2019 WA Senate Election – Ballot Paper and Preferences Analysis

This is my latest look back at how the Senate’s new electoral system worked at the 2019 election, how voters completed their ballot papers, what preference flows were produced, and what was the influence of how-to-vote material.

In summary, the smaller a party’s vote, the more likely its preferences will scatter widely or exhaust. The more that a party has an identifiable position on the left-right spectrum, the more likely that its preferences will flow in a particular direction.

And the more obvious a party’s how-to-vote recommendation, and the more how-to-votes are handed out, the more likely that voters will follow or guess the recommendation.

This post is on the Senate contest in Western Australia. Previous posts have covered South Australia, Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory. There is also an overall national summary of above and below the line voting, and an analysis comparing the 2019 half-Senate result with the old Senate system at the 2013 half-Senate election.

Above and Below the Line Voting

To analyse how voters completed their ballot papers under the Senate’s new electoral system, I have accumulated the AEC’s Senate ballot paper data into six broad categories. These are –

  • 1-only above-the-line (ATL) – only one column marked, corresponding to the ballot paper instructions from 1984 to 2014. These votes remain formal through savings provisions.
  • 2-5 ATL preferences – more than one preference but fewer than the instructed minimum six. Remain formal by savings provisions.
  • 6 ATL preferences – the minimum number of ATL preferences stated in the ballot paper instructions.
  • 7-12 ATL preferences – beyond the minimum 6 and up to the 12 preferences, 12 being the instructions for a BTL vote.
  • Greater than 12 ATL – from 13 to the maximum number of ATL squares on the ballot paper, 23 in Western Australia.
  • Below-the-line (BTL) – any ballot paper admitted to the count as a formal below-the-line vote.

Table 1 sets out the percentage of ballot papers in the above categories for each party on the WA Senate ballot paper. Parties are listed in descending percentage order of voters completing a recommended 6-preference ATL vote.

Table 1 – 2019 WA Senate – Ballot Paper Categories

% by ATL Preference Sequence
Party (Group) % Vote 1 2-5 6 7-12 >12 BTL
Liberal (C) 40.91 2.6 3.1 85.3 4.8 1.5 2.7
Labor (G) 27.63 3.6 3.3 81.2 5.2 1.8 4.9
National (U) 1.41 1.8 2.8 79.7 5.7 2.2 7.9
United Australia (I) 1.75 2.0 3.2 79.0 8.1 3.0 4.7
Greens (D) 11.81 1.0 2.2 77.5 6.0 2.3 10.9
Animal Justice (L) 0.98 2.8 3.5 76.0 6.7 2.8 8.3
One Nation (A) 5.88 2.8 3.9 75.4 8.2 3.2 6.5
HEMP (J) 1.69 2.7 4.3 74.8 8.3 2.8 7.2
Shooters Fishers Farmers (P) 1.18 2.4 4.0 74.7 7.9 3.3 7.7
WA Party (H) 1.19 2.8 3.4 73.0 7.7 2.9 10.1
Liberal Democrats (N) 0.72 5.9 4.4 72.5 8.3 2.7 6.2
Health Australia (T) 0.25 2.6 3.6 72.1 8.8 2.9 10.0
Sustainable Australia (V) 0.35 1.2 2.1 70.7 8.7 4.0 13.3
Pirate Party (F) 0.59 3.1 3.4 70.2 9.1 3.7 10.6
Australian Conservatives (M) 0.42 2.2 2.8 67.8 8.8 4.1 14.3
Fraser Anning’s CNP (E) 0.58 1.8 3.1 66.5 10.3 4.5 13.8
Yellow Vest Australia (S) 0.07 4.4 3.1 65.5 9.0 4.4 13.6
Australian Christians (K) 1.66 1.4 2.7 63.9 21.2 2.8 8.0
Citizens Electoral Council (O) 0.08 4.1 4.0 63.8 8.6 4.7 14.8
Involuntary Med. Objectors (B) 0.26 2.7 3.9 63.1 9.4 3.2 17.6
VoteFlux (W) 0.15 1.8 1.3 60.0 11.2 7.8 18.0
Socialist Alliance (Q) 0.13 2.9 2.9 59.5 8.6 4.9 21.2
Great Australian Party (R) 0.22 2.9 3.1 56.0 13.7 4.0 20.3
Ungrouped 0.11 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 100.0
WA Totals .. 2.7 3.1 80.8 5.9 2.0 5.5
National Totals .. 3.4 3.5 80.0 4.5 1.2 7.3

Note – Calculated by author from AEC formal preference ballot paper files. Note there is no ATL voting square for the Ungrouped column.

