In 2000 New South Wales became the first state to abolish Group Voting Tickets (GVTs), the system then generally used to elect state Legislative Councils and the Commonwealth Senate.
The NSW decision followed the 1999 Legislative Council election and its infamous “tablecloth” ballot paper. Confusion combined with labyrinthine preference deals made a mockery of any claim that the filling of the final vacancies reflected the will of the electorate.
The system adopted abolished GVTs and introduced a new form of voting above-the-line (ATL) where voters could direct preferences to other parties on the ballot paper by numbering ATL boxes. A single ‘1’ ATL vote was still formal, but a voter could direct preferences to others groups with an ATL voting square by indicating ‘2’, ‘3’ etc to other groups.
With Senate elections continuing to use GVTs where only a single ATL preference counted, few voters made use of the new ATL voting option at Legislative Council elections. At four elections from 2003 to 2015, more than 80% of Legislative Council ballot papers continued to be completed with a 1-only ATL vote and only around 15% of voters indicated further ATL preferences.
When the Commonwealth followed NSW in abolishing GVTs ahead of the 2016 election, it adopted different instructions on how to complete an ATL vote. Senate ballot paper instructions, and advice from ballot paper issuing officers, suggested a minimum of 6-ATL preferences be completed.
The Senate reforms included generous savings provisions permitting ballot papers with fewer than six ATL preferences to remain formal. At three Senate elections since 2016, more than 95% of ballot papers have had six or more preferences, around 80% having exactly six.
Experience with the new Senate ballot paper has clearly encouraged more voters to indicate preferences on NSW Legislative Council ballot papers.
As the chart below shows, only around 15% of voters completed ATL preferences before the Senate changes. At two NSW elections post the Senate changes, 27.6% of NSW voters completed ATL preferences at the 2019 Legislative Council election, and after experience at two further Senate elections in 2019 and 2022, the percentage of ballot papers at the 2023 Legislative Council election completed with ATL preferences rose to 39.2% .
Despite the higher proportion of voters completing ATL preferences, the distribution of preferences had no impact on the final result. All 21 vacancies were effectively decided by first preference vote share by party.
Vote Types by Party
The chart below repeats the ballot paper type breakdown above but broken down by party. The left hand column shows the party and % first preference vote. '*' indicates parties where ATL preferences were not distributed beyond the first preference group.
As in 2019, voters for parties of the 'right' were less likely to show preferences, generally with 1-only ATL vote rates above 60%. Broadly defined 'left' parties had lower rates of 1-only ATL voting and higher percentages of voters completing ATL preferences.
I should draw attention to the % BTL rates for the Shelton and Bosi groups. Neither group had an ATL party name, and both saw higher rates of BTL voting. This repeats a phenomena seen at Senate elections where independent groups with no party name have much higher rates of BTL voting.
The rate of ATL voting increased for all parties in 2023, even for parties such as One Nation that recommended a 1-only vote at both the 2019 and 2023 elections. That's another pointer to the voters being influenced by completing ATL preferences at the 2019 and 2022 Senate elections.
The table below provides greater detail on vote types by party, and includes a column showing the increase by party in the proportion of voters using the ATL preferencing option. (Correction - the reference to 2015 in the footnote should be 2019)
Comparing Legislative Council and Senate Ballot Paper Instructions
When the 2016 Senate reforms were being negotiated, the NSW Legislative Council system was a guide for the reforms. One of the biggest concerns about adopting the NSW system in full was the high right of preference exhaustion, more than 80% given the high rate of 1-only ATL voting.
With a 14.29% quota for the Senate compared to 4.55% for the NSW Legislative Council, there was concern that high rates of exhaustion would result in some Senators being elected from vote totals well short of the quota.
That was the origin of the ballot paper instructions recommending a minimum number of Senate ATL preferences. After abandoning the 1-only option, and discussing suggesting 3 preferences, the final number adopted was six.
The savings provision adopted allowing any ATL vote with at least a valid first preference to remain formal was an attempt to avoid a sharp increase in informal voting. After more than three decades where voters had been instructed to indicate only a first preference vote above the line, the savings provision was a sensible compromise to encourage ATL preferences without invalidating votes that had fewer than six ATL preferences.
Some still criticise the Senate ballot paper instructions. Those that do should compare the Senate preference rates to NSW where only a single first preference is required.
There have been only three instances under the new Senate system where a trailing party has won a Senate seat.
At the 2016 double dissolution election, preferences allowed One Nation's Malcolm Roberts to win a second seat for his party as preferences boosted One Nation's vote ahead of other minor parties. In South Australia, Liberal preferences allowed Family First to pass Labor and win the state's final seat.
There were no wins on preferences in 2019 and only one in 2022, ACT Senator David Pocock coming from behind on Green preferences to pass Liberal Senator Zed Seselja.
All three of these come from behind victories would have been tougher if the 'minimum 6 ATL preferences' instructions were replaced by the NSW instructions of one with further preferences optional.
The difference between the rates of ATL with preferences voting in NSW at Senate and Legislative Council elections shows very clearly the importance of ballot paper instructions, and the instructions of ballot paper issuing officers. That party how-to-votes show a minimum six preferences at Senate elections, where in the NSW they do not, also has an impact.
The Senate instructions produce very high rates of voters indicating preferences, the Legislative Council instructions produce much lower rates.
Those who complain that the Senate instructions are dishonest but still advocate that voters give preferences should compare and contrast the rate of voters completing preferences in NSW at Senate and Legislative Council elections and consider whether the Senate instructions are so terrible.