Voting's not easy Down Under

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 April, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 April, 1995, 12:00am

AUSTRALIA is one of those countries where democracy has outgrown the first-past-the-post voting system. In the first federal election held at the beginning of the century, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives were elected by first-past-the-post voting.

In 1919, however, the simple majority system was replaced by preferential voting in elections.

The next step in the development was the adoption in 1949 of proportional representation by the single transferable vote for the Senate election. Then, from 1984 onwards, voters could choose 'group ticket' voting as an alternative form of proportional representation.

Meanwhile, preferential voting remains the system for the election of the lower house.

By Hong Kong standards, the Australian voting systems are extremely complicated. Members of the House of Representatives are elected in single-seat constituencies.

To cast a vote, one must indicate with a sequence of numbers in order of preference for all the names appearing on the ballot paper.

For a ballot paper to be formal (that is, valid), the number one must appear once and only once, to indicate the voter's first preference. Also, the voter must put a number against the name of each of the candidates, with the exception of, at most, one.

The number of first preferences each candidate obtains is first counted. A candidate is elected if they are the first preference in an absolute majority, that is over one half, of all the formal votes. If no one is elected by first preference votes, the candidate with the least number of votes is excluded, and his or her ballot papers are transferred to other candidates according to the next preferences they show.

The process of excluding candidates, and transferring votes to the next available preference, continues until a candidate receives an absolute majority. Vote counting can take many days.

You may find this system complicated, but it is kindergarten homework compared with voting for the Australian Senate. The senators in each Australian state are all elected in one multi-seat constituency.

Even in a 'half-Senate election' to replace half of the members, there can be several dozen candidates.

The list of names on a Senate ballot paper can be several times as long as that in a House election, and the voter has to rank all the names in order of preference.

Vote counting for the Senate takes weeks instead of days. After the total number of formal votes is counted, the electoral officer calculates the quota a candidate needs in order to be elected. Candidates who obtain a quota of first preference vote are immediately declared elected.

Any surplus votes obtained by the successful candidates are transferred to second preference candidates. The transferred value of each vote is determined by dividing the successful candidate's surplus by the number of votes they obtained.

After the transfer of all elected candidates' surplus votes, those among the remaining candidates whose votes reach the quota are declared elected, and their surplus votes transferred in the same way.

THE process continues until all vacancies are filled. Or, if places are still left after the transfer of all surplus votes, the candidate with the least number of votes is excluded, and his or her votes are transferred to the remaining candidates in accordance with their next preference.

'Group ticket' voting complicates the system even further. A group of candidates, usually fielded by a party, can register with the electoral officer, an official order of preference. The group will then be given a box in the upper half of the ballot paper. By placing a number one in that box, the voter indicates that their vote is according to the group's registered order of preference.

The Australians seem to have no problems with their complex and sophisticated voting systems.

Preferential voting and proportional representation have never been seriously considered in Hong Kong.

Debates about voting systems here have focused on the desirability of single-seat or multi-seat constituencies, many involved were not even aware of voting practices in countries with histories of democracy.