How do elections work in the Australian states?

Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 10th November 2022

Six months after choosing a new federal parliament, voters in the key Australian state of Victoria will be returning to the polling booth this Saturday (26th November), not just in hope of getting their hands on a ‘democracy sausage’, but to elect both houses of their state parliament as well. Buoyed by their federal election victory in May and a popular state Premier, Labor will be hoping to increase their majority. But how do elections in Victoria, and the other Australian states, work?

Australian State Parliaments

As a federal country, sub-national government is a big deal with significant powers. Australian state governments have control over policy areas like schools, hospitals, public transport, public utilities, agriculture, the natural environment and the police and criminal justice systems, as well as collecting some taxes.

Australia is made up of six states and two territories, each with their own state parliaments that broadly mirror the structure of the federal parliament, with five states (Queensland being the exception) having bicameral parliaments – i.e., they have two houses. In the states, the lower houses (equivalent to the House of Representatives) are typically called Legislative Assemblies and the upper houses (the equivalent of the Senate) are called Legislative Councils.

The electoral systems used also broadly mirror the national set-up – voting is compulsory and some version of either the Alternative Vote (AV, often called Preferential Voting in Australia) or the proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV) are used for all elections. But there are some interesting variations.

State Legislative Assembly Legislative Council
New South Wales AV STV (OPV)
Queensland AV n/a
South Australia AV STV (OPV)
Tasmania STV (Hare-Clark) AV
Victoria AV STV (GVT)
Western Australia AV STV (OPV)
Aus’ Capital Territory STV (Hare-Clark) n/a
Northern Territory AV n/a
Australia AV STV (OPV)

Australia’s Legislative Assemblies

Of the eight Legislative Assemblies, six are elected using AV – those of all states other than Tasmania, as well as that of the Northern Territory. These elections generally use the same methodology as elections to the federal House of Representatives. The one exception is New South Wales, where voters are able to rank as many or as few candidates as they would like. This is in contrast to the norm in Australian AV elections, where a ballot paper is invalid if every candidate is not ranked.

The Assemblies of Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory are, however, chosen using the proportional STV system – allowing the legislatures to better reflect the views of their voters. Tasmania is actually very important in both the history of STV and wider PR, as it was the first directly elected legislature to adopt STV and one of the first to adopt any form of PR. From 1897, some constituencies used STV, with all seats being elected proportionally since 1909.

The version of STV used in the two Assemblies is known as ‘Hare-Clark’ and would be fairly familiar to those in the UK who use STV in the UK (it is used in Northern Ireland and Scottish local elections), although candidates are grouped by party on the ballot paper instead of being listed alphabetically. Voters are not required to rank every candidate, though both jurisdictions expect five preferences to be indicated.

Both Tasmania and the Austrlian Capital Territory are divided into five constituencies, each electing five members – a fairly typical constituency size for an STV election.

Australia’s Legislative Councils

Of the five states that have an upper house, four of them are elected by STV and one by AV.

Tasmania’s Legislative Council

Tasmania reverse the general trend and elect their Council with AV – though this is in a form of rolling election where either two or three seats of the 15-member chamber are elected each year to serve six-year terms. Though none of the voting systems in the STV states are as unusual, they aren’t as familiar as the Hare-Clark version.

Group Ticket Voting in Victoria

The Victorian Legislative Council, which is up this Saturday, uses the Group Voting Ticket (GVT) variant of STV. Victoria is divided into eight constituencies, each returning five members. Under GVT, parties present a ticket of candidates. Voters are able to vote ‘below the line’ for those candidates, but most choose to vote ‘above the line’ for a single ticket. It is then up to the party of that ticket how your vote is distributed to their candidates and other parties.

GVT was initially introduced to federal Senate elections in 1984 to make them easier for voters – previously they had been expected to rank every candidate on the ballot paper, which led to high levels of invalid votes. But GVT has been criticised for the lack of transparency in how parties use the votes and for dodgy transfer deals between parties – at one point a party who won less than 5% of the quota were able to win a seat because of it. In recent years, GVT has been abolished by the Senate and the Legislative Councils of New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia.

Optional Preference Voting

The Councils of those three states, like the Senate, now use an ‘optional preference’ system. Voters can still vote ‘above the line’ for parties, but they can now rank multiple parties and their vote cannot be used in any way they have not indicated on the ballot paper – in what is essentially STV with party lists. Those who choose to vote ‘below the line’ are usually expected to rank a certain number of candidates, fifteen in New South Wales.

These three states also elect their Councils statewide with no constituencies, though New South Wales and South Australia only elect half at each election. This leads to some unusually large STV districts, with Western Australia’s council seeing 37 members chosen at once. No wonder they weren’t keen on having to rank every candidate!

Read more posts...