Article – Why Voting Systems Matter

TL;DR– When everything is even what system you use to tabulate the votes will have a marked change on the outcome.


Throughout the year in my other job I have been teaching classes on Political Science, specifically Australian Political Institutions. On the week where we discussed voting systems one of the things that we mention is that how you chose to formulate your electoral systems can have dramatic impacts on the outcome of elections i.e. who gets what seats in parliament. However, while this was clear I didn’t have a good example to show. Well, I had some free time at the end of the year and this question had been bugging me so I decided to work through the data myself to see if there was such a big difference and it does, boy does it ever. Now, for those who are not familiar with Australian Politics, we have presented a little primer next, as well as a general overview of the project, but if you are familiar you can skip down to the data below. 

Now before we go into the data I want to take a few moments to give a general overview of the data. All of the results are based on the voting data from the 2016 Federal Election of Australia on the 2nd of July 2016 collected by the Australian Electoral Commission. Now there are a couple of small notes, since the election there have been some changes in the construction of the Parliament due to a number of by-elections, party resignations, and indeed some political parties in this article don’t exist anymore, but that is not a big issue for us as we are looking at the elections as a snapshot of that one moment and how 14,262,016 people voted. As well as this, there are some peculiar quirks of the Australian system like compulsory voting that might change the data a little bit but this does not change the underlying bases for the analysis. The data also assumes that this is a free and fair election, that there was no voter suppression, or gerrymandering going on, which is not something you can say about all elections in the world. Finally, this is not meant to be a definitive look, and as such there were a lot of judgement calls as to how to assign seats when we get down to the 2.64 seats etc. I have made some calls which may change the outcomes a little bit around the edges but not significantly.

For this data set, we will be focusing on Australia’s House of Representatives,it is the lower house of Australia’s two house(bicameral) system, with similarities to the House of Commons in the United Kingdom or Canada and the House of Representatives in the US or New Zealand.Indeed, much of Australia’s government structure is a combination of the British Westminster system and American Federalism which is sometimes referred as the Washminster System (any Political Scientists from Washington or London probably just cringed and I am sorry I didn’t get to name it). The Australian House of Representatives has 150 seats as of the last election, where one person is elected per-seat in a winner-take-all format, so you need to control at least 75 to be in a majority government (note for this analysis we have not included the Speaker as it was easier to modal). Australia has a two-party system (well a two-and-a-half party system if you want to really show off your Political Science nerd cred) which we will be using for our analysis. For those not familiar with Australian politics, the basic rundown of the political parties are:

  • The Coalition: This is the group of conservative, generally Centre-Right parties that form one of the main factions in Australian Politics, focusing on a more pro-business, social conservative platform. In order of size, there is The Liberal Party, The Liberal National Party (LNP), The Nationals, and the Country Liberal Party. For the purposes of this,we have grouped them all together, mostly because in Queensland, The Liberals and The Nationals merged to form the one party which, besides being a bad idea,messed with our nice state-by-state comparisons, so it was just easier this way to group them all together. Sorry to our Canadian readers where The Liberal party is the left-leaning party, and thus the opposite of how it plays out in Australia, just to be confusing.   
  • The Australian Labor Party: This is the second main faction in Australian politics and tends to fall on the Centre-Left. The ALP tends to focus on more working and middle-class issues (unless they are willingly dragged to the right on immigration) and still have a strong support base in Australia’s Union movement.Please note it is the Labor Party, not the Labour Party because they allegedly had an American romance moment that we are still dealing with.    
  • The Greens: One of the younger political parties in that I am technically older than it,but is a growing force in Australian politics. As the name suggests it is Australia’s party that sits firmly on the Left of the political spectrum, focusing on a number of environmental and social issues.
  • Independent Candidates: These are people that do not belong to any major political party (or have not yet gotten around to forming their own one yet) and so can fall across most of the political spectrum even though a lot of them tend to be former National Party members.
  • Misc. Christian Parties: There are a number of Christian parties that exist on the Right to Far-Right on the political spectrum. Because of their many similar (though not identical)policies we have grouped them together here for sake of clarity.
  • The Nick Xenophon Team: This is the political party based around former long-time senator Nick Xenophon from South Australia. While their policies are quite ranged they do tend to sit more in the Centre of the political spectrum.
  • Pauline Hanson’s One Nation: This is apolitical party formed by shock horror Pauline Hanson that has unfortunately existed in some form or another since the late 1990s and has a political base in Queensland. It sits on the Far-Right of Australian Politics, like the leader of the party congratulating the Sentinelese people on killing a missionary for their strict immigration policy Far-Right.  
  • Katter’s Australia Party: Based around Bob Katter and his family and based in North Queensland, this party focuses on economic protectionism and regional issues and tends to fall on the Right side of the political spectrum.
  • Animal Justice Party: A political party based around Animal welfare issues and giving them a voice in the political process. They focus on issues like the deplorable live animal exports that at time of writing was still happen, come on Australia. It falls on the Left side of the political spectrum and we would have likely grouped it together like the Misc. Christian Parties if there had been any other left-leaning smaller parties like this.            

So with this in mind let’s dive into the world of voting systems.

First-Past-The-Post Voting System.

