The victory of the Daylight Saving Party’s Wilson Tucker from only 98 votes at March’s WA Legislative Council election has attracted much attention and derision. It has also become the justification for the McGowan government’s plans to reform the Legislative Council’s electoral system.
But Tucker’s victory was not the only example in March of group voting tickets being used to engineer results. In South Metropolitan Region, a well co-ordinated preference “harvesting” operation almost delivered the final seat in the region to Cam Tinley of the No Mandatory Vaccination Party.
These examples highlight how the manipulation of group voting tickets (GVTs) by the tactic of preference harvesting can distort the intent of voters. Voters for 19 of the 26 party and independent groups on the ballot paper had their votes delivered by GVTs to Cam Tinley.
That’s more than 40,000 voters with no idea their above-the-line vote for a chosen party or independent would be sent off to try an elect a representative from the No Mandatory Vaccination Party.
The only thing that prevented Cam Tinley beating the Green’s Brad Pettitt was a decision announced early in the campaign by the Liberal Party that it would put No Mandatory Vaccination behind Labor and the Greens on how-to-votes and upper house GVTs.
At the very end of the South Metropolitan Region count, that decision sent around 12,200 Liberal GVT preferences Pettitt’s way, delivering the Greens a seat that could otherwise would have gone to No Mandatory Vaccination. None of the 20 parties that contributed to Tinley’s final tally polled more than 1.9% of the vote, and 11 polled less than half a percent.
Despite these parties attracting few votes, GVTs delivered their preference negotiators total control over how ballot papers would have their preferences transferred. It allowed party votes to be stacked in a way that would have been impossible if voters controlled how preference were distributed.
Trying to unpick a preference count where GVTs are used is fiendishly difficult. It requires dissecting a giant spreadsheet summarising the count, and cross referencing the preference transfers with the GVTs lodged by each party.
While pulling apart the South Metropolitan Region count, I was surprised to discover that Cam Tinley of the No Mandatory Vaccination Party was only defeated because the Liberal GVT, the last bundle of votes distributed in the count, transferred to Brad Pettitt (Greens) ahead of Cam Tinely (No Mandatory Vaccination).
First preference results had Labor on 62.9% of the vote, the Liberals 17.6% and Greens 6.9%. The remaining parties had 12.4% between them, the highest polling being the Australian Christians on 1.9%. With the quota set at 14.3%, the minor parties did not have enough votes to elect one of their number without a flow of surplus preferences from one of the big three parties.
The count had begun by electing four Labor and one Liberal MLCs, leaving one vacancy to be filled by the transfer of preferences from excluded candidates and parties.
Estimates based only on ticket votes suggested Labor could win an unprecedented fifth seat on Green transfers. Once below-the-line votes were included in the count, it put the Greens ahead of Labor at a critical late stage of the count.
What I had not realised in looking at the original output of the ABC’s election calculator for South Metropolitan Region was that Liberal preferences determined that a Labor or Green candidate would win the final seat rather than Cam Tinley from No Mandatory Vaccination.
The Final Stages of the Count
Almost all minor party and independent groups had arranged their GVTs to deny preferences to the big three parties. The Greens gained a small GVT bundle of 777 votes from the Socialist Alliance, but the Labor and Liberal Parties had received none. The main source of preferences for all three parties was the small number of below-the-line votes where voters completed their own preferences.
To the point where only seven candidates/parties remained, three parallel preference harvesting operations were underway. In broad outline these were –
- The Glenn Druery micro-party alliance made up of Health Australia, Sustainable Australia, Daylight Saving, Western Australia Party, Liberals for Climate and the Liberal Democrats. These six parties swapped preferences in each region, and in each region one of the six parties was the nominated beneficiary of the preference harvesting operation, with the Liberal Democrats the nominee in South Metropolitan Region. Five independents also helped the LDP in South Metropolitan.
- Australian Christians, Shooters Fishers and Farmers, No Mandatory Vaccination and WAxit aligned preferences in each region. One Nation also partly contributed to this group.
- Legalise Cannabis and Animal Justice swapped preferences with each other ahead of other parties.
Whichever of these three preference harvesting operations finished ahead towards the end of the count tended to then benefit from the GVT preferences of parties in the other groupings.
Towards the end of the count in South Metropolitan, seven candidates remained in the race for the final seat. The total votes and quotas for each candidate are shown in the table below. The column labelled ‘Transfers’ shows the change in party total vote since the first preference count, excluding the filled quotas set aside for the elected Labor and Liberal MLCs. The preference harvesting operation shows up with the vast majority of preferences flowing to the smallest parties.
The party codes in the table are – Greens (GRN), Labor Party (ALP), Liberal Democrats (LDP), Liberal Party (LIB), Australian Christians (ACP), No Mandatory Vaccination (NMV) and Legalise Cannabis WA (LCW).
|Brad Pettitt (GRN)||+1,314||27,571||0.5077|
|Victoria Helps (ALP)||+57||22,097||0.4069|
|Aaron Stonehouse (LDP)||10,920||14,289||0.2631|
|Michelle Hofmann (LIB)||+190||12,888||0.2373|
|Warner Spyker (ACP)||+3,881||11,171||0.2057|
|Cam Tinley (NMV)||+6,677||10,519||0.1937|
|Moshe Bernstein (LCW)||+3,073||9,950||0.1832|
To this point, Legalise Cannabis had benefited from Animal Justice preferences, Australian Christians from the Shooters Fishers and Farmers, and the Liberal Democrats from the parties I listed before the table plus five Independent groups. No Mandatory Vaccination had gained GVT transfers from the Great Australian Party, WAxit, One Nation and two Independents.
