The Ethics Of… Preferential Voting

In case last week’s post didn’t make it obvious, life has gotten kinda busy recently and I’m afraid this blog is going to suffer for it for the next few weeks. But don’t despair (I type, desperately clinging to the delusion that anyone out there might actually despair), for the next four weeks I’ll still be writing my usual ravings, but in much shorter, punchier form.

And to get this show on the road, Australia has a federal election coming up so it’s time to tackle two of the weirder aspects of how our elections work: preferential voting and compulsory voting. And in the split second before you close this window in disgust, please trust me that these topics are nowhere near as boring as they seem.

Look what I’m resorting to, dammit.

So what is preferential voting? Pretty much the only thing between us and the three ring hype circus that are elections in the USA, that’s what.

You ever notice how the USA only really has two parties? Ever wonder why that is when Australia has always had at least a few minor parties running around, even before the Senate went mental a few years ago?

Shit’s ridiculous.

But in the US you get Democrat or Republican, all the time, every time. It’s not that minor parties don’t exist, there are heaps in fact, but they barely win any seats at any election and NEVER get any attention. In Aus on the other hand, minor parties have held Senate seats since forever and have started to take enough lower house seats to make trouble, so what gives?

Simple really; Australia has preferential voting and the USA has a ‘first-past-the-post’ system. A preference system means you put down your choices in case your #1 candidate doesn’t get enough votes. In a first-past-the-post system on the other hand, the winner is whoever gets over the threshold of victory first.

Obviously first-past-the-post is MASSIVELY simpler – one man, one vote, winner takes all, no stuffing about. So why does Australia insist on arsing about with this overly complicated preference system which ends up with those pesky How To Vote cards being shoved up your nostrils at the polling booths?

There are a lot less brawls than you’d expect, considering.

Because first-past-the-post systems are complete garbage, that’s why. Here’s a surprisingly interesting video explaining why!

For those that can’t watch it for whatever reason, here’s the gist: a first-past-the-post election system will always – ALWAYS – end up with only two major parties in control. Why? Because if the party you voted for doesn’t get elected, then your vote doesn’t count for squat. It simply disappears. Doesn’t matter who your number 2 preference is, or the group you most hate is for that matter, cause you already used your vote and that’s the end of that.

In this sort of system, what is the point in voting for a minor party, or any party that doesn’t have a good chance at being elected? It would literally be a wasted vote because it is guaranteed not to make a difference; if enough of the electorate want a different candidate then boom, game over.

So as a voter who cares about certain topics, you now have two options;

  1. Stick with the party that best represents your views, but stands precisely 0% chance of ever being able to do anything about them, or;
  2. Vote for a party that does stand a chance of getting in, that doesn’t really represent you but is at least better than the guys in power.

But in reality that’s not a choice at all, is it? Because if you choose option A then your vote literally won’t count until you choose option B – in the end the only votes that end up mattering are the ones for either the largest party or its largest competitor.

Credit to the excellent Loren Fishman at

Yeah but so what right? Who gives a crap about the comparative merits of voting systems? Sure the first-past-the-post system might make the domination of two big parties inevitable, but why should I care?

Simple: because it forces political parties to give a shit about YOU. Or at least more of a shit than they would otherwise.

In Australia our preferential system means your vote doesn’t just disappear if your first choice doesn’t get in; you get to say exactly who you like more, less and least for every single candidate. If your guy doesn’t get in then your vote is added to your second preference, which might be enough to get them in. Your second choice doesn’t come through, then your vote goes to your third choice and so on.

Not only does this mean that minor parties that represent the things you care about are vastly more likely to get a seat in parliament, it also mean the big two parties have to pay attention to those minor parties in case voters get sick of their bullshit and vote for a minor party in protest.

This isn’t an option in the USA because all you achieve by voting for anyone else is ceasing to exist, as far as the big parties are concerned. And unless the specific issues you care about are popular enough to swing an election, why the hell would they ever give a crap about you? There is literally nothing in it for them. Hell, it might even hurt them by spreading their focus too thin, leaving their opponents to focus on the major issues and having a much tighter, clearer campaign as a result.

So on Saturday 2 June 2016, as you dodge the army of twats hovering in front of the polling booth (and I say that as someone who used to be one of those twats), only to be confronted with a roll of toilet paper claiming to be the Senate voting ballot, bear all this in mind. It might be a pain in the arse, but it’s a small price to pay for keeping the bastards listening.

For anyone who wants a far more entertaining explanation of how the Australian preference system works, and why you should pay attention to it, check out this great webcomic by Chicken Nation. It has pictures!

4 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Preferential Voting

  1. What a load of hogwash.

    If you are scared your vote wont be counted because of preferences then dont vote. Preference voting is a load of rubbish.

    Compicate a simple thing and preference voting is what you get. I wonder how many votes will be wasted because of preference voting?

    Plenty i bet.

    • Hi Mark, thanks for the comment.

      Not sure I follow your reasoning here; preferential voting is design to ensure that your vote continues to have impact, even if your first choice doesn’t get elected. As such it directly prevents votes being wasted, which alternative systems like first-past-the-post allow. Given you seem to support votes not being wasted, and preferential voting does exactly that, I’m not sure why you would oppose such a system?

  2. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Forcing People to Vote | The Ethics Of

  3. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Resistance (Part 1) | The Ethics Of

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