Preferential voting means everyone’s vote has more power

There are always many candidates offering themselves for election to our representative bodies (Parliaments). While most electoral systems around the world give you the right to vote for any of these, many of them only allow a single preference; if the candidate you vote for does not have much support, your vote is effectively discarded and wasted. Preferential voting is about giving the greatest possible value to all the votes cast in an election, valuing everyone’s opinions equally. It means that you rank the candidates in the order you wish to support them. If your first choice doesn’t have large enough support, your vote – via your next preference – can flow to someone that might.


Preferential voting in single member districts arose from the democratic requirement that a candidate needs 50% (plus one) support from the voters in order to be elected as an MP. If there are only two candidates, that is relatively straightforward. One gets a little (or a lot) more than the other, and is elected as a consequence.

But what happens if there are three or more candidates. Consider the following situation, which occurred in Prahran, Victoria, in the 2014 election

First preference votes (https://www.vec.vic.gov.au/Results/State2014/PrahranDistrict.html)

Hibbins, Sam

Australian Greens

9160

24.75%

Walker, Alan

Family First

282

0.76%

Pharaoh, Neil

Australian Labor Party

9586

25.91%

Goldsmith, Jason Simon

 

247

0.67%

Stefanopoulos, Steve

 

227

0.61%

Newton-Brown, Clem

Liberal

16582

44.81%

Gullone, Eleonora

Animal Justice Party

837

2.26%

Menadue, Alan Maxwell

 

82

0.22%

Final result after preferences (https://www.vec.vic.gov.au/Results/State2014/distributionPrahranDistrict.html)

Hibbins, Sam

Australian Greens

18640

50.37%

Newton-Brown, Clem

Liberal

18363

49.63%

Even though Sam Hibbins was ranked third in the number of first preference votes, most the 1675 voters for the various minor parties preferred him to the Labor candidate, Neil Pharoah. That meant that Sam Hibbins ended ahead of Neil Pharaoh, and then Neil Pharoah’s preferences were counted, and most of them preferred Sam Hibbins over Clem Newton-Brown. Some people might complain that Clem Newton-Brown should have won because more people voted [1] for him; but the reality is that most of the electorate, by a small margin, did not prefer him, and Sam Hibbins was elected as the preferred candidate of a majority. The preferential system, therefore, ensures that the candidate elected is the one prefered by the majority.

Contrast that with the situation in the UK, and the example of the constituency of Midlothian in Scotland.

Danielle Rowley

Labour

16,458

36.4

Owen Thompson

SNP

15,573

34.4

Chris Donnelly

Conservative

11,521

25.4

Ross Laird

Liberal Democrat

1,721

3.8

Here the winning candidate had the support of just over a third of the voters. The 29.2% of the votes of those that supported Chris Donnelly (Conservative) and Ross Laird (Liberal Democrat) were effectively discarded from the count and did not contribute to the final result. A much fairer system would allow everyone to express preferences, to rank the candidates in the order they support them. It might well be, in those circumstances, that a big majority of those that voted for Chris Donnelly (Conservative) and Ross Laird (Liberal Democrat) would have preferred Owen Thompson from the SNP.

When combined with proportional representation, preferential voting gives us the Gold Standard, the World’s Best Practice in electoral systems: PR with the Single Transferable Vote. That is also known as the Hare-Clark system in Tasmania and the ACT, and their electoral systems give voters more choice and more control than other electoral systems.

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