Is the bigger scandal that one in five votes didn’t count or that the voters didn’t know about it?
When the dust settles from this week’s Orange byelection re-count, the major parties will have some soul-searching to do.
With a winning margin of only 50 votes, the Nationals will be wondering what might have been. If only they could have persuaded 26 people to swap sides, they would won the seat they’ve held for 70 years.
26 votes against the backdrop of the 49,687 people who cast a ballot: it doesn’t come much closer.
With that in mind … what about the 11,000 locals whose votes played no part in determining the outcome.
These were people who voted validly. The electoral commission staff counted these ballot papers, but then they put these bundles in a special pile to one side where they would have no impact on splitting this closest of election margins. These votes had no preferences to allocate or ran out of preferences before they got to the final two contenders.
The technical term for these votes is ‘exhausted’. And there were 11,208 of them, four times as many as at the last state election.
It happens when a voter doesn’t put a number in all the boxes. It could mean they stopped after putting a ‘1’ in the box next to the candidate of their choice. It could mean they stopped after writing numbers in four or five boxes. It depends.
There are two things that can be known for sure. One: these voters chose not to write any numbers next to the names Scott Barrett (Nationals) or Philip Donato (Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party).
Two: this kind of voting is legal. As long as voters fill in at least one box, they can then choose whether or not they fill in the rest. This is the ‘optional’ part of the ‘optional preferential’ voting system.
It’s legal, but I believe it’s a tragedy for democracy.
It’s a system designed by the major parties to keep minor parties and independents out of the mix and not reflect our community’s true diversity. This time round, it may well have come back to bite a major party where it hurts the most.
It’s a system that’s distinctly different from the rules at federal elections, so it’s understandable that voters went into the ballot box either in the dark or confused. And it took eleven thousand votes out the of the mix and having no impact on a ballot decided by just 50.
As I’ve ranted this week at people within earshot, I’ve heard a broad range of reactions, from thoughtful through to uninformed, ignorant or childish. Here’s some.
The most common was, ‘no, when I put a ‘1’ against a candidate’s name, the party or candidate I’ve voted for allocates preferences to some other candidate.’
Nope, you’re thinking of a system like the senate’s tea-towel of a ballot paper, where if you put a ‘1’ above the line the parties do tell the electoral commission ahead of time where to allocate your preferences.
In the NSW lower house election, your preferences are only allocated if you write more numbers on your own ballot paper. If you stop at one or stop adding numbers somewhere short of putting a number next to either of the top two candidates your vote doesn’t get added to the tally of either of those two. It goes into the ‘exhausted’ bundle and makes no difference to the outcome.
Then there was, ‘no, I shouldn’t have to vote for someone whose policies I don’t support.’
This is the ‘if you won’t play my game I’m taking my ball and going home’ approach. It's time Australia’s voters learnt to be a little more mature than this.
By choosing the candidate you like the most and giving them a ‘1’, you’re making it clear where you stand. Of course, the only compulsory thing about voting is that you should have to turn up, have your name crossed off the list and be handed a ballot paper. Whether you write numbers or draw pictures in the privacy of the ballot box is up to you.
The question is: do you want your vote to matter?
The reality is on the Monday after Saturday’s election you’ll be waking up with a government which may or may not be of your choosing. But by leaving some squares empty, you’re rolling the dice.
Surely it’s possible to take a deep breath, be a big, brave little soldier, work out which set of policies you detest more than all the others – yes, it can be tough – and then fill in all the squares.
The only sensible response I’ve heard this week was from a Labor voter. In almost all Orange lower house elections lately, Labor has finished second, so a ‘1’ vote for Labor, in most elections up until this one, would mean your vote would still count.
Not this time.
There were 4,524 Labor voters, 1,177 Greens voters and another 5,501 voters who started off with another minor party or an Independent, but whose votes were exhausted and who played no part in determining the result.
It’s interesting to wonder what could have happened.
Some of these were conservative end voters and were making a protest vote, but if it really came down to it, would they have gone for the Nats or the Shooters?
Others were towards the left-leaning end of the political spectrum. If really came down to it, which of the candidates would they have liked the least?
We’ll never know, because in a ballot where the Shooters won by a nose, these 11,000 votes didn’t count.