The highest rate of 6-preference ATL votes was recorded for the two major parties followed by the Nationals and United Australia Party. Of the larger parties, the Greens at 77.5% had the lowest rate of 6-preference ATL votes and a much higher rate of BTL voting at 10.9%. The lowest rates of 6-preference ATL voting, and highest rates of BTL voting, were generally recorded for lower polling parties. Compared to SA, more WA voters gave between 7 and 12 preferences above the line, 5.9% versus 3.8%. Fewer WA voters went below the line than in SA, 5.5% versus 7.6%. Four parties had more than 10% of voters with 7-12 ATL preferences, the highest being 21.2% for the Australian Christians. No party in SA had more than 7.3% of voters giving 7-12, though more SA voters went beyond 12 on the smaller ballot paper.

BTL ballot papers completed with the recommended minimum 12 preferences represented 61.0% of BTL votes or 3.3% of all votes (ATL + BTL). Savings provisions allowed votes with between 6 and 11 BTL preferences to remain formal, representing 7.1% of BTL votes or 0.4% of all votes. BTL votes with a full sequence of 67 preferences represented 8.8% of BTL votes and 0.5% of all votes. Ballots with between 13 and 66 preferences represented 23.1% of BTL votes or 1.3% of all votes. Beyond 12, the number of ballot papers with a given number of preferences decreased until an uptick as the maximum number 67 approached. (See graph below)

At 65.1%, Socialist Alliance BTL voters were most likely to go beyond 12 preferences, followed by VoteFlux 50.9% and the Pirate Party 46.7%. 40.3% of Green BTL voters went beyond 12 compared to 39.6% for the Nationals, 26.0% Labor, 25.8% Liberal and 24.3% One Nation. At 19.9%, Socialist Alliance BTL voters were most likely to number every square below the line, HEMP and the Great Australian Party the least likely at 6.2%. As a percentage of all votes (ATL + BTL) for a party, full BTL sequences from 1 to 67 represented 11.1% of the Socialist Alliance vote, 1.1% of Greens, 0.4% of Labor and 0.2% of Liberal.

The number of formal ballot papers with a given number of BTL preferences is shown in the graph below. Note that the vertical axis uses a logarithmic scale as otherwise there would be one peak at 12 and the rest of the graph would run along the horizontal axis. The slight up and down rhythm of the graph is caused by most groups standing two candidates, with voters more likely to fill both squares in a column than just one.

There were 18,733 ATL ballot papers where voters numbered all 23 ATL squares, 1.3% of ATL votes. By comparison, the smaller state of South Australia with 16 columns saw a higher 29,732 voters complete all ATL squares, 2.9% of all ATL votes. The lowest percentage of voters by party who numbered all squares was 0.9% for the Liberal Party, followed by Labor 1.1% and Greens 1.7%. The highest rates were 3.1% Australian Conservatives, 3.2% Yellow Vest Australia, 3.3% Fraser Anning's Conservative National Party, 4.0% Socialist Alliance and 6.2% Vote Flux.

There were 169 donkey votes numbering columns A to W in sequence left to right, and 11 reverse donkey votes numbering right to left. There were 564 left to right donkey votes that numbered at least the first six squares in order.

How-to-Vote Concordence

For the 2019 election I was able to locate how-to-votes for 20 of the 23 Western Australian Senate parties. Four recommended only a first preference and left it to voters to determine further preferences. Sixteen included recommendations for second and further preferences. You can view the how-to votes I use in my analysis at this link.

