How to Vote in the Western Australian Upper House

It is VERY important that voters understand that the rules for voting in the WA upper house, the Legislative Council, are not the same as those used at the last two federal Senate elections.

Ahead of the 2016 Federal election, the rules for Senate voting were changed. Party control over preferences was ended by the abolition of group voting tickets (GVTs), previously used by parties to control preferences. The new system put control over between-party preference entirely in the hands of voters, the same as applies at lower house elections.

But these changes do not apply for WA Legislative Council elections.

This post is a Q&A explaining the differences and giving some hints on how to complete your Legislative Council ballot paper.

Q. What is the Legislative Council?

The Western Australian Parliament consists of two chambers. The lower house is called the Legislative Assembly and is where governments are formed. On election day, the small ballot paper you will be given is for your local electorate in the Legislative Assembly. When you complete this small ballot paper, YOU MUST NUMBER ALL THE SQUARES.

The upper house is called the Legislative Council and is the state’s house of review, a state version of the Commonwealth Senate. The Legislative Council consist of six regions each electing six members. If you want to know more about the Council’s structure and who the current members are, check out my Legislative Council Preview page on the ABC Election Website.

Q. How do I Vote with my Legislative Council Ballot Paper?

There are two methods of voting.

Method 1 – You can vote for your party of choice ‘above the line’ by placing the number ‘1’ in the square next to the party name. Your vote will be treated as though it was for the first name in the list of candidates for your chosen party. If your ballot paper needs to be examined for preferences, it will be deemed as having the tickets of preferences (the group voting ticket) lodged by that party. If you want to know the preferences of each party, I have published them all by region at my ABC election website.

Method 2 – You can give your own preferences for candidates below the line. However, you must number EVERY square below-the-line. In the case of South Metropolitan Region, that means numbering squares from 1 to 64.

If you vote below the line and leave squares blank, or miss a number, or duplicate a number, or just mark one square below-the-line, your vote will invalid. So make sure you are careful with your numbering. If you make an error you can’t correct in an obvious manner, you can ask for a new ballot paper.

Q. But I thought I could give my own preferences above the line?

You are thinking of the new Senate voting system introduced in 2016 and used for the last two Federal election. Under that system, the ballot paper instructions say number at least one to six above the line, or one to 12 below. THESE ARE NOT THE INSTRUCTIONS FOR WESTERN AUSTRALIA.

As stated above, you have only two options, a single ‘1’ above-the-line or number every square below-the-line.

Q. What if I Use the Senate Method and Number 1 to 6 Above the line?

If you do this, your vote will be formal, but only your first preference will count. Your vote will be assigned the preferences of your first preference party according to its group voting ticket. All preferences other than the ‘1’ marked above the line will be ignored. Only the first preference will be counted.

Q. What if I Use the Senate Method and Number 1 to 12 Below-the-Line?

DON’T DO THIS. Unless you number every square below-the-line, your vote will be informal. If you stop numbering at 12 or any number short of all squares your vote is informal. If you miss a number or duplicate a number your vote will be informal.

Comment – A Tip on Casting a Formal Vote

The Legislative Council ballot paper instructions say to vote EITHER above OR below the line. But a ballot paper is not automatically informal if marked above AND below.

A ballot paper is formal if there is a formal below the line vote, OR a formal above the line vote. If the vote is formal both above and below the line, then the below the line vote takes precedence.

Which means that if you are filling in your vote below the line and are concerned you might make an error you don’t spot, then an insurance policy is to also mark a first preference for a group above the line. If your below the line vote is formal it counts, if it is informal the vote reverts to your above the line vote.

In assessing formality, the Electoral Commission looks first below the line. If there is a formal BTL vote the ballot paper counts by its BTL preferences.

If there is no BTL vote, or the BTL vote is informal, the Electoral Commission then assess whether the ATL vote is present and formal.

Q. Isn’t This Voting System Unfair?

Fair or unfair, it’s the rules you must follow if you want your vote to count.

In my opinion it is unfair and the WA Legislative Council’s electoral system is the worst in the country. It would be thought outrageous to have a literacy test on the ability to vote, so why is it OK to apply a farcical numeracy test that requires a voter in South Metropolitan Region to correctly complete a sequence of numbers from 1 to 64 to have their first preference vote count.

The group voting ticket system method used in Western Australia has been abolished for Legislative Council elections in New South Wales and South Australia and for the Commonwealth Senate. The reformed systems introduced in those jurisdictions now prevent parties controlling preferences and leave preferences entirely in the hands of voters.

Victoria still uses group voting tickets for its Legislative Council elections but has a much fairer below-the-line option. In Victoria, only five preferences are required below-the-line for a formal vote and all further preferences.

But you are voting in Western Australia and there are only two options, a single square above the line, or number every square below.

Reminder – Don’t Forget the Small Ballot Paper

It is easy to be distracted by the size of the Legislative Council ballot paper and its menagerie of parties and candidates.

But don’t let the Council ballot paper make you forget your small lower house ballot paper. You must fill in this ballot paper to vote for your local member in the lower house. And you must number all the squares on your lower house ballot paper for a formal vote. Do not leave any square blank and DO NOT MARK ONLY ONE SQUARE.

One of the biggest causes of lower house informal votes is voters getting confused by the upper house instructions and marking only one square. On the small ballot paper, you must number all the squares.

And, if in doubt ….

The instructions for both ballot papers are printed on the ballot paper. If in doubt read the instructions on the ballot paper your are completing. The instructions are different on the two ballot papers so don’t assume they are the same.

Warning – Don’t Get Confused by the word ‘Liberal’.

There are three parties contesting the election with the word Liberal in their name. This is very confusing, but the courts have ruled that it is not confusing according to law. Sometimes the law is at odds with common sense.

The three parties are –

  • Liberal Party – the current WA opposition led by Zak Kirkup. The party has existed since 1946.
  • Liberal Democrats – has existed for around 15 years and has one member in the Legislative Council, Aaron Stonehouse.
  • Liberals for Climate – until two months ago this party was known as The Flux Network.

None of these parties are related to the other. You cannot vote for one and expect your preferences to flow to one of the others. So just make sure you know which version of ‘Liberal’ you want to vote for.

Want to know more?

If you have read this far into this post, you have enough information to complete an upper house vote. If you want to know a bit more about how the upper house voting system works, you can keep reading.

More on Group Voting Tickets

I wrote a post in February setting out some summaries of how the party preferences are likely to unfold in each region. The post also includes links to my Legislative Council calculators.

(See Western Australian Legislative Council Calculators Launched)

You can follow this link for the LC Calculators. Instructions can be found on the calculator pages or via this link.

But Don’t Obsess Over the Group Voting Tickets

In my opinion, scouring the party tickets to determine which party to vote for above the line is a waste of time. If you want to save time and vote above the line, then it is almost impossible from the tickets to work out how your preferences will be distributed.

Where your above the line vote would end up is complex and very reliant on the first preference vote each party achieves as well as the order in which candidates are excluded from the count.

If you try my Legislative Council Calculators, you will get a feel for what happens to preferences dependant on the order of exclusion. But testing the calculators and reading the preference tickets will chew up lots of time and perhaps leave none the wiser on which party ticket to choose above the line.

If you want to control your preferences, you should try voting below the line. It won’t take 10 minutes, less time than it will take to understand all the tickets.

Just remember, you have to number all the squares below the line, but remember my tip on how to take out insurance policy by also marking one square above the line.