The next candidate excluded was Moshe Bernstein of Legalise Cannabis. His 6,631 GVT votes and and 2,843 Animal Justice GVTs had been arranged to transfer to No Mandatory Vaccination. This allowed Cam Tinley to jump from sixth to fourth, putting him ahead of both the Liberal Democrat and Australian Christian candidates, setting up the next transfers between the preference harvesting operations.
The Transfers column in the following tables have been changed to show transfers since the previous count.
|Brad Pettitt (GRN)||+187||27,758||0.5112|
|Victoria Helps (ALP)||+109||22,206||0.4089|
|Cam Tinley (NMV)||+9,538||20,057||0.3694|
|Aaron Stonehouse (LDP)||+37||14,326||0.2638|
|Michelle Hofmann (LIB)||+51||12,939||0.2383|
|Warner Spyker (ACP)||+28||11,199||0.2062|
|Moshe Bernstein (LCW)||-9,950||0||..|
Warner Spyker of the Australian Christians was now excluded. The 7,023 Australian Christian GVTs and 3,781 Shooters Fishers and Farmers GVTs had also been directed to Cam Tinley and No Mandatory Vaccination, pushing Tinley into first place ahead of the final Green, Labor and Liberal candidates. These transfers and new totals are shown below.
|Cam Tinley (NMV)||+10,894||30,951||0.5700|
|Brad Pettitt (GRN)||+27||27,785||0.5117|
|Victoria Helps (ALP)||+52||22,258||0.4099|
|Aaron Stonehouse (LDP)||+61||14,387||0.2649|
|Michelle Hofmann (LIB)||+164||13,103||0.2413|
The remaining Liberal candidate, Michelle Hofmann, was now in last place and excluded. Hofmanns’ total included approximately 12,200 Liberal GVT votes with next preference for Liberal Democrat Aaron Stonehouse, pushing him ahead of the final Labor candidate Victoria Helps as shown below.
|Cam Tinley (NMV)||+73||31,024||0.5713|
|Brad Pettitt (GRN)||+157||27,942||0.5146|
|Aaron Stonehouse (LDP)||+12,645||27,032||0.4978|
|Victoria Helps (ALP)||+219||22,477||0.4139|
|Michelle Hofmann (LIB)||-12,698||0||..|
Labor’s fifth candidate Victoria Helps was now excluded, her total including around 22,200 Labor GVTs with next preference for the Green’s Brad Pettit, putting him ahead of Cam Tinley.
|Brad Pettitt (GRN)||+21,962||49,904||0.9190|
|Cam Tinley (NMV)||+109||31,133||0.5733|
|Aaron Stonehouse (LDP)||+382||27,414||0.5048|
|Victoria Helps (ALP)||-27,032||.||..|
Liberal Democrat Aaron Stonehouse was now excluded releasing GVTs from 12 different groups. Ten had next preference for No Mandatory Vaccination’s Cam Tinley and only two for Green Brad Pettit. Those two were a tiny bundle of 351 votes from Independent Foley, and the approximate 12,200 Liberal GVTs.
The Liberal votes were the very last bundle transferred, and with only Pettitt and Tinley remaining in the count, the binary choice between the two by the Liberal GVT was the final determining GVT in the contest. The ticket put Green Brad Pettit over the 54,302 vote quota required for election.
The final totals on the election of Pettitt are shown below. With Pettitt elected, 709 below the line votes remained undistributed with Stonehouse.
|Brad Pettitt (GRN)||+12,787||62,691||1.1545|
|Cam Tinley (NMV)||+13,915||45,048||0.8296|
|Aaron Stonehouse (LDP)||-26,705||709||0.0131|
The final 12,200 Liberal GVT votes were entirely responsible for Pettit’s victory over Tinley. Had the Liberal Party put Tinley ahead of Pettit, then Tinley would have won the final seat.
Had Stonehouse been in the final pairing rather Tinley, Liberal preferences would not have transferred to the Greens, but Pettitt would still have won though by a narrower margin. The Legalise Cannabis GVT had directed preferences to the Greens before the Liberal Democrats.
Had No Mandatory Vaccination Party won the final seat, it would have attracted huge attention. As Cam Tinley explained to me before the election, he was not opposed to vaccination, just mandatory vaccination. However, such subtle differences would have been entirely missed by anti-vaxxers trumpeting that a victory for Tinley sent a message to politicians about vaccination.
That Tinley came close to victory was due entirely to GVTs and had nothing to do with his party’s level of support or any other party that contributed GVT transfers to his total. We know this to be the case from observation of the Senate’s reformed electoral system where GVTs have been abolished. The Senate model, where voters rather than parties control preferences, is likely to be recommended as the new voting system for the Western Australian Legislative Council.