The table below summarises concordance rates by preference number for ATL votes by party. To explain the table, the first entry for the Liberal Party says 42.5% of all Liberal ATL votes had the same second preference as the Liberal HTV, 31.9% the same 2nd and 3rd preference, 29.5% the same 2nd, 3rd and 4th preference, and so on. The final column includes ballot papers with the 6 preferences followed by further voter preferences.

Table 2 - 2019 WA Senate - HTV Concordance by Party

% of ATL Votes Matching Party HTV by Preference Number
Party (Group) ATL Votes 2 3 4 5 6
Liberal (C) 575,743 42.5 31.9 29.5 28.9 28.4
Labor (G) 380,206 52.3 27.3 21.3 19.5 18.6
Greens (D) 152,292 14.3 12.2 11.0 10.3 10.1
One Nation (A) 79,565 7.9 2.1 1.8 1.8 1.7
United Australia (I) 24,109 28.1 9.4 6.3 5.8 5.5
Australian Christians (K) 22,069 31.4 17.7 16.6 16.2 15.6
National (U) 18,728 61.3 25.5 19.4 17.6 15.9
Shooters, Fishers and Farmers (P) 15,749 2.7 1.4 1.2 1.1 1.0
Animal Justice (L) 12,962 8.1 2.8 2.1 1.8 1.7
Pirate Party (F) 7,622 16.5 1.9 0.7 0.2 0.2
Fraser Anning's CNP (E) 7,264 4.6 3.1 2.8 0.6 0.6
Involuntary Medication Objectors (B) 3,122 19.3 8.3 7.0 0.9 0.8
Great Australian Party (R) 2,547 10.2 8.4 7.9 7.3 7.2
Socialist Alliance (Q) 1,455 43.6 9.9 6.9 5.6 0.0
Citizens Electoral Council (O) 935 11.8 3.5 2.1 1.8 1.5
Yellow Vest Australia (S) 893 9.1 4.1 3.9 3.8 2.7

Note - Calculated by author from AEC formal preference ballot paper files. Not all how-to-votes were available or included preference recommendation. Percentages are calculated as a percentage of ATL votes, NOT of all votes.

There are three general points to make about concordance rates before discussing particular parties.

  • 1 - the higher the proportion of voters that receive a party's HTV, the higher the concordance rate.
  • 2 - the more a party's how-to-vote sequence corresponds to voters' perceptions of ideological affinity for preferenced parties, the more voters will follow the recommendation.
  • 3 - related to point 2, the more ideologically obvious a party's preference sequence, the more likely it is that voters who don't receive a how-to-vote will be able to guess the sequence.

The two major parties had by far the highest rate of concordance, no doubt due to the two parties distributing the most how-to-votes. The top five 6-prefernce concordances were Liberal 28.4%, Labor 18.6%, Nationals 15.9%, Australia Christians 15.6% and the Greens on 10.1%.

Why the Green rate was so low is explained by the table of selected second preferences below. The Nationals had a second preference for Liberal, Liberals for National, Labor for the Greens, but the Greens second preference was for the Socialist Alliance at the other end of the ballot paper. The Green concordance rate dropped off at the second preference when 40.8% of voters gave a second preference to Labor, either ignoring the Green HTV or guessing Labor was the recommended second preference if they did not receive a HTV.

In Table 3, bold indicates the HTV second preference recommendation for each party. Parties where a second preference percentage is not highlighted either made no recommendation or a HTV was not located. The table includes all percentage flows above 10% and recommended preference flows if below 10%. Parties are listed in descending order of first preference vote.

