Is our electoral system truly democratic? How Australia stacks up on 4 key measures

·6-min read

In Australia, we choose our political representatives and governments through a democratic electoral system.

Generally, these systems should have four main aims. These are to:

  1. secure easy access to voting for everyone of voting age

  2. ensure the party whose candidates attract the most votes wins a majority in parliament

  3. establish a parliament that, as much as possible, represents the opinions of all voters

  4. uphold the equal value of each individual vote.

With a federal election fast approaching, let’s assess Australia’s own electoral system.

Overall, Australia rates well on access to voting and on ensuring the most popular party wins government.

But there’s still room for improvement to ensure the largest possible number of people have a member of parliament they feel represents them, and to reduce the number of wasted votes.

1. Access to voting

Australia is good at encouraging people to vote, made easier by the fact it’s compulsory.

The Australian Electoral Commission runs campaigns to get voters enrolled, and has achieved some success in the lead-up to the May 21 election.

But the cut-off date for this election was April 18 – a full 33 days before election day. This early closing date is to ensure the electoral roll is complete before candidate nominations close. But this means some people will miss out on voting, which isn’t ideal.

In some countries, people can claim enrolment even on election day. Introducing this in Australia may improve our electoral system.

Australia is also great at giving voters multiple choices for how and when they can vote.

Elections are held on a Saturday when more people, particularly working professionals, have ample time to attend a polling booth.

But if you can’t, there’s postal voting and early voting at pre-poll centres. And if you’re not in your own area, you can still vote.

So on access to voting, I score Australia 4.5 stars out of 5.

2. Government by majority

We usually elect one of two major parties preferred by a majority of voters.

However, the growing number of political parties has made this process more complex.

In 1974, Labor won 49% of the first preferences and the Coalition 46%, which translated into a narrow Labor majority. Back then, almost everyone voted for candidates from major parties.

A year later, in 1975, Coalition candidates won 53% of the votes, which led to a large Liberal majority. This was the last time any party won a majority of first preference votes at a federal election (Bob Hawke came close in 1983 with 49% for Labor).

Read more: You don't understand me: is local politics truly representative of the people?

So how can we be sure the party we want is winning government?

In Australia, we have preferential voting. This means we’re required to mark preferences one, two, three, and beyond. It means we can calculate a “two-party-preferred vote” – whether you ultimately prefer Labor over the Coalition or vice-versa.

In Australian elections, the party with the majority of two-party-preferred votes has generally won.

But not always. In 1998, Labor won 51% after preferences, but still lost the election. This happens when parties have a lot of safe seats, but narrowly lose the more marginal seats.

So on government by majority, I score Australia 4 stars.

3. Ensuring everyone is represented

In the Senate, there are Labor, Coalition, and Greens members in every state. In some states, there are others from the Centre Alliance, Jacqui Lambie Network, and One Nation parties, as well as independents such as Rex Patrick.

So at least in the Senate, a large majority of voters have a senator representing a party they voted for.

However, that isn’t the case in the House of Representatives.

In seats where no candidates gained 50% of first preferences, the winner received less than 40% of the first preferences. As a result, these candidates were only elected narrowly by transfer of preferences.

In the electorate of Macquarie in 2019, for example, Labor MP Susan Templeman won just 38% of the votes but narrowly scraped through with 50.2% after preferences.

She was the candidate ultimately preferred by most voters, but the 49.8% who preferred someone else aren’t represented by a candidate they wanted.

A proportional system like the one for state elections in Tasmania would more fairly represent the majority of voters, with more than 85% of people voting for candidates from parties that were elected to represent them.

On making sure everyone is represented, I’d give us 3.5 stars, because there are too many people who don’t feel represented.

4. Equal (and not wasted) votes

Equality of votes is less straightforward.

Since Federation, 12 senators have been appointed to the Senate from each state, regardless of their respective populations.

As a result, in 2019, it took 50,285 votes to win a Senate spot in Tasmania but 670,761 votes in New South Wales.

In the House of Representatives, each electorate has more or less the same number of voters. It’s effectively a “one person, one vote” system.

In reality, however, there are many wasted votes due to “safe seats” – those that almost never change party.

This is why ABC election analyst Antony Green lists only 49 seats as “key seats” despite there being 151 seats in the House of Representatives. In other words, over two-thirds are essentially safe seats.

Some would argue voters in these 104 safe seats don’t contribute to the election result. But in actual fact they do, because a seat only becomes safe if supported by the majority of voters.

In proportional systems like Tasmania and the ACT, there are no truly safe seats, because names on the ballot paper are rotated and the voters choose which candidates from which party are elected.

Proportional systems also reduce the number of “wasted votes”. In our preferential system, most MPs in the House of Representatives win with between 50.1% and 60% of the votes after preferences. That means between 49.9% and 40% are voting for defeated candidates. These votes are “wasted” in the sense that they don’t lead to the election of a candidate. But in the Senate, which uses proportional voting, at least 85% of votes count to the elected candidates.

Since the House of Representatives is the main game, and there are too many people whose votes don’t elect anyone in that house, I can only give 3 stars for us on this.

Australia has a good electoral system, and the rules of the election are conducted very fairly by the independent Australian Electoral Commission. But there are aspects that could be improved. So let’s give ourselves a mark of 15/20 and work to make it even better.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Stephen Morey, La Trobe University.

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Stephen Morey is the National Secretary of the Proportional Representation Society of Australia (prsa.org.au). He is also a life member of the Australian Labor Party but does not hold any position within that organisation.

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