The first and most common voting system used in the world is the First-Past-The-Post voting method. This means that to win you have to get the most votes, in a clear two-party system it is very easy to get that 50% of the vote +1 legitimacy threshold that most use. However, once there are more than two parties it gets problematic as the majority candidate might only get 30% of the vote or less and while 70% of the people of their electorate did not want them they are still elected. Now, many places in the world fix this by having run-off elections, like what recently happened in the Mississippi Senate race in the US, others like Australia have a different method that we will get to in a moment. However, in the United Kingdom they still run with this system, so what would Australia’s Parliament look like if it followed the United Kingdom’s voting system. Well to do that I had to go through the results of all the 150 seats in the House of Representative and select every candidate that got the most first preference votes which gives us the following:

Charting Australia's House of Representatives useing the First-Past-The-Post Voting System

Click Here for Full Sized Image

This means that The Coalition has a commanding lead in the Parliament with 91 seats compared to Labor’s 54. Now for many, including the people of the UK that voted to keep this electoral system, this is a perfectly fine result,and that has a ring of truth to it. Because they won the support of the largest chunk of voters in each of their electorates. However, as we will see,this gives The Coalition 60.3% of the seats in the Parliament but they only received 43% of the vote, an almost 20% difference. For many, a 20% margin of error is a big problem and we have seen that play out in the UK’s recent elections.               

Alternative Vote Voting System.

As I mentioned, there are many ways you can deal with the issue of First-Past-The-Post Voting, and in Australia (also Maine, US; London, Canada; many internal political party election across the world) The way they do that is through the Alternate Vote voting system, also called the Instant-Runoff system, or Preferential Voting. This means that at the time of the election voters rank all the candidates in order of preference. So in the case that no one candidate reaches the 50% of the vote +1 legitimacy threshold, the lowest voted candidate is removed and their votes assigned to whoever was second on the ballot. This is repeated until someone hits 50% of the vote +1. As this is the system Australia uses in The House of Representatives it means that the following is the actual results of the 2016 election:

The Australian House of Representatives using the Alternative Vote method

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In this result, we start to see a closer relationship between the results and the votes the people of Australia gave. With The Coalition getting 76 seats, and the ALP getting an increased 69 seats as they benefit from preference flows from The Greens much like within the Coalition the Liberals benefit from preference flows from The Nationals. However, there are still some interesting quirks, for example, The Greens only get 1 seat (0.6%) in Parliament however they got 10% of the vote nationwide.  

Proportional Representation Voting by State.

One of the issues of a voting system like Australia’s is that it is based on the individual electorate and as such, it can disenfranchise voters of smaller parties that have a voice just not a concentrated like the electoral-professional major parties. One way some countries have sort to get around this is incorporate some kind of proportional voting that limits the winner-take-all nature that exists even in the Alternative Vote. This is a common feature in many European electoral systems,we see it in New Zealand, and also here in Australia. In Australia, The Senate,the upper house of Parliament, is elected on a state-by-state basis using a single transferable vote. So what happens if we model that form of system and add it to the House of Representatives? To do this we broke the House of Representatives down into the number of seats each state gets (NSW-47, Vic-37, Qld-30, WA-16, SA-11, Tas-5, and the ACT & NT 2 each). We then took the number of votes cast by people in the state and broke the seats down based on the proportion of the vote which leads to the following:

Australia's House of Representatives using Proportional Representation Voting by State

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Here we see a dramatic shift in the make-up of the House of Representatives, with a surge of minor parties now sitting in the cross-bench, 33 compared to just 5 in the Alternative Vote method. The biggest beneficiary of this is The Greens who now have 16 seats in the House of Representatives. As well as this, The Coalition now only have 66 seats, and while this still makes them the largest party, they are no longer in the majority. There is also a big drop in Labor seats, to 51, now they are no longer propped up by The Greens in many seats. One would imagine that a Parliament like this would have dramatically different governing priorities as both sides of the political spectrum would need the support of minor parties to pass legislation.

Nation-Wide Proportional Representation Voting.

Now,you could ask the question if we are going to use proportional voting, why use the states at all. Should we as a nation vote for the makeup of the national Parliament, I mean we still have the Senate as the State’s House. To do this we need to take the 14,262,016 votes cast in the 2016 election, and then breakdown the seats in the House of Representatives based on the first-preference votes of every Australia. When we do that we get the following:

Australia's House of Representatives using Nation-Wide Proportional Representation Voting.

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When we use proportional voting at the national level rather than the state we end up getting a similar but not quite identical outcome that working at the state level. So there are some changes, like when One Nation has to fight on a nation-wide ballot it only gets 1 seat compared to the 3 if we work by state. However, most of the changes sit around the margins rather than any dramatic change. For example, The Coalition has the identical number of seats, 66, like last time.However, unlike the First-Past-The-Post system,The Coalition received 43% of the vote and got 43% of the seats rather than the over 60% of the seats.  

In the end, what does this all mean? Well what it means that using the same 14,262,016 votes I was able to get four different outcomes in the House of Representatives, and this is not an exhaustive list of voting systems, these were just the four easiest ones I could construct using the data on hand. Thus the very nature of the House of Representatives would dramatically shift depending on its composition, and this is why looking at voting systems is such an important thing.

Fun final note: there was one constant across every system I plotted out. No matter what variable I threw at the data The Katter Australia Party only ever got 1 seat.  

Credit: All the images were created by the author Brian MacNamara using data collated by the Australian Electoral Commission

By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations,or the Solar System.

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