South Australian Government Proposes Optional Preferential Voting

In proposing that South Australia adopt optional preferential voting for House of Assembly elections, the Marshall government is highlighting democratic principles in favour of making preferences optional. But you don’t have to be cynical to see that in backing principle, the SA Liberal Party is also backing its own self-interest.

Since 1982 there have been 26 South Australian electoral contests where a candidate trailing on first preferences won. Of these, 14 were won by Labor, 11 by Independents or minor party candidates, and just one by the Liberal Party. (Newland in 1989).


South Australian Attorney-general Vickie Chapman has announced a raft of proposed electoral changes, the most important of which is the introduction of optional preferential voting (OPV).

Several features of OPV are in principle better than the existing system of full preferential voting.

First, ballot papers are not invalidated because a voter makes a numbering error. Informal voting is always lower under OPV because any vote with a valid first preference vote counts even if there is an error with further preferences.

Second, voters will no longer have to number preferences for candidates they do not know or who they find equally objectionable. No longer will voters have to number further preferences solely to have their first preference vote count.

However, I doubt it is these principles that have attracted to the Marshall government to OPV. Rather it is an old rule of politics, that the best principles to argue for are those that are also in your own self-interest.

It was the same in the 1960s and 1970s when Labor backed and won the argument on one-vote one-value electoral boundaries in South Australia. Labor was backing a principle that it knew was also in its own interest. As it has continued to work in Labor’s favour at elections ever since.

What the Marshall government no doubt finds attractive about OPV is that it makes life harder for candidates who must come from behind to win on preferences.

Every exhausted preference under OPV removes a vote from the pool of possible preferences needed by a trailing candidate to catch the leader. Leading candidates benefit most from receiving a preference, but under OPV, leading candidates also benefit from exhausted preferences. Every exhausted preference puts a leading candidate slightly nearer the  wining post, which is 50% of the vote remaining in the count.

And history explains why the Liberal Party might find OPV attractive.

Since 1982, there have been 26 South Australian electoral contests where a trailing candidate won from behind on on preferences.

Of those 26 contests, 14 were won by Labor, 11 by independents or minor parties, and only one by the Liberal Party.

Principle may be the argument used by the Marshall government, but the record of those 26 contests since 1982 is probably more influential in driving a switch the switch to OPV.

And over the decades, both sides of politics have at various times supported OPV, and at other times opposed it. If you examine the record, it’s not hard to see political self-interest driving changing attitudes.

The Record of Optional Preferential Voting Elsewhere

For two decades after the mid-1950s Labor split, the breakway Democratic Labor Party (DLP) kept Labor out of office by recommending that DLP voters give preferences to the Coalition. Most did, and DLP preferences were important in Labor losing many Federal seats to the Liberal and Country Parties after leading on first preferences.

This memory of the DLP was behind the Whitlam government’s proposed switch to optional preferential voting in the 1970s, and the Wran government in NSW did implement optional preferential voting in 1980. Queensland also adopted optional preferential voting in 1992, though in that case the Goss Labor government implemented a proposal by the post-Fitzgerald era Electoral and Administrative Reform Commission.

The Hawke government also supported optional preferential on coming to office in 1983, but in the 1990s Labor quietly dropped its support for OPV. Labor was re-elected at the 1990 Federal election thanks to seven come-from-behind seat victories on Green, Democrat and leaked Coalition preferences. This seemed to remove some of Labor’s previous attraction to OPV.

The Coalition always objected to OPV, but in two states the Coalition has learned to love it, though not without being forced to accept changes to the nature of Coalition relations.

In Queensland, inter-Coalition competition, as well as the rise of One Nation, helped Labor win sweeping victories in 2001 and 2004, Labor urging voters to ‘Just Vote 1’. Many non-Labor voters took the advice to Labor’s benefit. OPV played a part in the merging of the Liberal and National Parties to form the LNP.

