Multi-member electoral districts return more than one member of a representative body.

Electoral systems

The definition of the word election involves a choice of a person for a political office or other position by voting, and is based on the Latin “eligere”, meaning to pick out. The appointment of a person to a position by a resolution, even though voting is also used, is different from an election because an election allows the filling of a defined number of positions from a larger number of candidates, whereas votes for appointment by resolution are either YES or NO to each of a number of single candidates conducted seriatim, or to a single slate of candidates.

Australia’s first Federal Parliament in 1901 chose to make a significant change from the British Parliament’s practice. It inaugurated its present practice when the Senate resolved to elect its first President (see Parliamentary Debates Page 9, on 9th May 1901) by a preferential secret ballot from the three candidates that stood. The House of Commons in the UK has since followed that lead for the election of its Speaker, but in 2001, a century later, Australia’s Corporations Act 2001 still provides that company directors can be appointed by sequential resolutions, rather than being elected from multiple candidates being compared against each other in one decision. Alternatives to that provision are now allowed, but no election process is made mandatory.


This major and fundamental distinction between electoral systems can be seen by clicking here.


The use of vote-counting systems to fill a single vacancy, such as the president of an organization, which requires the use of a winner-take-all system, is a simpler operation than their use to fill the multiple vacancies required to be filled when the members of a representative body are to be elected in the most representative manner, as there are fewer possibilities, and usually fewer candidates. Similar general approaches can be applied to both situations, but there are obviously more variations possible with the multiple vacancy situation.

Proportional representation only applies to elections of a representative body, and provides the fullest and most accurate representation of as many voters as possible. It requires multi-member electorates for it to operate. Single-member electorate systems, which are necessarily and inherently winner-take-all systems, do not soundly elect representative bodies, as they collectively represent barely half of all voters, and leave the remaining voters totally unrepresented.


A useful resource for details of these systems is the Wikipedia page on Voting Systems.

Single Vacancies: The earliest and simplest voting took place for single positions, such as the chairperson or presiding officer of an organization. When there were only two candidates for such a single position, it was obvious that the candidate with most of the votes was the candidate that should be elected. When there were more than two candidates, the assumption was made that the same first-past-the-post rule should apply there also, and that was widely done as it was not a difficult operation.

Widespread long term use of such systems has led to their replacement in countries such as the UK and USA being resisted, although it was soon recognized that having three or more candidates could result in the candidate with the most votes of any candidate nevertheless not receiving most of the votes cast overall. A working solution to that anomaly arrived in the form of the single transferable vote in the 19th Century, which is the system now used in all the Lower Houses of Australia’s Federal and mainland State Parliaments, but that was not implemented until 1919, when the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 – the present principal Act – was first used. That system, called the Alternative Vote, Single Transferable Vote, or preferential system as it is usually known in Australia, ensures that the votes for the less strongly-supported candidates are successively transferred to the next most-preferred candidate until a candidate gains more votes than the remaining votes combined, whereupon that candidate is declared elected.

The Alternative Vote for a single-member electorate is easily explained by showing how it can fill a single vacancy such as that for a single spokesperson to represent, on behalf of a public meeting – particularly if it was not significantly party-political and thus perhaps likely to require a secret ballot – what was decided at that meeting by way of successful resolutions, which can only be passed by the vote of more than 50% of those voting supporting them. As those resolutions were only able to be passed by that absolute majority, it is consistent that a single spokesperson for the meeting should be elected with the support of an absolute majority (more than 50%) of those voting at the meeting. If there are more than two candidates for the election of such a spokesperson, a first-past-the-post count will not necessarily produce a spokesperson elected by an absolute majority, so preferential voting is needed.

The meeting might decide to do that, for convenience, by assembling in groups next to the various candidates according to their support for them. The chairperson of the meeting would arrange for a count of each group, and exclude the candidate with the fewest supporters with a request that they either move to a continuing candidate’s group, or to a group for those with no further preference. Done successively in Thomas Hill’s “schoolboy election” style – but for a single vacancy only – that would be a procedure that few at an actual meeting of reasonable, orderly people could successfully contest the logic of, as ultimately it would be obvious to all present that the person elected had received the vote of an absolute majority of those voting. By contrast, a first-past-the-post system could result in the person elected being opposed by an absolute majority of those that did not vote for him or her – in the only vote the system allowed.