Table 3 - 2019 WA Senate - Voter Second Preference Choice Percentages by Party

  • Liberal (Group C) - National 42.5%, Greens 9.4, Labor 8.7, One Nation 8.6, WA Party 6.2, United Australia 5.3
  • Labor (G) - Greens 52.3%, Liberal 11.2, WA Party 10.0
  • Greens (D) - Labor 40.8%, Socialist Alliance 14.3, Liberal 10.0
  • One Nation (A) - Liberal 22.9%, Labor 10.0, SFF 7.9
  • United Australia (I) - Liberal 28.1%, One Nation 24.2
  • HEMP (J) - Greens 16.8%, Animal Justice 14.2, SFF 11.6, Labor 10.8
  • Australian Christians (K) - Liberal 31.6%, Australian Conservatives 31.4
  • National (U) - Liberal 61.3%
  • WA Party (H) - Labor 18.7%, Liberal 15.1, Greens 11.0
  • SFF (P) - One Nation 14.6%, HEMP 13.0, Liberal 10.8, Australian Christians 2.7
  • Animal Justice (L) - Greens 23.6%, HEMP 12.9, Health Australia 8.1
  • Liberal Democrats (N) - Liberal 18.9%
  • Pirate Party (F) - HEMP 20.2%, Greens 16.5, Labor 10.9, WA Party 10.8
  • Fraser Anning's CNP (E) - One Nation 42.2%, Yellow Vest Australia 4.6
  • Australian Conservatives (M) - Liberal 26.6%, Australian Christians 21.2, One Nation 11.3
  • Sustainable Australia (V) - Greens 16.9%, Health Australia 14.0, Animal Justice 10.5
  • Involuntary Medication Objectors (B) - Health Australia 19.3%, Greens 15.1, HEMP 11.3, Liberal 11.2
  • Health Australia (T) - Sustainable Australia 15.2%, Animal Justice 10.6
  • Great Australian (R) - Australian Christians 10.8%
  • Flux (W) - Sustainable Australia 18.8%, Greens 16.8%
  • Socialist Alliance (Q) - Greens 43.6%, Labor 8.9
  • CEC (O) - One Nation 11.8%, SFF 11.0
  • Yellow Vest Australia (S) - SFF 11.8, Fraser Anning's CNP 9.1

Note - Calculated by author from AEC formal preference ballot paper files. Not all how-to-votes were available and some did not include a second preference recommendation. Percentages are calculated as a percentage of ATL votes, NOT of all votes. Parties listed in descending order of first preference vote.

As already noted in relation to the largest parties, high rates of voters matching the HTV second preference recommendation occurred where there was some obvious ideological affinity. The Australian Christians had high preference flows to both the Liberal Party and the recommended Australian Conservatives. Parties that can more clearly be identified on a traditional left-right spectrum had the most obvious flows of preferences to parties that voters saw as having a related ideological affinity. This includes the major parties, Greens, Australian Christians, Australian Conseravtives and Socialist Alliance.

The data in Table 3 also suggests that few voters for lower ranked parties saw their chosen party’s HTV. For instance, very few SFF voters guessed the Australian Christians were the recommended second preference, and the same for Animal Justice voters preferencing Health Australia.

The ‘donkey vote’ can always influence the preference flows from the party in column A. In Western Australia this benefited One Nation. Of the party’s 79,565 ATL votes, 3,325 (4.2%) had second preference for column B. The donkey vote shows up more clearly in preference flows for parties with very low votes. The positioning of One Nation in column A and the Liberal Party in column C probably boosted flows to the Liberal Party.

Effective Preferences – Four Party Split

In Western Australia as in the other mainland states, only four parties were in the race to win Senate seats – the Coalition (Liberal Party in WA), Labor Party, Greens, and One Nation..

In Western Australia, the Liberal Party reached its third quota and Labor its second before the end of the count. The United Australia Party and HEMP were still in the count at the point when Liberal and Labor went over quota, meaning ballot papers for those parties did not have Liberal or Labor candidates available as a final destination. As a general observation, the rate of exhausted preferences from small parties tends to increase when one or both of the major parties is no longer in the count.

The table below sets out flows of ATL preferences to the final four parties. The first four entries are flows from the final four parties to the other three parties. The table can be sorted by column. The table only includes ATL preferences, but after carrying out the same analysis on the much smaller number of BTL votes, the preferences flows were roughly the same.

For those who can't be bothered sorting and reading the table, here's some of the stronger flows.

