If we vote below-the-line we can choose whichever candidates best meet our expectations of good representatives, and we can rank them in the order we want. The more people that do this, the closer the Parliament will be to representing our wishes. We have a range of choices and we can use them. Voting below-the-line only requires us to fill in as many boxes as there are candidates to be chosen, but it allows us to rank as many candidates as we want. The more candidates we rank, the more effective and powerful our vote is.
The core of the gold standard of electoral systems, PR-STV, applies in the Australian Senate and the both the Victorian and New South Wales Legislatives Councils. These are the three largest elections held using PR-STV in the world, and the next Senate election will be the largest ever held using the worlds fairest and most representative electoral system.
To make best use of the voting power that is available to us when voting below the line, we need first to explain a little how it works.
In each of the Australian Senate, the Legislative Councils of Victoria and New South Wales, there are a minimum number of squares that have to be filled in, as follows
- Australian Senate: 6 (in an ordinary half Senate election), 12 in a double dissolution
- Victoria: 5
- New South Wales: 15
Voting below-the-line gives you by far the greatest choice. You can rank candidates in any order; you don’t have to follow the order that the party of our choice is recommending. Your vote does not lose any of its power if you change the order to the one that you prefer. And you can choose to support candidates from different parties if you so wish. The more preferences that you express the more likely it is for your vote to count towards the election of candidates.
Just because the party you support ranks the candidates in a particular order, it doesn’t mean that you have to follow that. Suppose you are a supporter of the Liberal Party in Victoria, and the Liberals have ranked the candidates in this order:
- Mitch Fifield
- Scott Ryan
- James Paterson
- and three more
Perhaps you really like Senator James Paterson, and you can vote below the line  for him, and then  and  for Mitch Fifield and Scott Ryan as you prefer. There might be six Liberal candidates and you can, if you like, just vote  to  for them.
It may be that all these three are elected, but if one of them is not, that candidate will be declared ‘excluded’ and their preferences counted. If you have only voted for candidates in the Liberal column, at this point your votes would become exhausted and not counted any further.
That’s why it is best to rank as many candidates as you wish; the more that you give preferences to, the more likely your vote is to achieve its full potential. So let’s suppose this Liberal voter looks at the other possible candidates: from parties like ALP; Greens; Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party; One Nation; Shooters, Fishers and Farmers; and Australian Conservatives. Perhaps you prefer the Australian Conservatives next, then the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, then Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, then the ALP, then One Nation and last the Greens. That’s your right in a democracy, to support candidates in any order you choose.
If you express your preferences all the way to the end, your vote might just help elect a One Nation candidate ahead of the Greens, even though these are both low on your list of preferred candidates. But it means that you have used your vote to its full potential. You have given your number  to the candidate you liked best; you have then given your highest preferences to other candidates of similar views and some of them have been elected. But there was still ‘value’ left in your vote and as the counting of preferences went on, the value of your vote lasted all the way to the last contest, and you helped decide the winner.