The lowest percentage of the first preference vote received by a successful candidate for Australia’s House of Representatives was the 16.6% received by the Country Party’s Henry Hewson for the seat of McMillan in 1972, as he was one of three existing or former Coalition party members and one DLP member that contested the seat against a single Labor candidate.

The original bill for the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902provided for the single transferable vote (preferential voting) for both houses of the Australian Parliament with marking of second and later preferences being fully optional, as is the modern optional preferential system for the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, but that 1902 Bill, which was introduced by the Barton Government and passed by the House of Representatives, was amended in the Senate to remove the transferable element, leaving a “first-past-the-post” non-transferable vote for the electors for both houses. The House of Representatives passed the amended bill, which became Australia’s first federal electoral law, the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902.

Multiple Vacancies: With multiple vacancies both transferable and non-transferable vote systems exist. The non-transferable systems can be either proportional or winner-take-all (majoritarian), as can the transferable systems. For example, Australia’s first and secondfederally-enacted vote-counting systems at Senate elections were both winner-take-all systems:

That second system was in turn was replaced in 1948 by the present quota-preferential system of proportional representation, which is a transferable proportional system. Since 1948, no single party has won all the seats, Australia-wide, at a periodic Senate election, as happened in 1910, 1917, 1925, 1934 and 1943. Both Eire and Malta use quota-preferential PR for elections to their national parliaments. Interest in PR is growing in the USA and Canada.

By contrast the majority of countries on the continent of Europe use proportional systems that involve non-transferable votes, usually called party list systems. Many new introductions of electoral systems involve the use of such systems ostensibly because of the ease of use for voters, despite (or because of) that ease of use leading to the voters having no real control over the actual persons being elected, as the voters are only permitted to vote for parties. Examples of such systems are those now used in South Africa, Sri Lanka and Iraq. New Zealand uses a hybrid MMP system, like Germany, where one part is winner-take-all (majoritarian) and the other part is an attempt at a proportional correction, in party terms, of the distortions of that majoritarian component. Fortunately the use of party list systems, which do not directly elect MPs, would appear to be unconstitutional (see next paragraph) for electing either MHRs or senators to Australia’s Federal Parliament and – alone among the Australian States – Western Australia’s State Parliament.



The Proportional Representation End: At the proportional representation end of this spectrum are those systems, whether transferable vote or non-transferable vote systems that provide, in electoral districts electing five or more candidates as a group, for the election of candidates with a significant degree of diversity able to represent, collectively, some five-sixths of the total number of voters. This end of the spectrum includes

  • most of the party list systems of continental Europe, even though they do not allow direct election of representatives as is mandated by Section 7 and Section 24 of the Australian Constitution, and
  • quota-preferential systems of direct election of candidates such as that used for the election of Australia’s senators since 1948.

The Winner-take-all End: At the Winner-take-all end of the spectrum are those systems, mostly like the two different majoritorian systems above used for Australian Senate elections from 1902-46 where, like the multiple pluralitysystem (1902-17), the candidates that gained the largest single group of votes filled all the available positions, or the multiple majority-preferential system (1919-47), where the candidates that gained a bare absolute majority of votes filled all the available positions. At five separate periodic Senate elections, a single party won all available seats Australia-wide! As stated in Section 2 above, single-vacancy systems are inherently winner-take-all systems.

Intermediate Positions: Between those two ends of the spectrum of proportionality are systems that give a degree of proportionality, but tend to have some bias towards larger groups. Examples are quota-preferential systems where the number of persons to be elected is fewer than five, and non-preferential non-proportional systems that nevertheless enable some minority representation, such as the limited vote or the cumulative vote.


