Confused About Preferences In Voting? Here’s What You Need To Know

It's as easy as 1,2,3,4,5,6.

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With the Federal Election just weeks away, let’s wise up on how to make an informed vote so you don’t panic at the ballot box.

A record amount of young people are enrolled to vote in this year’s Federal Election, with over 80,000 young people enrolling to vote in one week, according to the ABC.

For first-timers, and those perenially confused by how preference voting works, here’s a run-down on how to make your vote count this year.

Preference Voting Is As Easy As 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Let’s quickly break down how preference voting works in Australia.

Australia uses a preferential voting system, which essentially means that all eligible voters get one single, transferable vote. As Evan Ekin-Smyth from the Australian Electoral Commission puts it, by numbering each candidate on the ballot sheet, voters control exactly where their vote flows in the Federal Election.

If your number one in the house of representatives is knocked out, your vote will transfer at its full value to your number two. If your number two is also knocked out, it will transfer again at full value down to your number three and so on until your vote is counted for one of the top two candidates,” Evan told Junkee.

Despite what you might hear in the media about how One Nation might be directing their preference votes, the Australian Electoral Commission wants you to know one thing: The only person that can control where your vote goes is YOU!

“Parties and candidates, they can suggest where you might want to number your ballot paper, but you don’t have to follow that. That’s guidance only, that’s your choice to follow that guidance or not. It’s up to you how you number your ballot paper and you alone.” Evan told Junkee. 

This means that despite what you might hear about a political party preferencing another, that only applies to their ‘How To Vote’ cards — which serve as instructions to the voter.

Put simply– Evan says that voting is like picking a sports team in the schoolyard.

“All you’ve gotta do is pick from your favourite to your least favourite, and the system will take care of the rest.”

Voting in the Senate VS Voting in the House of Reps

Your vote in the 2022 Federal Election will involve two bits of paper, a long one and a short one.

At Federal elections in Australia, voters elect members of the House of Representatives, (sometimes called the ‘lower house’) and the Senate (the ‘upper house’).

The TLDR for these two houses of government goes like this: A majority in the House of Representatives decides who forms government in Australia. Because the Liberal/National Coalition and the Labor Party are essentially the two biggest parties in Australia, control of the House of Reps essentially comes down to these parties duking it out — with Independents giving their support to either party in the event that it’s a really close contest and neither has the majority.

Aside from forming the government, the House of Reps also:

  • Makes new laws, or changes old ones
  • Decides on government spending.
  • debates government administration.
  • represents and argues on petitions from the people.

For a full list of the House of Representatives functions, check out the Australian Parliament website

The senate works a little differently. It’s essentially used as a control measure to make sure that the House Of Reps doesn’t get too big for its boots. The Senate has to debate every law constructed in the House of Representatives before it’s enacted and is an important safeguard for Australian Democracy.

The ‘Upper House’ is made up of 76 senators, twelve from every six states and two from each mainland territory. Senate elections use a proportional representative system, which results in the Upper House having a much more diverse make-up than the House of Reps. A political party hasn’t had a majority in both the Senate and House of Reps since 2004.

For more on what the Senate does, again check out the Australian Parliament website.

You can check out what these look like in the flesh by heading over to the AEC website, which let you practice voting online. Here’s an example of the Senate and House of Rep’s voting papers.

Remember, regardless if you’re voting above or below the line (more on that later) you have to number EVERY BOX! This is to control how your vote flows — from most liked, to least liked.

Above The Line VS Below The Line

Voting above or below the line refers to how you control your preference vote when voting for the Senate in the Federal Election.

The Senate ballot paper can be freakishly long, sometimes over a metre, and lists ALL the candidates of ALL the parties running for election in the Senate. Voting above the line basically means that your vote will simply transfer from one political party to another.

But what if there’s someone that you REALLY don’t like in a political party that you would normally preference first? Well here comes ‘voting below the line’ to the rescue! Voting below the line lets you number each individual Senator up for election, and lets your vote transcend political parties and count for individual people.

This lets you use your vote to specifically choose who you want in the Senate, regardless of what political party they are in.

“wHaT’s tHe pOiNt oF vOtinG fOr A MiNor pArtY iF tHey Won’t WiN???”

Ah, this old chestnut. Well, there are heaps of reasons. Firstly, money! As Evan from the AEC explains, political parties that receive a certain amount of votes get financial reimbursement from their political campaigns.

“If a political party or a candidate receives over four percent of first preferences, they receive what’s called election funding or political funding. It means that they get a reimbursement of their electoral expenditure, up until the amount of votes that they receive,” Evan told Junkee. 

This means that voting for a party with policies that you agree with ALWAYS helps benefit their campaign.

Also, because we have a preferential voting system here in Australia, there’s literally no risk of “wasting” your vote if you’re preferencing your vote from who you like the most, to who you like the least. As Evan from the AEC says, it’s not about planning for who is going to win, but voting for who you WANT in Parliament.

“You don’t have to guess who you think will win in a contest, if you look at the house of representatives, you number your boxes according to who you most want in parliament down to who you least want in parliament,” Evan told Junkee. 

Research Time: How To Do Your Homework Before The Election

The only tricky thing about preferential voting is that it’s really important to know who all your candidates are before you head to the polling booth. You can do that here, by punching your postcode into the AEC website.

How you research is up to you. You can go to each political party’s website and check what policies they’re barracking for. You can read political information that might have been distributed to you in the mail, and cross-reference it with what you find online. If you REALLY like a political party, you can also use their official ‘How to Vote’ cards that volunteers usually hand out at your closest ballot box (just remember nothing is stopping you from deviating from their picks if you want to!).

Evan from the AEC says that the most important thing to do is to make sure that you treat the information you base your vote on with some healthy critical thinking.

“Don’t just hear something, take it as gospel and move forward, really think about what you’re seeing. And ask yourself some basic questions: Where is it coming from, is there alternative information I can look at. Just really do your research so that you’re going to a polling place knowing what all your candidates are and what you think of them,” Evan says.