What does preferential voting mean?

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 26th March 2019

There has been talking recently about using preferential voting to solve the Brexit impasse – whether through MPs using it to find a form of Brexit that parliament can support or through a referendum.

When there are only two options to decide between, voting is simple. Whatever happens, the majority will support one of the options. But when there are more than two options, it’s possible that none of the options will be supported by a majority. If the goal is to find out what the majority of people want, this can cause problems.

While MPs are wrestling between different forms of Brexit, Australia had this problem in the 1910s while electing their MPs.

In October 1918, a Labor candidate won a by-election on just over one-third of the vote, because conservative voters, who made up the two-thirds of the electorate, split their votes between the new Country Party and the Nationalist Party.

This meant that the majority of people were opposed to their new MP and would have preferred to be represented by a more conservative candidate.

Had Nationalist voters known that voting for the Nationalist Party candidate would have brought about a Labor MP, they would have voted for the conservative Country Party instead. What they needed was a way of expressing their second favourite choice.

The solution they came to was ‘preferential’ voting. Voters don’t just say who their favourite candidate is, but also their second favourite and so on, indicating as many preferences as they have. They simply write a number next to each candidate to indicate their preferences, rather than a cross next to just one option.

If more than half the voters have the same favourite candidate, that candidate wins. If no candidate gets the support of half the voters, the numbers provide instructions for what happens next.

At the count, poll workers look at the pile of ballot papers for the candidate who came last. These votes get moved to the piles belonging to each voter’s second favourite candidate. This process is repeated until one candidate has half of the votes and becomes the MP.

In America, they call this system Instant Run-Off voting as it is like holding a series of run-off elections – where each time, the person who came last in the previous round is excluded. But rather than coming back every weekend to vote again, voters indicate in one go who they would vote for if their favourite was excluded.

Around the world, this system is used in most of Australia’s elections and for the president of Ireland. But it has also been used in a number of referendums.

In 1977, Australia was looking for a new national anthem. With four options on the table, Australians could have ended up with a national anthem three-quarters of them didn’t really like. So, voters used preferential voting to decide. Each voter put God Save the Queen, Advance Australia Fair, The Song of Australia and Waltzing Matilda in order, with their favourite at number 1. Ultimately, Advance Australia Fair came out as the winner and became the national song.

Similarly, in 2015–16, New Zealand was looking for a new flag. Following a design competition, the public used preferential voting to decide between five designs in a 2015 referendum. The winning option then went to a one on one with the existing flag in 2016, and lost.

Another example is that of Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.). Here, in 2016, residents were asked to choose a new electoral system. Voters used preferential voting to decide between five options: Dual Member Proportional Representation, First Past The Post, First Past The Post Plus Leaders, Mixed Member Proportional Representation.

Much like the debate MPs are having around Brexit, there was one option for the status quo and multiple options for change.

At the first count the status quo, First Past the Post, was in the lead with 31% of the vote as reformers were split across four options. As the more obscure systems were excluded, votes collected around the winning Mixed Member Proportional system (supported by 52% of voters). Although no threshold had been set before the vote, the government decided that the turnout was too low and ignored the result. Another referendum on electoral reform is due to be held in P.E.I. this year.

Preferential votes have been used around the world where the government wants to put more power into the hands of voters. In each of these referendums, the government could have simply held a straight First Past the Post vote with multiple options. But this could have led to an option winning without the support of a majority of voters.

The government could also have picked a challenger song, flag or electoral system to go up against the status quo in a one on one. But how could the government know which was the best one to go up against the status quo?

When it comes to how we choose our representatives, our flags and anthems, it’s vital the winner has broad support among citizens and that voters have as much choice as possible.

Preferential voting allows for widespread support to be built around one option and ensures that the public has as much ownership of the result as possible.

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