As we know from experience with the reformed Senate electoral system, voters do not construct endless strings of preferences for minor parties. The endless swaps of preferences between small parties can only be constructed in an electoral system that allows GVTs.
How many electors who voted for Liberals for Climate, Daylight Saving Party, Shooters Fishers and Farmers, Sustainable Australia, Animal Justice, Liberal Democrats, WAxit, Legalise Cannabis, Australian Christians, One Nation or the Western Australian Party realised that their vote would be sent to the No Mandatory Vaccination Party and come close to seeing its candidate Cam Tinley elected?
Am I Too Critical of Small Parties Using GVTs?
Using GVTs to arrange preference deals and to engage in preference harvesting is perfectly legal in a system that allows GVTs.
However, as I have demonstrated numerous times, GVTs have encouraged more and more parties to register and nominate, to roll the dice and join the lucky dip for a seat in Parliament. This has created larger ballot papers that make it harder for voters to find the parties they now. It has increased the impact of random factors on results through draw for ballot positions and attractive or confusing party names.
The growth in the size and complexity of the ballot paper has effectively herded voters into voting above the line as the only realistic alternative to numbering long strings of preferences, 64 in the case of South Metropolitan Region discussed in this post. And the more voters pushed above the line, the more control over the count that goes to the small number apparatchiks who engineer the preference deals.
Between the first preference count and the final count, Pettitt had gained around 36,000 preferences and Tinley 41,000. Nearly all of these preference transfer came via GVTs. Pettitt’s GVT sources were the Labor and Liberal surpluses, the Socialist Alliance and Independent Foley. All the other groups on the ballot paper flowed to Tinley.
So why am I so critical of GVTs putting Cam Tinley in the race for the final seat, but less critical of the Liberal Party’s GVT electing Brad Pettit? Let me explain.
Experience with the new Senate system has shown that without GVTs, parties have to actively campaign for election to increase their influence over how voters direct preferences. A party cannot just put its name on the ballot paper and expect to control preference transfers.
Parties that are known to voters, that actively campaign, that hand out how-to-votes and that have a higher share of the first preference vote, also tend to generate stronger flows of preferences. A known and actively campaigning candidate or party is more likely to influence its voters on preferences. Parties with lower profile tend to produce random preferences. (See my post analysing South Australian Senate preference flows in 2019)
In the South Metropolitan Region race, after the election of the first five MLCs, Pettitt led the rest of the field on first preferences. Labor preferences would have strongly favoured the Greens even without a how-to-vote card. Liberal preferences might have flowed to the Greens with a how-to-vote, but they would not have flown to Tinley in a way that was helpful, even if the Liberal Party had recommended preferences to him.
In the next section I list all the groups whose preferences assisted Tinley in coming close to victory. 97% of those votes were ticket votes producing a preference flow that was only possible because of GVTs.
Without GVTs, that is under a system where voters rather than parties controlled preferences, Pettitt would have won the final seat. He would have won even if every ballot paper exhausted its preferences. Without GVTs, voter preferences would have also favoured Pettitt, and the higher polling Labor and Liberal candidates, simply because those parties were better known to voters than No Mandatory Vaccination.
GVTs may allow unknown parties to harvest preferences from across the ballot paper, but unknown parties simply do not attract preference transfers where voters make the decision on preferences themselves.
And it is absolutely certain that it was only GVTs that allowed Tinley to come even remotely close to winning the final seat, where it was Pettitt’s vote that put him close to victory. That is why I am more critical of GVTs that help parties with tiny votes, because victories for such parties are constructed by parties rather than being a reflection of the electorate’s will.
The Composition of No Mandatory Vaccination’s Final Vote
The table below sets out the final tally of Cam Tinley’s votes by origin, identifying the source party/independent for all GVT votes that finished with No Mandatory Vaccination. The entries in the table are shown in the order they were received by Tinley, with the exception of the final below-the-line entry which includes votes that trickled to Tinley throughout the count.
The “% Vote” column shows each entry’s percentage of formal votes, and “% Total” is the votes as a percentage of Tinley’s final vote. “At Pref” is the preference number at which a GVT reached Tinley, and “Via” indicates another party through which the GVT total passed before reaching Tinley.
Abbreviations are WAP Western Australia Party, LCW Legalise Cannabis WA, ACP Australian Christians and LDP Liberal Democrats.
|Party||Votes||% Vote||% Total||At Pref||Via|
|No Mandatory Vaccination||3,357||0.88||7.5||1||..|
|Great Australian Party||1,037||0.27||2.3||3||..|
|Legalise Cannabis (LCW)||6,631||1.74||14.7||3||..|
|Aust. Christians (ACP)||7,023||1.85||15.6||3||..|
|Shooters Fishers Farmers||3,781||0.99||8.4||5||ACP|
|Liberal Democrats (LDP)||3,199||0.84||7.1||31||..|
|WA Party (WAP)||2,188||0.58||4.9||27||LDP|
|Liberals for Climate||3,167||0.83||7.0||29||LDP|
|Below the line votes||1,307||0.34||2.9||..||..|