Voices & Choices

Lessons from Australia’s Ranked Choice Voting Election

Lessons from Australia’s Ranked Choice Voting Election

As FairVote continues its advocacy for ranked choice voting (RCV) in the United States, it is instructive to analyze how the system is playing out around the world. Having already reported on this year’s results in Malta, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, we turn to Australia to see how RCV fared. The big news was a change in government and a sharp uptick in votes and seats for independent and minor party candidates

Australia has used RCV to elect its most powerful offices for more than a century, with a unique combination of mandatory voting and mandatory ranking of the field to cast a valid ballot. Its  House of Representatives uses single-winner RCV to elect its 151 members, and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) is poised to win just enough seats for an outright majority, according to the available election results. The ALP won the estimated two-party preference 51.9% to 48.1%, a 3.4% swing to Labor from the 2019 election. The progressive coalition also won a working majority in the Australian Senate, which is elected with a unique form of proportional ranked choice voting that operates more like a party list system, as opposed to how it works in countries like Ireland. 

The ALP’s victory represents a change in government after nine years of conservative Coalition rule. (The two conservative parties, the Liberal Party and the National Party, have used RCV to run collaboratively for decades.) Major issues in the election included the rising cost of living, climate change, foreign policy toward China, and women’s equality. Notable election narratives include women’s electoral success, breakthroughs for independent and minor party candidates, and the continued moderation of the Australian government. 

Women fared well in contests in both chambers of the legislature, according to FairVote’s analysis of performance by gender. In Australia’s House elections, a median of eight candidates contested each seat. Of those eight candidates, a median of three were women. Out of all the candidates contesting House races, 38% were women, which lines up exactly with the 38% of seats won by women. In the Senate, women won 24 of the 40 contested seats. These results line up well with academic research showing that women fare well in RCV elections—especially proportional RCV elections. 

Among the successful female candidates were the six Teal independent candidates, who blended the conservative economics of the blue conservative Coalition with the climate policies of green candidates. The Teal candidates focused on inner-urban, wealthy seats, typically held by moderate Liberals. They were funded by Climate 200, which supported independent candidates who made climate action, political integrity, and gender equality top issues in their campaigns. The Teal candidates headlined a successful election for independent and minor party candidates. The major two parties won a record low of first preference votes, while independents and minor parties won a record high of first preferences. According to incomplete results as of May 25, independents won 10 seats, Greens won four seats, Katter's Australian Party won one seat, and the Centre Alliance won one seat. 

While the success of independents and third parties was a new trend in Australian politics, many trends from previous elections continued. Australia still requires all registered voters to vote or else pay a fine, and in House elections, voters must rank all the candidates (Reilly and Stewart, 2021, p. 100). In order to help voters with their rankings, the parties negotiate “preference swaps'' among themselves and then hand out ubiquitous “How-to-Vote cards” outside polling places (Reilly and Stewart, 2021, p. 99). These preference swaps can facilitate “come-from-behind” victories in which a candidate starts in second place in first preferences but ends up winning once all preferences are distributed. Of the 16 come-from-behind wins in FairVote’s analysis, independents won seven, the ALP won six, Greens won two, and the conservative Coalition won one. These results are a reflection of opposition political forces rallying for change, with RCV allowing more than one “change candidate” to run in each district.

The combined use of compulsory voting and compulsory ranking along with possibility of come-from-behind wins are believed to have a moderating effect on Australian politics (Reilly, 2016). Compulsory voting ensures more than just ideological die-hards turn out, and compulsory ranking means that preferences usually flow to two moderate major parties. The major parties must learn to compete for new expressions of political energy and do their best to incorporate those views into its own “big tent,” with new parties often having more success influencing the direction of policy than winning seats. Reilly and Stewart (2021) also find that come-from-behind winners use more moderate rhetoric in their social media communications. The ALP appeared to play the role of a moderate major party in this election, promising “renewal not revolution” and offering a “small target” of limited policy differences between them and the conservative Coalition. 

While compulsory voting is not used in the United States, we could expect many positive features of Australia’s political system to be replicated here should Congress adopt the Fair Representation Act. Like in Australia, one chamber (the U.S. Senate) would use single-winner RCV, and once chamber (the U.S. House) would use proportional RCV. Women would fare much better with multi-member U.S. House districts, and “bridge-building” candidates should win more seats and help prevent the hyperpolarization and gridlock that can grind our Madisonian system to a halt. While important differences between our political cultures exist, the United States would benefit from learning a thing or two from the “land down under.”  

 

References

Reilly, B. (2016). Democratic design and democratic reform: The case of Australia. Taiwan Journal of Democracy, 12(2), 1-16.

Reilly, B., & Stewart, J. H. (2021). Compulsory preferential voting, social media and ‘come-from-behind’ electoral victories in Australia. Australian Journal of Political Science, 56(1), 99-112.

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