Donkey Vote Advantages for the 2021 Western Australian Election

With nominations for the WA election now published, it’s worth assessing what small advantage candidates and parties will gain from the ‘donkey vote’.

I have published all candidates in ballot paper order on the ABC’s election website if you want investigate the ballot orders yourself. I have also summarised the nominations in another blog post.

Analysis of Australian elections has always shown that a small advantage accrues to the candidate that appears first on a lower house ballot paper. As the number of candidates increases, the advantage seems to increase. No one wants to be listed last on a ballot paper with a dozen or more candidates, a disadvantage the Liberal Party suffered at last year’s Eden-Monaro by-election.

A similar advantage exists with upper house ballot papers for groups that appear in the first column at the left hand edge of the ballot paper. Experience has shown this advantage is even greater when there is confusion over ballot paper names. That will certainly be a problem for the Liberal Party at the 2021 WA election.

In the lower house, a small number of voters simply number 1 to ‘n’ down the ballot paper irrespective of who is listed. This has always been viewed as being a consequence of compulsory voting. If an elector didn’t have to vote, why would they turn up and simply number top to bottom? For candidate who top the ballot and have a very small percentage of the vote, you can always spot the donkey vote when the first candidate’s preferences are distributed.

The second top spot advantage is down to the completion effect. If there are only 3 or 4 candidates on a ballot paper, most voters can produce a sensible sequence of preferences. If there are a dozen candidates on a ballot paper, an elector might have four or five preferences the can write down, but the completion of further preferences is essentially random. And the most common sequence is to complete the rest of the numbers top to bottom. That translates into an advantage for a final candidate higher on the ballot paper than their opponent.

The same effect applies for upper house ballot papers, but is complicated by there being many more parties listed. Voters are often looking for a party name they know. On larger ballot papers with smaller fonts, voters can be confused when reading left to right by a party name that resembles the one they are looking for.

The most famous example is the Liberal Democrats on the NSW Senate ballot paper in 2013. There were 45 columns on the ballot paper, shrinking the font and forcing party names to be split over two lines. The Liberal Democrats appeared in Column A, the word “Liberal” appearing on the first line and “Democrat” on the second. The Liberal Democrats polled 9.5%, the Liberal and National vote was much lower in the senate than the House, and Liberal Democrat support was much lower in House seats with a National rather thn a Liberal candidate.

The Labor Party has had a similar issue with Labour DLP. In the same way that the Liberal Democrats poll better when to the left of the Liberal Party on a ballot paper than to the right, so
does Labour DLP.

It is a live issue for the 2021 WA election, with both the Liberal Democrats, and the newly named “Liberals for Climate”, previously known as the Flux Party, being potential sources of confusion for Liberal voters.

So lets look at the ballot papers.

Legislative Assembly

Seats where there may be a ballot order advantage include

  • Albany – in a record field of 12 candidates, National Delma Baesjou drew the last spot, Labor’s Rebecca Stephens position 10 and Liberal Scott Leary has an advantage in position 6. Reverses the donkey vote from 2017.
  • Bicton – Liberal Nicole Robins drew spot 2, Labor’s Lisa O’Malley last at 7. Reverses the 2017 donkey vote.
  • Darling Range – Liberal Alyssa Hayden at 5, Labor at 9, Greens 10. Reverses 2017 donkey vote.
  • Dawesville – Greens 1, Labor 2 and Liberal Leader Zak Kirkup at 9 in an 11 candidate field. Reverses 2017 donkey vote.
  • Geraldton – 9 candidates, Liberal at 3, Labor 6, incumbent Ian Blayney at 8.
  • Hillarys – 7 candidates, Liberal Peter Katsambanis gets a slight advantage at position 4 versus 6 for Labor’s Caitlin Collins.
  • Jandakot – Big Liberal advantage drawing top spot, Labor last spot on a ballot of 8.
  • Joondalup – Labor at 6, Liberal last in position 10. Reverses 2017 donkey vote.
  • Kalgoorlie – 9 candidates, Liberal at 3, National 8, Labor last at 9.
  • Kingsley – 6 candidates, Labor 2, Liberal 4. Reverses 2017 donkey vote.
  • Murray-Wellington – in a field of 11, Liberal at 3, Labor at 9. LIttle change to 2017 order.
  • Pilbara – Labor draws top spot in a field of 9, Liberal 4, National 6.
  • Riverton – field of 7, Liberal last, Labor second last. Labor had the advantage in 2017.
  • Scarborough – former Liberal leader Liza Harvey draws 2 in a field of 8 with Labor at 6. Same donkey vote as 2017.

Most other lower house ballot draws are relatively neutral.

Agricultural Region

25 columns and 53 candidates. A big advantage for the left with the Greens in Column 1 and Labor in Column 2, a draw that might help Labor hold its second seat. Liberals in 6 and National in 8. Liberals for Climate and Liberal Democrats are at the right hand end of the ballot paper which will minimise confusion for the Liberal Party.

East Metropolitan Region

20 columns and 47 candidates. Labor in column 7. Problems for the Liberal Party with Liberals for Climate in 11, Liberal Democrats in 13 before reaching the Liberal Party in 15.

Mining and Pastoral Region

21 columns and 53 candidates. More Liberal Party problems with Liberals for Climate in column 2. Liberals in 12, Nationals 17 and Labor 18.

North Metropolitan Region

23 columns and 54 candidates. Labor want to gain a seat here and have drawn column 5, Liberals 7. Greens, Liberals for Climate and Liberal Democrats at the right hand end of the ballot paper.

South Metropolitan Region

26 columns and 64 candidates. The last seat was won by the Liberal Democrats in 2017 courtesy of appearing to the left of the Liberal Party. Not this time, drawing well to the right. But Liberals for Climate drew column 2, Greens 6, Liberal 7, Labor 12.

South West region

23 columns and 54 candidates. Good draw for the Greens with column 6, Liberal Democrats 9, Labor 15, Liberal 16.