Voting for Someone Else often gets you nowhere

Slightly fewer than one in two voters put a “1” in the box next to their LNP candidate at the 2012 Queensland election. Slightly more than one in four did the same for their Labor candidate (ECQ results here).

Almost a full quarter of those who voted gave their “1” to Someone Else – a minor party or independent candidate.

(There were also people who put a ballot in the box that was not a valid vote, and people who didn’t turn out at all. The effect of those people on the outcome is enigmatic.)

The major story of the election was the collapse in Labor’s primary vote.  The ALP got 42% of people’s first preferences at the 2009 election, but only 27% three years later. It’s a sharp drop. Labor’s national secretary George Wright, and his review panel, recently spent lots of time and words on the reasons for that drop: the report is publicly available.

However, another story of the election is about the challenges, for Labor, arising from the Someone Else vote.

In 2012, not only did almost a quarter of people who voted put a “1” next to a minor party candidate or independent, a lot of those who did so did not go on to rank the other candidates on the ballot. That is, they “Just Vote[d] 1”, as Labor had urged them to do a decade before.

As Antony Green has said, the number of people who “Just Vote 1” has been steadily increasing since 2001, after jumping sharply at that election. It jumped because, that year, Labor ran a campaign to persuade people to do just that: write a “1”, and don’t bother with the rest of the ballot.

In a single member optional preferential system like Queensland’s, a “Just Vote 1” approach can substantially affect results when the vote on one side of the political spectrum is splintered by significant minor parties or independents.

If a voter ranks all or most candidates, then their ballot paper remains in play even if their first choice candidate gets a small number of votes. The ballot paper is passed on to their next choice, then their next choice, in order. If a voter writes only a “1”, then, if that candidate doesn’t win, the ballot paper gets put on a pile and subsequently ignored.

In 2001, Labor attracted a unified progressive vote, with the Greens barely on the scoreboard. In contrast, the conservative vote was divided. The Liberals and Nationals were separate parties, and One Nation was a significant right-wing minor party.

Back then, Labor’s primary vote was 49%, against a combined Liberal and National vote of 28%. Eleven years later, it was (almost exactly) the converse: 50% plays 27%, but this time in the LNP’s favour.

The “Someone Else” vote was around the 23% mark in both elections.

If Labor had not run the Just Vote 1 strategy in 2001, it likely would have won that election, but would not have got its landslide. Similarly, if the legacy of the Just Vote 1 campaign was not still being felt at the 2012 election, the LNP would have had the win but, arguably, not quite the same avalanche.

The relative merits of single member versus multi-member electorates can be debated elsewhere. But if you accept Queensland is best served by a single member system, there is still a question as to whether the current system, which delivered an almost literal decimation of a party that one in four people marked with  a “1”, is really good enough.

At this year’s state election there were fifteen seats, previously held by Labor, that the LNP gained, where the number of exhausted ballots exceeded the winning margin.

For example, in Greenslopes, Cameron Dick lost to Ian Kaye by 1,272 votes. But 1,410 people who voted for Someone Else didn’t say which of the two major party candidates they would have preferred. (Saying “neither” is really just abdicating responsibility.) That is, there were enough “Just Vote 1” and similar ballots to potentially affect the outcome.

In Townsville, 4,140 ballots exhausted, but the winning margin was only 2,102. In Ipswich, 5,350 ballots exhausted, and Ian Berry  won by only 1,892 votes.

Those fifteen seats were not enough to change the outcome of the election. We would still have had an LNP government. But with full preferential voting, we almost certainly would have had a larger, better-resourced opposition.

What can Labor do next time?

It cannot change the optional preferential system. Labor brought it back in the early 90s, and exploited it in 2001. It is very unlikely that the LNP will want to change the system during this term of the parliament (if ever).

But Labor can find out, and can keep finding out, what is attracting voters to minor parties. It can do this by listening. It can work on getting those voters back: a hard ask.

Labor can also acknowledge that minor parties and independents will be around for a while, at the very least. The Greens are likely to continue to obtain a small but significant vote (even though the Greens primary vote went backwards in 2012 compared with 2009). Katter’s Australian Party may or may not survive but in any event there is arguably a small but significant right-wing minor party vote in Queensland (see the post from Poliquant).

As long as there is a significant Someone Else vote, the ALP needs to decide whether, and if so how, to engage with the minor parties and their voters. Second preference cards – that is, simply asking Greens supporters to rank the Labor candidate second – are one tactic but are not the whole answer.

Labor might consider politely calling the minor parties to account on their preferencing (or lack thereof).

When the Greens failed to express preferences on their How to Vote materials at the 2012 election, the implicit message was: the major parties are the same. That is simply not true. Greens may find Labor disappointing, but it would be difficult for them to claim that Labor’s values are not more closely aligned to their own than those of the LNP.  The LNP’s approaches to issues such as surrogacy, civil unions, the environment and industrial relations, since they have been elected, make clear the divergence in values between the two major parties.

Worse, by failing to express a preference on How to Votes, the Greens are not just sending an inaccurate message to their supporters, but are actively depriving their supporters of a say in who wins the seat: a large number of Greens voters are Just Vot[ing] 1 and as a consequence their ballots are being consigned to the “exhaust” pile and are not influencing the outcome.

Less adversarially, Labor might consider what it can do to counteract the effects of its too-successful Just Vote 1 campaign, through education. It could produce and distribute communications about how our electoral system actually works, with the aim of persuading voters to exercise their full rights by numbering every square.

As well as calling on voters to rank all candidates on the paper to ensure their vote counts to its full potential, Labor might find it needs to clear up a misconception about the effect of a Just Vote 1 ballot.

It may be that people voting for Someone Else mistakenly think that the party or candidate of their choice has registered preferences with the ECQ (much like above-the-line voting in the Senate in Commonwealth elections).  A few people I have spoken to thought that was the case and were surprised to hear otherwise. That’s hardly empirical evidence but if that misapprehension was to be widespread that might be contributing to high exhaustion rates.

If, in the future, there is a unified progressive voice in politics, and the conservatives are again splintered, then the current system will work for Labor again. But that is neither a moral nor pragmatic justification for Labor to fail to act on these issues now.