddums). Why not? Partially because they have to work harder to win power, convincing more people to vote for them (at some point on the ballot). Extra effort, extra money, same result (they hope); extra justification of their existence for no added return. Poor guys.
But it's also because preferential voting is a zero-sum game, or close to it; every vote for one candidate is a vote against another candidate, who could even be eliminated from the contest as a result. A vote for another candidate isn't just one you don't get, it's an increase in the total voting pool and in the size of the amount of votes you need to win; to offset that change, you need one-and-a-half votes.
Hell, it's not just pragmatic; I think there's a real emotional component. My preferred metaphor is to think of politicians as glassy-eyed, pockmarked meth addicts, and each vote as a crystal of ice the size of a camel's testicle. First preference votes are sweet sweet crank handed to you in a Smith Street alleyway - but then they take your drugs away and give them to another tweaker. BASTARDS. It's fucking personal now.
That's my view, anyway. But I can be meanspirited about this kind of thing.
So let's leave the odd tangential attack upon politicians aside, and get back to this idea of tactical voting.
In the Lower House, you're going into a fight that, much of the time, is already fixed; you know the swing for your seat, you know who's likely to win and who's likely to get eliminated early. So what can you achieve with your vote?
Like I said, preferential votes are information-rich; they contain more data about what you want and don't want than a simple vote for That Guy. And part of that is not voting in a vacuum; it's worth thinking about the context in which you cast your vote, and whether you should adjust your vote/information-packet to fit.
Are you voting for the person you want to win? Are you voting against the guy you desperately want to lose? Are you giving your first preference to someone you know will lose, but you want them to get the funding kick - and what will happen to your vote afterwards? How will political analysts interpret your vote in the aftermath? (Trust me, after the elections the major parties will spend groin-moistening sums on analyzing every last nuance of the votes and the flow of preferences, trying to work out how to rort it that much better next time around.)
As an example, let's assume a hypothetical electorate dominated by Labor and the Liberals, with candidates for the Greens, Family First and an independent on the sidelines. (This is actually the state of play in Northcote, but I ain't getting specific.) If I vote for L1 or L2, my preferences are irrelevant; one of these two is going to win in a final showdown, and everything other than '1' on the ballot is wasted ink. Let's say L1 wins - like it matters much which L that is much of the time.
Alternatively, I can give my first preference to the Greens, then pick the Liberals as my second preference (unlikely, yes, but anything can happen in a hypothetical - I'm also voting without pants). Party L1 still wins the seat, yes, but in the process the Greens pick up some money from my first preference, and the post-election analysis shows greater support for the Greens than previously supposed - both factors that may affect the way the next election is fought.
Or let's say I'm sick of both L1 and L2 (not a huge stretch). I want the L2 candidate to lose, so I put her last on the ballot. (I have to give her a number, but putting her last is functionally identical to not giving her any vote at all.) I put L1 second-last, because he's marginally less objectionable than L1. Now let's put the Greens first for the $1.40, the independent second, and Family First third. This gives me a vote that assists a party I like, does everything I can to push out the candidate I loathe, and sends a message to the L1 powerbrokers that a hippy-lefty-freak would still prefer a fundamentalist Christian to their boy.
It's all data; your vote is like a punch-card being fed into the vacuum-tube computer of politics, inputting a string of meaning and nuance into the system. The system may not respond, but it takes notice - and no matter what, you've had more effect than you would if you just ticked a box or voted '1' and left the rest blank. That's the tactical aspect of voting, the ability to think through the scenarios and decide where to lay your bets. Your vote is information, so make it as informative as possible.
Decide your overall strategy, decide what you want your vote to achieve, and plug in the numbers accordingly. It's a shitty gamble, but it's better than the pokies.
Meanwhile, if a Lower House ballot is a punch-card of data, an Upper House vote is a long string of genetic code, that could give your electorate superpowers or (more likely) some kind of coldsore under the tongue. But that's a topic (and metaphor) for next time.