Voting in Australian elections isn’t as simple as ticking a box on a ballot paper. In fact, if you tick a box you’ve just wasted your vote! It will be declared informal.
Australia uses a preferential voting system, which means voters number candidates on the ballot paper in order of their preference. This means placing a number ‘1’ next to the candidate you most want to see elected and numbering the remaining candidates in order of preference.
This is called preferencing. How it works – and what is required for your vote to be valid – is different in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Let’s begin with the Senate because it’s more complex.
In the Senate, you are voting to elect two senators (if you live in the ACT or the Northern Territory) or twelve senators, if you live in any other state. You have two choices of how you vote in the Senate, these are called voting ‘above’ or ‘below’ the line.
You can rank at least six political parties above the line, in order of your preference. If you choose this method then the party of your choice is able to attribute your vote to candidates they are running in the order they dictate.
Alternatively you can rank at least 12 of the individual candidates who are listed below the line (in some states there will be more than 200 to choose from!) If you choose this method, then you alone dictate which individuals get your vote. This includes being able to decide the order of preference between candidates from the same party.
Electing a candidate for a seat in the House of Representatives is more straightforward. Only one member of parliament is elected to represent each electorate. So you are voting for a single representative. On your ballot, you will be presented with a list of candidates, along with their party names (if they have one) and boxes which you number in order of preference.
You must number the boxes, in order, through to the end by writing the number ‘1’ in the box next to the candidate who is your first choice, and the numbers ‘2’, ‘3’ and so on against all the other candidates until all the boxes have been numbered.
Preferences play a significant role in determining the outcome of an election and can mean a candidate who has the highest number of primary votes may not actually win the seat after preferences are distributed. The system is designed to ensure that voters get to have some sort of say in who wins, even in circumstances where their ideal candidate has been eliminated. At the polling booth, there will be party and independent volunteers handing ‘How to Vote’ cards out to voters. Please remember that you’re under no obligation to follow a party’s card, even if you support that party. You can abide by their advice on how to distribute your preferences if you wish, or you can choose your own path. Such is the joy of democracy.
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