Junk Explained: Preference Deals, Voting Below The Line, And Making Your Voice Heard

Your foolproof guide to making sure you don't fuck up your vote on May 18.

election preferences, senate voting, election

It’s not just you: getting your vote right in this crazy lil thing we call a democracy is hard.

Without getting all tin foil hat on the subject, a lot of contemporary politics relies on voters being disengaged and alienated from their system of government, which is quite bad, obviously. And if you’re disengaged, there’s a higher chance that you’ll get to the ballot box without any idea what you plan to do, or how to vote.

It’s surprisingly easy to get your vote wrong by accident in Australia. In the House of Representatives (where government is formed) a small mistake on your ballot can mean your vote ends up somewhere completely unexpected. And in the Senate, it’s not much better. To that end, here’s a foolproof guide to voting in the upcoming federal election.

How Do Preferences Work?

Preferencing, as Australia’s election wizard Anthony Green has described it, is the method of electing “the most preferred candidate.” Here’s what that actually means.

In Australia, in order to win a seat in the House of Representatives, a party has to get the absolute majority of all votes counted, not just a plurality. This makes Australia different from most other countries that have a first-past-the-post system. In a first-past-the-post system, the party with the most votes wins. In Australia, it doesn’t matter whether you get the most votes out of all the candidates running. In order to win, you have to get at least 50% of the vote to be elected.

Obviously, this doesn’t always happen, meaning preferences end up deciding who actually wins a seat. To see how it works, let’s invent an imaginary seat called Votington…

Preferences In The Lower House

Say there are five candidates running for the seat of Votington — Labor, Liberals, Greens, One Nation, and The Shooters And Fishers party. On the first count — known as the primary vote — the candidates in Votington get the following votes:

  • Labor: 29%
  • Liberals: 30%
  • Greens: 21%
  • Shooters And Fishers: 19%
  • One Nation: 1%

In this case, no party has the absolute majority of the votes. The Liberals have the most, but they don’t have more than 50%, meaning they haven’t won the seat quite yet.

This is where preferences come in. Preferences are a way of getting one party to 50% of the vote.

When you vote in the House of Representatives, you have to give a preference to all candidates. In this case, that means casting your first, second, third, fourth and fifth preferences. If you vote for a party that only gets a small share of the vote, your preferences will then be distributed to your next… uh… preference.

Here’s how that works: The party with the least chance of getting the absolute majority has their votes redistributed. But on the recount, the votes are counted for the second preference, rather than the first. The votes therefore “flow” from the first preference to the second.

Sometimes parties with similar ideologies will strike a preference deal in order to direct votes their way. In the House of Representatives, this takes the form of a how-to-vote card. A how-to-vote card is basically a suggestion from your chosen party, explaining how they’d like you to order your preferences, putting them at the top, their closest political allies next, and so on. (Eg, The government preferencing Clive Palmer above Labor and the Greens. Make of that what you will…)

Importantly, you’re under no obligation to follow the suggestions, and it’s not really clear how many people actually do. You are your own person! Make your own choices!

Anyway, back to Votington…

In Votington, One Nation has a preference deal with Shooters and Fishers. This means that if you follow One Nation’s how-to-vote card, you’ll number One Nation first, then follow their suggestions down the line. That means that once One Nation is eliminated, your vote will go to the Shooters and Fishers, who you preferenced second.

Now, on the second count, the vote in Votington looks like this:

  • Labor: 29%
  • Liberals: 30%
  • Greens: 21%
  • Shooters And Fishers: 20%

But even though One Nation’s votes have “flowed on” to Shooters and Fishers, there’s still no party with 50% of the vote.

We move on: the next party with the least chance of getting to 50% of the vote has their votes recounted. In Votington, that’s Shooters and Fishers.

Now, all the One Nation votes that were recounted for Shooters and Fishers flow to your third preference — which let’s imagine in this case is the Liberals. On top of that, all the Shooters and Fishers first preference votes now flow to the Shooters and Fishers’ second preference, which, for ease of explanation, let’s say is also the Liberals.