  • Strongest to Liberal - National 71.9%, Australian Christians 68.3%, Australian Conservatives 52.1%.
  • Strongest to Labor - Greens 71.4% (not distributed), WA Party on 27.2%, with most parties on the left favouring the Greens ahead of Labor.
  • Strongest to Greens - Labor 65.0% (only surplus distributed), Socialist Alliance 63.2%, Animal Justice 47.8%, Sustainable Australia 42.7%
  • Strongest to One Nation - Fraser Anning 60.3%
  • Highest Exhaustion - Yellow Vest Australia 35.1%, Great Australian Party 35.1%

Of the four largest parties, Labor and the Greens included recommendations for each other on HTVs and generated strong reciprocal preference flows. Both leaked around 15% to the Liberal Party, had around 10% exhausted and single digit leakages to One Nation. The Liberal Party and One Nation did not recommend preferences for each other with different results. Almost half of Liberal votes exhausted preferences rather than choose between Labor, Green and One Nation, while 40.3% of One Nation votes had a preference for the Liberal Party, helped by nearby positioning on the ballot paper. Around a quarter of One Nation votes exhausted rather than choose between the two major parties and the Greens. Note that apart from very small Liberal and Labor surpluses, preferences between the four largest parties played no part in determining who won the final seat.

In table 5, the rate of exhausted preferences from the 19 excluded parties (that is excluding GRN and ONP) was only 13.9%. Boosted by strong flows from the National Party, 33.3% of other party preferences flowed to the Liberal Party, 15.5% to Labor, 19.3% to the Greens and 18.0% to One Nation. If these 19 parties are further examined down to two-party preferred choices between Liberal and Labor, the exhausted rate rose to 30.2% with 45.0% choosing Liberal and 24.8% Labor. (See Table 5 below for full two-party preferred count outs by party including the Greens and One Nation.)

Splits of preferences from other parties make sense if you understand where on the political spectrum each party sits. Centrist parties have preference flows flowing in both directions and a tendency to avoid One Nation. Parties of the right tend to be split on whether preferences reach One Nation or the Liberal Party first, and those on the left on whether they favour Labor or the Greens.

Finally, Table 5 below shows two-party preferred preference flows for all other parties, that is whether ballot papers reach Labor or Liberal first, or exhausted before the final choice. The table is listed in descending vote order.

The general observation is, the lower a party's vote, the more likely that voters would stop preferencing before reaching one of the major parties. A notable exception on this is the Socialist Alliance, where the party's small vote base is clearly ideologically committed rather than just a random choice. As you would expect, most of the higher polling parties have higher rates of preference flows to one major party that clearly aligns with public perceptions of the minor party's position on the left right political spectrum.

Table 5 - 2019 WA Senate - Effective 2-Party Preferences

% Preferences of ATL Preference to
Party (Group) ATL Votes Liberal Labor Exhaust
Greens (D) 152,292 15.4 72.5 12.2
One Nation (A) 79,565 44.1 22.5 33.4
United Australia (I) 24,109 54.1 21.6 24.3
HEMP (J) 22,647 22.1 35.8 42.1
Australian Christians (K) 22,069 75.6 12.5 11.9
National (U) 18,728 80.3 10.4 9.3
Shooters, Fishers and Farmers (P) 15,749 37.6 23.8 38.7
WA Party (H) 15,475 35.2 35.8 29.1
Animal Justice (L) 12,962 21.3 39.9 38.8
Liberal Democrats (N) 9,786 48.4 19.3 32.3
Pirate Party (F) 7,622 19.5 37.2 43.2
Fraser Anning's CNP (E) 7,264 42.0 14.8 43.2
Australian Conservatives (M) 5,236 70.7 9.6 19.7
Sustainable Australia (V) 4,328 25.2 36.0 38.8
Health Australia (T) 3,207 21.4 31.7 46.9
Involuntary Medication Objectors (B) 3,122 27.0 20.7 52.2
Great Australian Party (R) 2,547 20.0 20.3 59.7
VoteFlux (W) 1,754 24.1 42.2 33.7
Socialist Alliance (Q) 1,455 5.2 67.6 27.1
Citizens Electoral Council (O) 935 18.4 28.2 53.4
Yellow Vest Australia (S) 893 24.7 18.0 57.2
Total 411,745 33.9 42.0 24.1
Excluding GRN/ONP 179,888 45.0 24.8 30.2