But the rise of the Greens and weaker preference flows under OPV soured Queensland Labor’s opinion of OPV. A big increase in preference flows to Labor at the 2015 Queensland election defeated the Newman LNP government, after which Labor abolished OPV in strange circumstances. Now it is the LNP that advocates OPV and Labor that opposes it.

(See this post from 21 Apr 2016 on Electoral Law Ructions in the Queensland Parliament where I explain how the Palascczuk Labor government’s hijacked an opposition bill, amending it in the committee stage to abolish optional preferential voting.)

(Also see this post from 18 Jan 2015 – Why Campbell Newman Advocates ‘Just Vote 1’ – on why the Queensland LNP was advocating ‘Just Vote 1’ for the 2015 state election. The post includes background on how OPV had worked at past Queensland elections. Newman lost in 2015 because antipathy to his government by third party supporters caused a huge increase in voters giving preferences  to Labor.)

The NSW Coalition also now embraces OPV, but it has required the Liberal and National Parties to give up contesting seats against each other. Labor may have introduced OPV in NSW, but these days NSW Labor is disadvantaged by its operation.

13 Feb 2011 – The Record of Optional Preferential Voting in NSW since 1980 – background on how a system introduced by Labor to disadvantage the Coalition has turned out to be more of a problem for Labor.

13 Aug 2015 – Preference Flow Data for the 2015 NSW Election – analysis of preference flows under optional preferential voting at the 2015 NSW election.

The Coalition has not embraced OPV in Victoria and Western Australia, largely because the Liberal and National Parties still actively enagage in three cornered contests. But as I have explained elsewhere, Labor would be badly damaged if OPV were introduced in Victoria.

11 Jan 2013 –Would Optional Preferential Voting have Changed the 2010 Victorian Election result? – on how the Baillieu would have won the 2010 election with a clear majority if optional preferential voting had been used.

Coalition relations have also stymied the Liberal Party’s few proponents of OPV for Federal elections. Tony Abbott would have won the 2010 Federal election under OPV, and the Coalition would have won both the 2016 and 2019 Federal elections with double digit majorities under OPV.

The South Australian Record

The South Australian party system has long differed from other states due to the strength of its minor parties.

In the 1970s the SA Liberal Party split, producing a small-‘l’ Liberal Movement in opposition to the then dominant conservative wing of the Liberal Party. The echoes of that split remain to this day with children from both sides of that split still holding positions in the Liberal government and its party structure. The most prominent of these is Attorney-General Vickie Chapman, who today is proposing OPV.

After the Liberal split ended in 1977, many former Liberal Movement members formed the core of the Australian Democrats, who enjoyed far more success in South Australia than any other state before disappearing after 2002.

The Democrats have largely been replaced by the Greens, though the Greens are further left than the Democrats on most issues, and generate much stronger flows of preferences to Labor.

South Australia has also been unique in having had a strong right-of-centre minor party in Family First after 2002. It merged with Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives ahead of the 2018 election. The new party polled poorly and subsequently disbanded, with the one remaining Family First MLC joining the Liberal Party.

The adoption of OPV has no doubt been influenced by the disappearance of the Australian Conservatives and the boost this will give to Liberal first preference support, at the same time as Labor relies ever more on Green preferences.

At only one of the eight elections since 1989 has Labor’s state wide first preference support been higher than the Liberal Party’s. That was in 2006, and as all SA Liberals know, that was also the only election since 1985 where the SA Labor Party recorded a majority of the statewide two-party preferred vote.

First preference votes by party at elections since 1982 are shown below.

Support for both major parties has declined over the last three decade, but it is Labor’s support that has fallen further. And the lower major party vote has caused an increase in the number of electoral contests decided on preferences, as shown below.

Since 1982 there have been 26 contests won by a candidate trailing on first preferences, 23 at general elections and three at by-elections.

Of those 26 contests, 14 were won by Labor, 11 by minor parties or Independents, and only one, Newland in 1989, by the Liberal Party.