Now, on a third count, the votes in Votington look like this:

  • Labor: 29%
  • Liberals: 50%
  • Greens: 21%

Finally, the recounting can stop — the Liberals have 50% of the vote, and have won the seat.

Of course, that’s a simplified version of how the votes move. In reality, votes can flow in many different ways, and it’s not always the case that votes flow in one big block together. But still, the result in Votington shows the importance of preference deals — they can help to win elections.

In Votington, the Liberals led the primary count. But that doesn’t have to be the case — sometimes, preference deals can push the second or third candidate on the primary count into the winning position. This is often the case in Labor- or Greens-held seats, where the Liberals might lead on first preference votes, but a combination of left-of-centre votes can combine to push a Labor or Greens candidate over the top.

And Then There’s The Senate

Each state has 12 Senators, while the territories have two each. At this election six Senate seats will be up for grabs in every state. A party wins a Senate seat when it gets enough votes to fill a quota — which is calculated by dividing the number of formal votes cast by the number of seats up for grabs.

Often, the major parties will fill a quota or two by themselves, and the last few seats in each state will be a fight between minor parties, and will come down to preferences.

In the Senate, you can cast two types of votes: either above-the-line or below-the-line. If you vote above the line, you have to preference at least six parties (although you can choose more).

You preferences will then be distributed to your first party of choice, until there are no candidates in that party left, then they’ll be distributed to your next choice, and so on, until all of your preferences have been used up.

Under the previous system, all you had to do was choose your first preference above the line. Once a Senator (or more) from your chosen party had been elected, any leftover votes would then be “directed” by that party to a different party of their choosing. This often meant that your vote could end up with a completely different candidate to the one you initially intended — possibly even a party that you might be completely ideologically opposed to.

But, thanks to some 2016 reforms, group voting has now been abolished. That means you can vote for a minimum of six candidates. After the preferences for those six candidates have been distributed, your vote will “exhaust”, ensuring that your vote doesn’t end up with a party you hate.

Those reforms were designed to ensure that we don’t get Senators who only got a handful of votes, but somehow end up in a very powerful position thanks to super complicated preferences deals with other minor parties or candidates.

Your other option is to vote below the line. In this case, you choose a minimum of 12 candidates to vote for. If your first preference doesn’t get enough votes, your vote will flow to your second preference, and so on.


If you’re a particularly dedicated voter, you can number every single one of your below the line preferences. In some cases, this will mean that you’re ranking candidates from 1 to 150ish. This is a great way to make sure that the candidate you hate the most definitely doesn’t end up with your vote.

But this isn’t always necessary. Unless you are voting for very fringe parties, it’s unlikely that your vote will be recounted more than 12 times.

But hey, the more candidates you vote for, the more clearly you are saying exactly how you want your vote to go. So although 12 is the minimum, how far you take your adventure below the line is up to you.

How Do I Make Sure My Least Preferred Party Doesn’t Get My Vote?

For a lot of people, voting below the line isn’t as much about saying who you do want your vote to go to, but who you don’t. Some voters really don’t like the idea that their vote will eventually count for a party that they completely ideologically oppose, so really want to put a certain candidate last.

However, it’s important to note that simply putting a candidate last out of your preferences achieves the opposite of this. Say you’re in a rush and want to put Liberals last, but don’t want to spend too long on it, so you put Labor 1 and Liberals 2. Out of the two preferences you’ve cast, Liberals are last. But they’re also your second preference. This means that if Labor is the party least likely to win a seat, your vote will immediately count for the Liberals — the opposite of what you wanted.

When it comes to preferencing, the way to think about it is this: the vote can be recounted lots and lots of times. But each recount is a little bit more unlikely than the last. So put your least favourite party in a position where it’s highly unlikely that there’ll be that many recounts.