The requirement of transferable vote electoral systems relating to the marking of preferences has extended from a requirement to mark all preferences consecutively without error or any omission or duplication of numbers to the complete removal of any requirement to mark any preferences other than a unique first preference. In all quota-preferential systems a ballot-paper is informal if it has no unique first preference marked on it.

Statutory provisions specifying the extent of marking of preferences required for a vote to be formal applied to Senate polls before proportional representation was introduced. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, which instituted a multiple majority-preferential system for Senate polls, required that a formal vote must show a number of preferences equal to twice the number of vacancies plus one. The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1934 changed that to require full marking of all preferences, but the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1940 provided that the last preference did not have to be marked. Dr H.V. Evatt, in introducing the Commonwealth Electoral Bill 1948, insisted – despite the Opposition pointing out that mandatory marking of all preferences, except the last, was unnecessary for quota-preferential polls, and that Tasmania’s Hare-Clark system had functioned admirably since 1907 with voters only having to mark their first three preferences – that the mandatory marking of all preferences except the last would remain in the Bill. The Parliament passed the Bill intact.

A quota-preferential system will usually operate with fully optional marking of preferences, although such a system tends to maximize the number of ballot-papers that become exhausted during the scrutiny owing to no further preferences being shown for transfer. That did not appear to discourage the change made to the PR system used for the NSW Legislative Assembly from 1920 until the Lang ALP Government abolished it, which was a change from its original requirement for full preferential marking to partial preferential marking of a minimum of preferences equal to the number of positions to be filled.

Tasmania’s Hare-Clark system and the below-the-line section of Victoria’s Legislative Council PR system now require, for a ballot-paper to be formal, that the number of preferences marked be at least equal to the number of vacancies to be filled. That provision has the merit of absolutely ensuring that an outcome can never arise where the only preferences marked in the whole ballot are for a number of candidates that is less than the number of vacancies to be filled. The NSW Legislative Council PR system has, relatively, a lower requirement. The Senate system has been modified from its1948 form to allow a small number of omissions and repetitions of preference markings.

The extent to which preferences are required to be marked also varies in the case of systems for filling a single vacancy. At polls for members of the Australian House of Representatives full marking of all preferences except the last is required, whereas for polls for members of the NSW Legislative Assembly fully optional marking of preferences applies.


The Hare-Clark system of proportional representation used in Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory is a direct system of election that includes features such as Robson Rotation that operate to ensure that voters are the real arbiters of whom is elected.

By contrast, electoral systems in other parts of Australia and elsewhere have been overlaid with aspects that operate against voters being the real arbiters of whom is elected. Examples of such aspects include a degree of stage management where political parties are allowed to decide the order of candidates on ballot-papers, and the Group Voting Tickets used for other parliamentary PR polls in Australia. Those aspects allow voters to be readily persuaded to adopt a specific choice of candidates from a ticket lodged by their party of choice, and to not bother distinguishing between the particular candidates, even though, unlike the case with party list systems, which are indirect electoral systems, there is provision for them to do so, although that is made harder for them than the easy method of donkey voting or ticking a Group Voting Ticket box.

Representative bodies elected from single-member electorates weaken voter control in the sense that, unlike proportional representation systems, nearly half the voters in each electorate, and hence overall, are unrepresented by the final outcome.


Details of a wide range of vote-counting systems can be seen on Wikipedia, or by clicking on this link to the Web site of the Australian Electoral Commission, where the AEC comments on some of the disadvantages of certain systems, including the “Points System”.

The deceptiveness and distortion that some systems entail is also referred to in the PRSA’s newsletter, Quota Notes, in its QN80 (1995) issue. Its QN62 (1991) issue describes a welcome recognition of the need to replace the distorting and misconceived “Points System” (Borda system), described at the AEC link above, with a quota-preferential system of proportional representation. Those articles highlight the fact that a ballot-paper that requires a voter’s preferences to be marked is not necessarily coupled with a transferable vote counting system. A number of trade union electoral systems have the same deceptive flaw as the CPSU system discussed. Fortunately all Australia’s parliamentary and municipal electoral systems that require voters to mark preferences, except for municipal elections in multi-member divisions in Queensland, do involve transferable vote counting systems.