Sorry all, this is a little technical, but with an election coming up, please try to grasp this particular nettle. In short, take the time to number your preferences all the way down and make sure parties you hate go last. Hat tip to RiteOn for producing this excellent summary of a very complex issue.

How to Vote Part 2.
The Power of Preference Distribution

In Part 1 I explained how to make sure that your ballot paper is completed in accordance with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) requirements and NOT rejected as Informal.  I also introduced the importance & the power of preferences in changing outcomes. If you missed Part 1 you can read it here

Part 2 now examines how members are elected to the House of Representatives – which decides who forms Government.  There were 150 members elected from across Australia in the 2016 federal election.  This time around, 151 members will be elected using the same compulsory preferential voting system & a 2 Candidate Preferred (2CP) methodology.  Part 2 goes into significant depth about how votes are cast, and how preferences are distributed & flow between candidates & parties.  First, by a study of a fictitious electorate called ‘SMALL’, and then the electorate of Dickson from the 2016 election which is shaping up as a key seat in the 2019 election & under intense Labor & Get UP activism.


The election in the fictitious electorate of SMALL was contested by 5 candidates (A,B,C,D, & E).

A total of 15 voters were registered with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), and 15 ballot papers were cast (a 100% turnout).  The 15 ballot papers lodged with the voter’s order of preference are in the table below.

A total of 4 ballot papers marked candidate A with a number1 (1st preference).  Three of those ballot papers marked candidate B as the number 2 preference, candidate C as the number 3 preference, candidate D as the number 4 preference & candidate E as the number 5 preference.

One of the 4 marked candidate E as the number 2 preference, candidate D as the number 3 preference, candidate C as the number 4 preference & candidate B as the number 5 preference.  These 4 votes with the preference orders are shown in the following charts in yellow.

Similarly, the 1st preference votes for candidate B are coloured purple (2 votes), candidate C in blue (5 votes), candidate D in orange (3 votes) and candidate E in green (1 vote)

Now, let’s follow the count and preference flows to see who wins.

The Primary (1st preference) votes are counted first – Candidate C (blue votes) has won the primary vote with 5 votes or 33.33% of the total votes cast (15).   The candidate with the lowest number of votes is now excluded (candidate ‘E’ with 1 vote).

Candidate E’s vote (colour green) is now distributed to the candidate numbered 2 on the ballot paper (candidate A).  This is called a preference distribution. After distribution of candidate E’s preference vote, the process continues.  The next candidate with the lowest number of votes is now excluded (candidate B with 2 votes).

 Candidate B’s 2 votes (colour purple) are distributed to the next valid preference on each of the 2 ballot papers.

One of the votes has candidate D numbered 2.  Candidate D has not been excluded, this vote therefore is distributed to candidate D.  However, the other ballot paper has candidate E numbered 2, but candidate E is already excluded, therefore the vote is distributed to the candidate numbered 3 on the ballot paper i.e. candidate C.

The process continues.  Candidate D is now the candidate with the lowest number of votes (4) is the next excluded and preferences distributed.   Candidate D’s 4 votes include:- 3 1st preference votes (orange) and 1 second preference vote from candidate B (purple).

Candidate D’s three 1st preference votes (orange) have candidate B as number 2, but B is already excluded, therefore the three orange votes are distributed to the candidates numbered 3.   Two of the votes are distributed to candidate A.  The candidate numbered 3 on one of the votes however is E who is also already excluded, therefore this vote is distributed to the candidate numbered 4, i.e. candidate C.

The voting system in the fictitious electorate of SMALL & in the Australian House of Representatives elections is a 2 candidate preferred (2CP) system.  Through the exclusion of candidates & the distribution of their preferences, only 2 candidates now remain.  The candidate with the highest number of votes is declared ELECTED.  In this case Candidate A is ELECTED with 8 votes compared to candidate C’s 7 votes.

Candidate C may have won the most primary (1st preference) votes, but Candidate ‘A’ is ELECTED in the electorate of SMALL with 53.333% of the 2CP vote.

The distribution of preferences is a very complex process as candidates get excluded, BUT it is preferences that decide who is finally elected in many seats in the House of Representatives.
Take a look at the orange vote DBECA above – the vote rested with the second last preferred candidate C.

From Part 1, we saw that 102 of the 150 (68%) of House of Reps seats in the 2016 election were decided by preference votes.  This is why it is critical to understand the system and think very carefully of your preference order to make sure that your preference votes don’t unintentionally elect a non-preferred candidate.  Equally critical is to make sure that if your numbered 1 candidate is excluded that your preference order distributes votes to your next preferred candidates before non-preferred candidates.

 In a 2CP system, you can only guarantee that a candidate will NOT receive your preference vote if you number that candidate LAST.
This can be guaranteed because at least one of your earlier preferred candidates will be in the 2 candidate preferred race, and that’s where your preference will rest.

