Welcome to NSW, Where All Votes are Not Created Equal
For reasons I hope to make clear, to persevere with a system of optional preferential voting is not sustainable — it presents a clear partisan advantage, and goes against the shared ideals that strengthen our democracy.
As someone born in April 2001, I have the strange honour of having voted in two federal elections, all before being allowed to vote in my first state election. For many students, this will also be the first time they have been asked to help decide who we send to Macquarie Street.
However, many people will not be aware that, when we elect our lower house in NSW, the system differs from its federal counterpart in one significant way.
In a federal election, when the exasperated poll worker hands you the green lower house paper, the voter is forced to number every box — in order of preference — for every candidate in your electorate. This system is known as full preferential voting (FPV).
In NSW alone, we use a system known as optional preferential voting (OPV). In this system, voters only have to number one box, but can choose to put numbers in as many boxes as they like. Not numbering every box is known as “exhausting” your preferences, and if all the candidates that you have numbered are out of the running, then your vote is not transferred any longer and stops being counted. For reasons I hope to make clear, to persevere with this system is not sustainable — it presents a clear partisan advantage, and goes against the shared ideals that strengthen our democracy.
Before I delve into the intricacies of why OPV is a flawed system, I think it is important to defend the first pillar of the Australian election: compulsory voting.
Any democratically elected government is given legitimacy by its mandate to govern over the complete population, and I believe that the only way to ensure a democratic mandate is to compel every citizen to vote in the elections. This doesn’t just help in the abstract world of political philosophy. It also has tangible benefits to party policy.
Since our elections are compulsory and crucially overseen by a truly independent authority (the AEC or the NSWEC), the ability of everyone to vote is protected. No matter how remotely a person may reside, their suffrage is a fundamental part of every election.
Now that we’ve established that everyone’s vote truly does matter, we come back to OPV, and my greatest problem with its function. OPV’s biggest flaw is that it encourages people to vote in a way that may stop their vote from ever counting, especially when it comes to the actual decision of who represents their electorate.
This is where it gets a bit technical, and I need the assistance of Australia’s greatest election cult hero: Antony Green. Green has a truly incredible database of election data that he explains on his blog, where he has broken down the preferences in every seat from the 2019 state election.
The electorate of North Shore, held by Felicity Wilson of the Liberal Party, offers a convenient example. In the last election, there were just over 5000 votes for the candidate that came fourth, and 5900 votes for the candidate that came third — from the Greens and Labor respectively. For these two candidates combined, more than half the voters numbered only one box, meaning that they “exhausted” their preferences – their vote stopped being counted – before it could be added to the count of one of the top two candidates: Wilson, and Independent Carolyn Corrigan.
In short, there are over 5000 people whose vote effectively did not count in their lower house election.
I believe this demonstrates a philosophical flaw in OPV. However, there are also significant political implications for using OPV, particularly for left-leaning voters.
Green shows that nearly 40% of Greens voters exhaust their preferences before they are distributed to other candidates. This means that the Labor Party finds it a lot more difficult to win seats where it comes second on first preferences to the Liberals, because they cannot rely on Greens preferences boosting their vote to the same extent as in a federal election.
So, OPV is a barrier to installing a Labor government. This might help explain why NSW has had four different Liberal premiers in 11 years, but the Liberals have still not lost an election.
I think it is time to defend myself against some of the more obvious critiques of my position.
Firstly, critics of FPV argue that they should not be forced to vote for a candidate who they fundamentally disagree with, and would never want to represent them. This is a powerful cornerstone on which democracies are built.
For example, in the 2022 federal election in my seat of Greenway, there was a candidate named Riccardo Bosi. His views on many topics are controversial, such as COVID vaccines containing AIDS and actively calling for the hanging of former prime ministers Clearly, these views represent a tiny minority of the electorate and being asked to nominate these fringe candidates in any order can feel a bit bizarre.
However, there is a sense of pride in coming out of a polling booth, having shown that out of 11 candidates he is the one you least respect. By allocating these people low preferences, you are symbolically casting a vote against them and everything they stand for.
On the other side of the coin, many Greens or Socialist Alliance voters will reasonably argue that Labor is not radical enough on issues like climate change or housing relief. They will decide to exhaust their vote, rather than give their tacit approval for watered-down progressive politics.
This is a fair stance, but it unfortunately allows the Liberal Party to retain an electoral edge over NSW Labor. All politics is built on compromise, since there is no perfect candidate or party. However, failing to preference the Labor Party above the Liberal Party means failing to electorally punish the Liberals for their policy failures and resulting unpopularity. I would be prepared to guess that most Greens voters would rather sacrifice some policy ground and give a preference to install a Labor government, than allow their vote to be exhausted and perpetuate the decimation of the public service under the Liberals.
There are so many seats in this election that will come down to a knife-edge in Sydney alone. Penrith, Parramatta, East Hills, Riverstone and Winston Hills held by the Liberals, and Kogarah, Strathfield and Londonderry held by Labor, are just some of the seats where the result will almost certainly be decided by a large number of preference flows.
There will always be people who say that allowing voters to not support a candidate is as important as protecting their right to vote for someone. But in a transferable vote system, the only way to represent the true support of the electorate is to vote to the fullest, and number all the boxes.
If you’ve made it this far, I salute your perseverance and I want to end this rather nerdy immersion in election mechanics to implore you to number every box this Saturday. The democracy sausages taste twice as good when you’ve taken the time in the polling booth to make sure your vote counts.