Patrick (artbroken) wrote,

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Fun Election Facts #4 - Upper House Downer House

Time for one last ride on the Clue Train before Saturday, and what a ride it is - through the twists and turns of not just preferential but proportional voting, like a ghost train ride where all the skeletons are too busy stabbing each other in the back of preference deals to scare you.

Welcome to the Victorian Upper House. Take notes and watch your wallet.

A long-standing complaint about representative voting is that it's not representative (cheap bloody irony, innit). 10% of voters want the Greens in power, but that doesn't translate to 10% of representatives being from the Greens. So unfair! we cry, blissfully ignoring the fact that 10% of people want Family First in power and would be entitled to more seats if we got our way.

Whoops, bit of politics there.

Anyhoo, the Upper House has had a massive overhaul and restructure since the last election, with an eye towards (possibly) providing just this - a Legislative Council that actually resembles what the electorates wanted. That's the theory, at least. In practice, it mostly provides rich salty context for feeding frenzies over preferences - which at least makes for good theatre, if not good politics.

Hmm. Bile is a bit thick tonight. Let's move on to talking about the system, how to go about voting, and how to get the most out of your ballot.

First up, nuts and bolts.

There are now 8 Upper House regions, each with about 420,000 voters; Melbourne gets five to itself, while the other three cover the rest of the state. After Saturday's election, each region will be represented by five members, for a total 40 reps. Like the lower house elections, you allocate preferences to the candidates running in your region. Okay, it's actually a lot more complex than that, but we'll get to that a bit later.

To win one of the five seats, a candidate needs more than one-sixth of the total votes cast. First preferences are allocated as usual (with corresponding payments). If no-one has the minimum requirement, the candidate with the least number of first-preference votes is eliminated, and their votes are reallocated according to preference. So far, that's just the same as in the Lower House.

The freakiness comes in when a candidate does reach quota, because their votes get recycled. Any votes over the quota cutoff get distributed according to preference - but you can't say that these are the winning votes, while those are the surplus. So what happens is that the electoral commission allocates all the candidate's votes, but adjusts their value to a representative fraction to match the excess.

Say Candidate X needs 70,000 votes to win, and in the first round she scores 90,000. That means 20K of excess, so the VEC count each preference as being 20K/90K or 2/9 of a single vote. They shuffle them around, round them down, then retally the numbers. If anyone hits quota again, they again reweight the value of the votes and redistribute; if no-one does, they kick someone out and redistribute their preferences. This goes on until all 5 seats are filled.

As you can see, a single vote gets a lot more accomplished in this kind of system. If you vote for losers all the way, you keep getting shuffled around until the winners clear the field. But if you keep picking winners, your vote might get used over and over again, each time having its value readjusted and increased by fractional increments. It's because of this longevity that preferences become so important - and why political parties want to either completely co-opt your preferences or persuade you to drop out early. The longer a vote lasts in the count, the more powerful it becomes - and the more the people you're not voting for want it to be removed.

There are two ways to allocate your preferences. The one politicians prefer is 'above the line' voting, where you look at the big confusing piece of paper with 40-odd boxes on it, blanch in unreasoning fear, and just write '1' next to the title of one party.


A vote above the line is distributed according to the party's preference script, in descending order of their candidates, then the candidates of parties they've done deals with, then the guys they don't care about, then their enemies. Not necessarily your enemies, mind you, because you have this crazy notion that Labor and the Liberals are meaningful rivals. Meanwhile, they think the Enemy are the uppity small parties who take attention (and funding) away from them, and will preference each other to close ranks as desired. And the small parties aren't much better, signing agreements with the big boys to fend off their smaller rivals in hopes of winning the balance of power.

Voting above the line is weak, cowardly and imbecilic; it's taking your sole piece of power in this 'democracy' and signing it over to a party powerbroker to control as a bargaining chip. Voting is a way of making your voice heard; voting above the line means the only thing you're saying is what the nice man in the suit wrote out and told you to say.