 A REAL ELECTORATE – ‘DICKSON’ at the 2016 election

The North Brisbane seat of DICKSON was contested by 6 candidates in the 2016 election.

The order of appearance on the ballot paper is a random draw process much like horse barrier draws.   Voters who fit into a category of don’t care, disillusioned or don’t understand often number their preferences from top down in numerical order.  These are called ‘donkey votes’.  The top spot on a ballot paper is much prized to attract the 1st preference ‘donkey vote’, and last spot dreaded.

In a 2 Candidate Preferred (2CP) voting system the candidate in the last spot would NEVER receive a preference vote from ‘donkey votes’.  Candidates above the bottom spot would always contain at least 1 (or maybe 2) candidates who would finish in the final 2 preferred candidates, and that’s where a ‘donkey vote’ preference would rest.

In the case of Dickson electorate below the candidates from left to right are in the order of the candidates on the ballot paper from top to bottom.  Doug Nicholson (LDP) drew top spot and Peter Dutton (LNP) drew the bottom spot.  Peter Dutton, therefore never received a preference vote from the ‘donkey votes’.   All ‘donkey votes’ rested at their number 3 preference, the ALP candidate who was not excluded & remained in the final 2 candidates.  It could be said that ALP benefited from donkey votes at Peter Dutton’s expense.

Let’s look at the detailed preference vote flows.

 Step 1. – Primary (1st Preference) votes counted

Peter Dutton (LNP) won the primary vote count with 44.56%, followed by Linda Lavarch (ALP) with 34.94%, and Michael Berkman (Greens) next with 9.87%.  With no candidate receiving >50% of the primary vote, preference votes decided the eventual winner.

Step 2. – Candidate with the lowest primary vote is excluded & preferences distributed.

The candidate with the lowest primary votes of 2,589 is Doug Nicholson (LDP).  He is excluded, and the number 2 preferences on his ballot papers are distributed & added to the relevant candidate’s total.  The Independent received 783 (30.24% of his number 2 preferences), ALP 354 (13.67%), Greens 222 (8.57%), FFP 371 (14.33%), and LNP 859 (33.18%).

 Step 3. – The next candidate with the lowest votes is excluded & preferences distributed.

After adding 783 preference votes from the LDP, the Independent Thor Prohaska has the lowest number of votes of 4000.  He is now excluded and the number 2 preference from his 3,217 primary votes & the number 3 preference from the 783 votes received from the LDP are distributed & added to the relevant candidate’s total.  ALP received 1,1,73 (29.33%), Greens received 993 (24.83%), FFP received 1,284 (32,10%) and LNP received 550 (13.75%).

Step 4& 5 – Candidates with the lowest votes are excluded & preferences distributed.

 The process of excluding candidates and distribution of preferences continues until only 2 candidates remain.  The next to be excluded is FFP, followed by the Greens with the final 2 remaining, ALP and LNP.  Prior to the Greens exclusion, the ALP had 34,556 (38%) of the vote, LNP 44,542 (48.98%) and the Greens 11,835 (13.02%).  It is worth understanding that of the 11,835 Greens votes to be distributed that 2,864 came from LDP, IND & FFP preferences.

ALP received 9,455 (79.89%) of the Greens preferences, and LNP received 2,380 (20.11%).  It is highly likely that most of the Greens distribution to the LNP came from the 2,864 LDP, IND & FFP preferences received by the Greens, NOT those who voted Greens number 1.

After the final distribution of the Greens votes, ALP’s Lavarch had 44,011 (48.40%) and LNP’s Dutton had 46,922 (51.60%) of the 2CP vote.  Peter Dutton was ELECTED.

A Summary for Conservatives:

Part 1, and the study in Part 2 of the ficticious electorate of SMALL & the real electorate of DICKSON 2016, have demonstrated the importance & power of preference votes in deciding seats and Governments, and the criticality of the preference order on the ballot paper in deciding who gets excluded & who remains in the 2 candidate preferred race to the finish line.

Rite-ON! urges all voters to make sure their preference ends up with an intended & preferred candidate or party with aligned values & policies to your number 1 choice, should their number 1 choice be excluded.

  1. Understand preferences are equally as important as primary votes, and treat them carefully.
  2. Know your electorate, and the location of polling booths.
  3. Learn what policies and values the candidates in your electorate support .
  4. If possible, avoid the election day crush and vote at pre-polling.
  5. Determine whether your preferred candidate or party has put any Labor, Greens or left-wing independents ABOVE other conservative candidates. If so, this is self interest ‘hostile preferencing’.  Don’t follow their how-to-vote (HTV) card!
  6. Understand that in most electorates the two-horse race will be between the major parties – even if you support the minor parties, or a conservative independent.
  7. Make sure the major party you DON’T want in government, is put LAST!
  8. Number every box on the ballot paper, understanding that your preferences will help elect the candidate and the government.

Part 3 will examine the Senate voting system and the detail of how preferences flow for “above the line” and “below the line” votes & elect Senators.