Labor’s victories from behind all stemmed from strong flows of Australian Democrat or Green preferences. Optional preferences will weaken the flow of Green preferences to Labor at future elections, making it harder for Labor to win from behind. The record of Green preferences under OPV at NSW and Queensland elections shows it is common for 30-50% of Green preferences to exhaust rather than  flow to Labor.

The one come from behind victory by Labor that would clearly have been prevented by OPV was Labor’s victory at the 2014 Fisher by-election. The Liberal candidate polled 36.1%, Labor 26.7%, an Independent 23.3% and four other candidates between them 13.9%, Labor eventually won by just 9 votes, a victory that would not have been achieved under OPV.

But for the SA Liberal Party, the greatest benefit of OPV will be cutting off Labor’s habit of helping to elect Independents in safe Liberal seats. As happened in 2002 and 2014, these Independent and minor party candidates elected in Liberal seats have had a habit of helping put and keep Labor governments in office.

When the Liberal Party helped elect Independents in safe Labor seats in 1975 and 1989, those Independents acted differently and helped keep Labor in office.

Among Independents and minor party members elected on Labor preferences in safe Liberal seats are –

  • Heather Southcott (Australian Democrat) at the 1982 Mitcham by-election
  • Karlene Maywald (National), Chaffey, 1997 election
  • Rory McEwen (Independent, ex-Liberal), Gordon, 1997 election
  • Peter Lewis (Independent, ex-Liberal), Hammond, 2002 election
  • Geoff Brock (Independent). Frome, 2009 by-election, elected from third place
  • Don Pegler (Independent), Mount Gambier, 2010 election

Maywald, McEwen, Lewis and Brock all helped secure office for minority Labor governments.

One other consequence of OPV will be the abolition of South Australia’s unique registered preference ticket savings provision. In South Australia, votes cast with a single ‘1’ can be saved from becoming informal by the vote being assigned the preferences of the registered ticket lodged by the candidate who received the first preferences. Around 4% of votes are saved from informality by this provision.

It was this ticket savings provision that was responsible for Geoff Brock’s victory at the 2009 Frome by-election, and Labor’s victory at the 2014 Fisher by-election. Under OPV, votes that flowed to Labor as ticket preferences would become 1-only votes with no further preferences.

This discussion points strongly towards the Liberal Party absorbing the lessons of past defeats in understanding that full preferential voting is no longer in its interest, and that OPV will hurt Labor in the future.

It is good that the Marshall government is backing the principle of optional preferential voting, though as I say, it is other calculations that have pushed the Liberal Party to adopt this position.

But in the same way the ‘fairness’ provision for redistributions never delivered the expected election victories, so the SA Liberal Party shouldn’t assume its cunning plan for OPV will work any better.

In 2002, 2010 and 2014, the SA Labor Party outsmarted the Liberal Party’s fairness provision to remain in office.

In 2015 the Queensland Labor Party won nine seats from second place on preferences to consign the Newman government to oblivion. This was despite a vigorous ‘Just Vote 1’ campaign by the LNP.

The Marshall government can implement optional preferential voting, but voters will still make up their own minds on preferences. And as the Newman government example showed, if voters don’t like the government, they might direct preferences strongly to the Labor Party against expectations.

10 thoughts on “South Australian Government Proposes Optional Preferential Voting”

  1. Antony, what would you expect to be the effect of Hare-Clark in SA lower house elections? The relative popularity of minor parties in the state and the concentration of Liberals in certain areas seem like two counteracting factors that may reduce the electoral benefit to one major party over the other.

    COMMENT: A bit hard to do. You need to specify how many members per electorate, and then know the boundaries, to make calculations like that.

  2. Antony: What’s your view on having OPV with a “saving provision”, where any blank candidates would be preferenced in the first preference’s order (similar to the old number 1 above the line system.) Any candidate who has been preferenced by the voter would override the saving provision, and the remainder would be ordered after the vote would otherwise exhaust.) I know you would lose some of the “freedom” of OPV, and we are introducing potential issues with party tickets, but it would stop vote exhaustion, and would also stop the “advantage” you talking about. That otherwise exhausted vote would still usually end up with the candidate the voter would pick if they were forced to fill in all boxes.