The alternative is the cunningly-named 'below the line' approach, where you (gasp) write below the line on the ballot, numbering the candidates in accordance with your own preferences. In federal elections, going below the line (sounds like Catholic dating... but I digress) means numbering every box, in a race that can have 100 candidates. Here there are only 30-40 candidates in each region, and you have to provide a minimum of 5 preferences.

Don't stop there. If you can, fill out the whole ballot. Yes, even in cases where you're not 100% sure of a candidate's positions. Why? Two reasons:

1 - As I said last time, preferential votes are information-rich, and more numbers mean more information. If you stop before the end, your vote is exhausted and removed from the pool; it doesn't affect the number required for the quota, but it stops having a positive or negative effect. It stops helping candidates you like (or might grow to love), and it stops hurting the candidates you don't like, who are desperately hoping their rivals will run out of puff and be kicked off the island first. The more numbers there are on your ballot, the longer it might stay in the voting pool - and the more weight it may accrue after being used in multiple reassignments.

2 - And damnit, few things feel as viscerally satisfying as sticking the candidate you hate dead fucking last. Send a message to Candidate Arsepants; give him number 25, and give number 24 to a schizophrenic independent who wants to make outlaw underwear and make it legal to marry mollusks. That'll show the bastard. Seriously, it will; in the post-election analysis, statisticians will note that people would rather elect a dead boar stuffed with dynamite than Candidate Arsepants, they will inform the media, and he will hang himself after Clarke and Dawe namedrop him on the 7.30 Report. This is democracy in action.

Okay, that's all the mechanical stuff. So how do you translate that into voting tactics? How do you crunch the numbers to double or triple your vote's significance and stick it to the Man?

Excellent question. Buggered if I know. This is the first run with the new electorate/region setup, and things like swings, margins and probable outcomes are hard to predict (although the Age article I linked to earlier today takes a good stab at it). Tactical voting in the Lower House is a pretty simple process, but making those kind of predictions here is a different question, and one that an armchair general like myself finds difficult to answer.

That said, we can make some general stabs at strategy. First up, go look at the group voting tickets/how-to vote cards for each party - you can find them here. Look at who preferences who, where each party lies in relation to others. That's a good way to work out who stands for what, especially for small parties that don't splash their policies around the media much. What do the Democratic Labor Party stand for? Fuck knows - but they give immediate preferences to Family First and Fred Nile's mob, while sticking the Greens last. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about them, policies be damned.

Secondly, remember that no matter where in the column you stick the numbers, you're really voting for parties, not individuals; the candidates are more or less interchangeable cogs within political machines. Voting tickets don't differentiate between them; the ballot lists the name in random order in each party grouping, and the preferences simply flow down the page. This means that you can go against that flow if you want to, piling your preference numbers up the page. That'll spread out the voting more, making it likelier that candidates will be forced out and their votes reallocated - a good thing if you're confident that the candidates you don't like will come up shorter at this point. Alternatively, you can work to match the listing in a column, adding your weight to the predictable mass of preference flow; that makes the top guy on the list more likely to hit quota, which adds extra muscle to your vote as it's then distributed. Again, depends on what you want to do - vote for one party, or vote against another one.

Third, don't worry too much about the numbers in the middle. Statistically, it's pretty likely that all the seats in a region will be allocated by the time counting hits the mid-point of the preference range. What matters most for the election itself are the 10-15 candidates you list first; what matters most in post-electoral flagellation and blame (and personal voter satisfaction) are the 5 or so candidates you list last. The ones in the middle are largely electoral poly-filler (that's a pun, that is), so don't sweat the details too much there. Mix some numbers up, run from Greens to Family First to Labor to Greens again; that'll confuse the party analysts.

But above all else, fill out the whole damn ballot form. Nothing matters more than this. Don't go above the line; don't get halfway through the list and wander off. Every number is a word, a fist, a demand, a bullet; every number is a hand raised to support the candidates you favour and a middle finger to those you despise. The ballot is a line of communication, an order and directive, a statement of revolutionary intent; it is the difference between being a voter and a component.

You are not a number - they are. Make them realize this.

That's about all I have to say on the subtext of voting, really. But I should be able to rattle off a few organizational things on polling day itself. I'm sure you're all hanging out for that one.
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