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How to How to Vote

This election, why not make your own personalised How to Vote card? Warwick Holt explains how and why at the Side Project blog.

It’s election time! Who’s excited?

At this stage it’s fair to say Tony Abbott, and a fair few other politicians. But for many actual voters, casting their vote will be a relief for just one reason: it will get the campaign over and done with.

Perhaps it’s worth remembering the words of Winston Churchill , “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.” And that means that the best way to change who politicians are and how they behave, is to cast your vote to express your true preferences.

Misunderstanding and myths about Australia’s preferential voting system are widespread. It may take a couple of minutes to fill out the ballot, but it allows you to express your preferences in a remarkably subtle way – and that’s powerful.

Contrary to popular belief, you can’t “throw your vote away” by voting for a minor party or independent. The only way you can throw your vote away is to vote informal.

By ensuring that you put the candidates in the order you actually prefer, your vote will flow through – until it eventually ends up with one of the last two candidates standing.

Here, Dennis the Election Koala explains it quite clearly in cartoon form: http://www.chickennation.com/2013/08/18/you-cant-waste-your-vote/

In a way, it’s an ideal system for anyone who thinks all politicians are creeps. The candidates elected are not so much those who are liked by the most people as those who are disliked by the fewest.

For instance, there’s no reason you can’t put the major parties last and second last. Someone does have to get your number “1”, it’s true, but once you’ve worked your way up from the bottom you should be left with the candidate you despise least.

If you do choose to vote non-major, you’ll upping the numbers for people choosing to vote “other” – which is good if you want a range of voices in your democracy. Even if they stand no chance of being elected this time around, more votes means more encouragement to stand in the future.

You also get to deny the major parties the 248.8 cents that they would get if you gave them your first preference. (This per vote election funding is given to all candidates who achieve more than 4% of first preferences.)

The House of Representatives ballot – the green paper – is relatively easy to follow. There’s just one winner and there’s a manageable number of candidates to preference. If you want to prepare in advance, details of the candidates can be found on the Australian Electoral Commission’s website, at http://www.aec.gov.au/election/who-are-the-candidates.htm  

To delve deeper into the candidates, links to official websites for parties and candidates can be found at http://belowtheline.org.au/. That site is also one of several that allow you to prepare a sample ballot in advance to bring to the polling station – your own personalised How To Vote card.

The Senate ballot – the white paper - is where it gets tricky, and where sites like Below The Line, http://senate.io or http://www.clueyvoter.com/ can come in handy. The easy thing is to vote above the line – just put a “1” against your first preference party and allow them to determine where your preferences flow.

But with six senators elected in each state, each needing just 14.3%, preferences end up being key, even if you’re voting for a major party!

In the past, candidates have been elected with less than 2% of primary vote, and this year, minor party candidates with favourable preference flows could conceivably be elected with less than 1%.

So it’s worth checking out where your party of choice has directed their preferences – frequently as part of behind the scenes dealing - and if you disagree with who they might help elect, consider voting below the line. That means numbering the boxes for at least 90% of the candidates on the Senate ballot.

Over 95% of Senate papers were completed above the line in 2010, and the explosion in the number of independent and minor parties mean that the temptation will be even stronger this time around.

In New South Wales, there are 110 Senate candidates on the paper, while other states have almost a hundred. So thank goodness for sites like Cluey Voter, Below the Line and Senate.io, which allow you to anonymously prepare yourself for the polling booth.

Each of the sites use different techniques, but with a few clicks you can assemble a ballot that expresses your true preference, that you can then copy onto the tablecloth.

So this year, why not prepare your own How to Vote card in advance, and feel your full democratic power. That way the only paper you need to take at the polling station are your ballots. Unless you want a serviette with your sausage.

As well as being The Project’s writer and Web Producer, Warwick runs a Media Empire, and occasionally tweets @wokholt.