Instant runoff voting in Australia: Guest blogger Ben Raue

by Rob Richie // Published June 16, 2009

Recently I was in correspondence with Ben Raue, a former candidate with the Australian Greens who maintains The Tally Room, a valuable blog about international politics. I had an exchange with him about the role of instant runoff voting and choice voting in his country's politics, and he sent me this note, with permission to post it.

For those of you who don't know, Australia uses instant runoff voting -- what we call "preferential voting" -- to elect the lower houses of the state parliaments for five of the six Australian states as well as the federal House of Representatives. A system of proportional representation known as Single Transferable Vote (STV, also known in the United States as choice voting) is used to elect the federal Senate and the upper houses in four of those Australian states. Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory elect their lower house through multi-member proportional representation.

As an active member of the Australian Greens political party, a former candidate for office and blogger tracking electoral news around the world, I definitely think the Greens have benefited from our system of instant runoff voting. I don't think it's a coincidence that the Greens have performed much better in Australia than our counterparts in other single-member electorate English-speaking democracies like the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and pre-1996 New Zealand.

The primary benefit of having instant runoff voting is that the entire concept of a 'wasted vote' is largely demolished. That means that small political parties do not need to worry about targetting seats where they either will not do any damage to their preferred major party or seats that they can win. We are now close to winning a number of single-member electorates in both federal and state Parliaments. The problem for Greens parties is bridging the divide between polling 2-3% and reaching a point where you are a credible alternative to the incumbent party.

However it's worth noting that while there is no rational reason to worry about wasting your vote in a preferential system, that does not mean that people understand that. Australians absorb an enormous amount of our culture from the US and to a lesser extent the UK, both of which are countries where wasting votes and tactical voting are real issues due to their first-past-the-post electoral system.

At the 2007 federal election progressive people were desperate to kick out the conservative Liberal Party government, even though most Greens voters had little illusions about Labor leader Kevin Rudd. He certainly didn't have the appeal of an Obama-like figure. However a lot of very politically aware people told me that they would be voting Labor '1' because they didn't want to risk helping the Liberals by splitting the vote. This is despite the fact that a '1' vote for the Greens and a '2' vote for Labor would have been just as valuable in defeating a Liberal candidate. This confusion is often encouraged by the major parties who do not want people to give a first preference to a minor party. In left-wing inner-city seats around Sydney and Melbourne, where the Greens are now challenging the hold of the Labor Party, Labor campaigners often will claim that a vote for the Greens would help the Liberal Party, sowing confusion about our electoral system, in order to bring progressive voters back to Labor.

Of course, having instant runoff voting does not put every voter into a competitive election. There are still safe seats and marginal seats, and those who live in safe seats or are reliable voters for either major party are largely ignored. Most of the success of the Greens has been closely linked to getting members of Parliament elected to houses elected by proportional representation. The upper houses in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia, along with the the lower houses in Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory and the Senate, are all elected using STV. All but two of the Greens who have been elected in Australia were elected in these seats.

While there is theoretically no barrier to people voting for us in the lower house without a proportional upper house, having elected parliamentarians has given us media attention, resources and relevance, without which we would be much weaker. We have also performed best in local government where choice voting (STV) is used to elect councils. We now have 75 local councillors in New South Wales, all elected by STV, while they are gradually replacing single-member wards with multi-member wards in Victoria, which is leading to growing number of councillors being elected.

The Queensland Greens have suffered from the fact that they have no proportional representation in state or local government, meaning the only proportional seat they can win is in the Senate. They are the only state Greens party which has no capacity to get state MPs elected, which has made it very difficult for the party, in comparison to other states.

The other area in which instant runoff voting has particularly affected the Greens is in the direction of preferences. In Australia we have a long tradition of political parties organizing to hand out 'how-to-vote cards' out at polling booths on election day. All parties do it and ultimately try to cover nearly every voter in every booth, particularly in marginal seats. Every party hands out a piece of paper with a replica of the ballot paper with the numbers filled in to indicate how they want their voters to preference.

Every election campaign there is a media frenzy over how minor parties like the Greens direct our preferences. In the past the Greens have tried to negotiate policy outcomes for preferences, however these have largely been unsuccessful, with major parties promising things before elections then breaking their promises. It has also caused difficulty for the Greens in that we don't want to be seen to be merely channeling preferences to the Labor Praty but we find it difficult to ever direct preferences to the conservative Coalition on policy grounds, and we have found on the few occasions we have preferenced Coalition candidates we have been punished by our voter base (who are mostly former ALP voters).

I sometimes wonder how the Greens would look in Australia if we had proportional representation in the upper houses but first-past-the-post in the lower houses. I tend to think we would still exist but would find it much harder to get out of the niche of being considered to be a 'balance of power' party limited to a role in the house of review. If you want to argue that you are aiming to actually govern the country and defeat the existing major parties, rather than simply act in a balance of power role in the Senate, you need to be competing in House of Representatives elections. In the 2007 election, Greens contested every single seat and won 7.8% of the national vote in the House of Representatives election and 9% of the vote in the Senate election.

Instant runoff voting gives us independence in that we do not need to engage in tactical voting or coalitions in order to compete. I also think it enhances our vote and gives us legitimacy in certain inner city seats where we have been pushed into second place (or have come close). I don't think it will be long before we start winning those seats at general elections and hold them, and when that happens I believe that will be due to the fact that preference voting allowed us to build up in those areas.