Election numbers worth remembering

28 September 2014

Minor parties seem to have more power in politics than they deserve.  This is especially so in the Senate, where a system of proportional voting gives them a better chance of winning seats, and where they’ve conventionally won seats in Federal Parliament.  By contrast, the House of Reps consists only of single-seat electorates, where you only win a seat if you win more votes than every other candidate in that seat put together, and usually major parties end up winning those seats.  The 2010 election, which saw neither the Labor Party nor the Coalition win a majority of seats in either the House of Reps or the Senate, left minor parties and Independents holding what many people considered a level of power beyond their direct support among voters.  But this is, I suppose, what can happen in a democracy.

An election is really a game of numbers.  And there are certain numbers in the election game that are worth remembering, certainly in percentage form.

How much of the vote is needed for parties to win the game of election numbers?  Why are the numbers what they are?  I suppose that the best answer lies in hypothetical examples.  As an illustration, I offer the scenario of two community organisations, both made up of exactly one hundred people – I’ll call them Group X and Group Y.

Group X needs a president, and two people seek the job of president, but two into one won’t go.  Those two people running as candidates for the job could win the same number of votes – fifty votes each, or a hundred divided by two, but with no results.  However, if one candidate gains an extra vote to go to fifty-one votes, leaving the other candidate to drop a vote and fall to forty-nine, you’d have a result – the candidate with more votes, in this case fifty-one, wins the presidency.  The tally of fifty-one votes here equals a majority of votes.

Similarly, Group Y needs a leadership council of four people, and five people seek the four council seats, but five into four won’t go.  Again, there’s no result if all five candidates win the same number of votes – twenty each, or a hundred divided by five.  However, if one candidate gains an extra vote to go to twenty-one votes, leaving another candidate to drop a vote and fall to nineteen, while the other three candidate still have twenty votes each, you’d have a result – the candidate with the least votes, in this case nineteen, is beaten, and the four council seats go to the one candidate on twenty-one votes and the trio on twenty apiece.  It’s worth noting that here the tally of twenty-one votes, as achieved by the first candidate, equals a quota of votes.  Quotas are used when there are two or more seats up for grabs in an election in any single jurisdiction.

As these examples show, to get a rough idea of the number of votes needed to win a seat in an election, you divide the total vote by a number which is one more than the actual number of seats up for grabs – hence you divide by two if there’s one seat up for grabs, by three if there are two seats, by four if there are three seats, by five if there are four seats, and so on.  But this is only a rough idea.  After dividing the total vote, you must add another vote to your divided total, which will give you the number of votes needed to win.

Generally, in the case of the Senate at election time, there are six seats up for grabs in each state, so you need just over a seventh of the total vote in any state to win a Senate seat – because this is a multi-seat election, the minimum number of votes needed to win is referred to as a quota.  And because the number of votes needed in each state varies due to population, the quota is usually expressed in rounded percentage terms.  Therefore, the quota for winning a Senate seat in any state is about 14.3 per cent of the vote, which is just over a seventh.

Minor parties and Independents don’t often win 14.3 per cent of the Senate vote in their own right.  Usually they fall short of the quota, and end up winning seats when other candidates and parties with the fewest votes are progressively eliminated, with the preferences of eliminated candidates going to those still in the running until someone fills a quota.  Indeed last year there was a candidate in Victoria winning a Senate seat with only 0.5 per cent of the vote, who picked up preferences from other candidates and leapfrogged numerous minor parties to fill the quota.  But there are noteworthy cases of minor parties and Independents filling Senate quotas in their own right.

Nick Xenophon of South Australia is a good example.  Last year he won 24.9 per cent of the Senate vote there, and he’d previously won 14.8 per cent there in 2007.  Also, the Greens won 20.3 per cent in Tasmania and 14.7 per cent in Victoria at the 2010 poll, and 18.13 per cent in Tasmania in 2007.  Other successful parties last year picked up decent proportions of the vote, including 10.8 per cent for the Greens in Victoria and 11.7 per cent for the Greens in Tasmania and 9.9 per cent for the Palmer United Party in Queensland.  And in 2010, the Greens won seats with decent-sized votes in all states.

Barring any changes to how people are elected to Federal Parliament, minor parties and Independents will sometimes come up trumps in the game of numbers at election time.  But the way to count the numbers is worth remembering.  The quota of 14.3 per cent for the Senate will be worth keeping in mind, though few minor parties or Independents will actually reach it in any state in their own right.