    COMMENT: Totally disagree. The point of OPV is so that voters only have to give the preferences they have. No point introducing voter choice and then taking it away with tickets. The current SA tickets are only used as a savings provision.

  3. The argument for OPV seems extremely thin with the robust savings provision in SA.

    COMMENT: A key argument for OPV is that it will cut the rate of informal voting, but it can have only a marginal impact in SA because of the current savings provision.

  4. Personally, I like the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system used in Germany and New Zealand.

    COMMENT: MMP is a non-preferential system, which from an Australian perspective, makes it a non-starter for those that advocate electoral reform.

    1. Tom the first and best

      It is true (as far as I am aware) that MMP currently has no preferential voting anywhere it is implemented, however, I believe it has never replaced a preferential system (a relatively small proportion of electoral systems globally) so the context of introduction is different to what it would be in Australia. There is certainly nothing preventing preferential voting for the single member electorates and were MMP to be implemented anywhere in Australia the single member electorates would almost certainly have a preferential system and there would be a reasonable likelihood of the proportional component having preferences as well (just like the original ACT electoral system was fully proportional, with preferences).

      Given the SA Liberals` propensity to win the 2 Party Preferred (2PP) vote but not government and the failure of the “Fairness” boundary drawing to prevent this, the SA Liberals interests would probably make the SA House of Assembly the most likely chamber in Australia to get MMP, presumably with a high threshold and some form of preferencing.

      COMMENT: MMP has no choice of candidate in the party lists. It was why the D’Hondt system introduced for the SA Legislative Council (of which the ACT’s system was an extremely bad copy) was opposed by the Liberals and eventually scrapped for the current LC system in the 1980s. The current LC ATL system is often opposed because it doesn’t make voters choose candidates. I’m afraid nearly all those committed to ending single member electorates support Hare-Clark, not MMP.

  5. “the SA Liberal Party shouldn’t assume its cunning plan for OPV will work any better”. Indeed. OPV not only makes it easy to just vote 1, it also makes it easier to just vote 1, 2 and ignore the rest of the rabble. If you can dig out some stats that show how many Greens voters do just vote 1 under OPV, and how many vote 1 Greens and then give a meaningful preference to one of the major parties, I’d be interested and I’m sure others would be.

    COMMENT: At the 2015 NSW Election, 42.4% of Green preferences were a single 1, 18.0% had partial preferences and 39.6% numbered all the squares. Where the Greens recommended only a single preferences (8 seats) the numbers were 51.9% single, 12.5% partial and 35.6% full. In the 46 seats with a partial recommendation, the numbers were 42.5%/23.3%/34.0%. In the 39 seats with full recommendation they were 40.5%/13.1%/46.4%.

    1. And can we assume that those who do partial prefs give an effective vote to one of the parties with a chance of being in at the finish (usually Labor or Coalition), or do they do useless symbolic stuff like 1 Green 2 Animal Justice? Has anyone tracked that?

      COMMENT: I can’t quantify that. But I can say that when a Green how-to-vote puts another party 2 ahead of Labor, the rate of voters following the sequence declines. That may reflect voters not receiving the how-to-vote.

  6. I support optional preferential voting because this gives the widest choice and flexibility to the individual voter to express their vote for elected officials. I wonder Antony what you think about single-member electorates versus proportional representation versus some hybrid?

  7. Isn’t the purpose of an election is to find out what the electorate wants, not how a party can game the system?

    COMMENT: And the electorate will decide who they want.

  8. I would prefer to see a Hare-Clark system in all Australian Elections. Results always will give more weight to actual percentage of votes cast for a particular party, and will eliminate safe seats. The elimination of safe seats helps to eliminate vote buying and rorting as so well practiced federally in 2019.

Leave a Reply