Dear UK, Australia does NOT use expensive voting machines

We don’t use them to cast our votes, and we don’t use them to count our votes either. Anybody telling you otherwise is lying.

Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt

Background reading on this FUD effort, if, like me, you hadn’t previously noticed it:
Guardian – Why AV won’t spell RIP for tactical voting
Yes To Fairer Votes – AV Myths
No2AV – Why Vote No
Antony Green’s archive on the UK Alternative Vote referendum (n.b. Antony Green is not a “self-titled ‘Australian Elections Expert’” as styled by the No2AV blog, he is our national broadcaster’s appointed electoral expert, and has been analysing our state, territory and federal elections since 1989.)

  • We vote with an ordinary pencil on a simple ballot paper.
  • The votes are counted by hand at the polling place, with extensive cross-checks and on-the-spot scrutineering by representatives of the candidates.
  • Results can sometimes take a while to be known for two reasons that have little to do with any difficulties in performing the count – we have a rather large time difference between our east and west coasts, and in tight contests the result might not be known until postal votes are tallied, and we have a generous time limit on those postal votes arriving. Neither condition applies in the UK, and even if results weren’t known on the same night, would that really be so bad?
  • The 2PP (two-party preferred) figures used by the Electoral Commission on election night to forecast (forecast, not determine) the final results are indeed based on who were the two top contenders for the seat in the previous election. The Electoral Commission’s forecast is not legally binding. Why is a statistical analysis tool with no effect on the actual ballot count perceived to be in any way a problem?
  • If you have seen photos of alleged Australian vote counting machines supposedly being used in Federal (national) elections, you are being misled. The tiny regional parliament of the ACT (Australian Capital Territory) apparently proudly uses some voting machines for its own regional elections (which are STV (Single Transferable Vote) anyway, not AV) – those machines are not allowed to be used in Federal elections. No other representative body in Australia uses requires electronic voting in its elections (clarification: some may offer special electronic options for voters with disabilities). Some simple banknote counting machines are used to tally total ballots at a polling place as one of the many cross-checks of the manual count – they do not count the votes, just the number of papers, and they do it after the manual count has been completed (because it’s just a cross-check). So we don’t actually need them for AV to work, they’re just a convenience.

So this is what a weird conversation I had with a Kiwi last week was all about! I simply could not fathom why she was so interested in (and antagonistic towards) our preferential (or AV – Alternative Vote) voting system.  After she claimed that preferential voting systems are bad because they lead to more coalitions, and I responded (very mildly) with the first thing that came into my head i.e. that the FPTP (First Past the Post) system in the UK had not prevented the need for a coalition government that was in office right now, and then responded to her question about whether or not I liked Julia Gillard as PM with the truth that I’m disappointed that she’s too centre-right but she’s better than the alternative, she kinda avoided me for the rest of the 3 day seminar.

Categories: media, Politics

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16 replies

  1. She did know that NZ has a preferential voting system already, didn’t she? It’s called MMP (details here) Or maybe that was what she doesn’t like.

  2. Yeah, she didn’t like it, but she didn’t seem to understand that their proportional system is not exactly the same as our preferential system. Of course they’ve got an election coming up this year too, which could be why she’s not keen on the MMP system’s way of presumably not coming through for the party she favours, but just a couple of the things she said do seem very close to some of the misrepresentations on the No2AV site.

  3. Just a small correction – We generally don’t use electronic voting machines, however at the least in the latest Victorian State Election, the VEC had electronically assisted voting (but only at Early Voting Centres).
    These were not the primary method of voting, but instead offered an alternative for people with different accessibility needs. No proof of disability or anything is required, all one needed to do was ask to be able to use it.
    Addionally I believe there was a trial on a similar system in the federal election of 2006? not sure about that one though.
    These certainly were not mainstream, but they didn’t seem to cause any major problems. It would be a completely different kettle of fish to have this be the only, or the majority way to vote in Australia, many problems of security, accuracy, and redundancy would need to be addressed.

    • Thanks for the extra information, Ella. I might make a clarification to my post to ensure that my point being “it is not necessary to purchase expensive voting machines in order to implement AV” is not obscured by overly strong claims.

  4. I’m pretty sure we use electronic counting for the federal senate. I believe they are done in batches with each batch done twice by separate data entry operators and the data not added to the system unless the two counts match up. Probably a bit of pain to do preferences otherwise.
    The ACT has used electronic counting for all votes for quite a while. Pre electronic counting it could take a week to work out who was next in line if someone retired between elections – there are no bi-elections, its just recalculated without the retiring politician included.

  5. she claimed that preferential voting systems are bad because they lead to more coalitions

    To quote one of my own commenters:

    Only half the people are allowed representation at any given time. I mean, if the government represented everyone, it wouldn’t really be a “democracy” any more, would it?

  6. Chris, in 2007 I scrutineered for the NSW Legislative Council vote (the upper house) which is done eventually with computers, in a massive warehouse in Sydney’s west. It’s data entry, as you say, where the system does the counting after the data has been entered, laboriously, by hand, from the paper sheets filled in by voters.
    The salient points though are 1) that it’s not an electronic process ie. OCR or a punch-hole system: it’s a hand-drawn vote, with hand-counting, and only the distribution of preferences done automatically, and 2) it’s not the lower house, where the alternative vote’s being proposed in the UK.
    If the UK wanted a more democratic system for their appointed upper house, they could start with a democratic vote for its Members in the first place.

  7. Though it’s important to give credit where it’s due: from the No To AV site:

    It excludes extremist parties
    Parties such as the BNP have never been able to get enough support in a single constituency to have one of their candidates elected as an MP. Under AV, however, the far-right One Nation Party won 11 seats in the Queensland state legislature, whereas they would have only won 8 under First Past the Post

    That’s probably true. With a preferential vote the UK Parliament would potentially have more racist parties in it.

  8. Don’t know if I think the One Nation example holds up. I think any party that would have got 8 seats in a FPP process was getting a fair chunk of the vote regardless, and puts this in category of normal variance between the two systems you’d get between major parties – albeit a significant one.
    One Nation was a product of its time, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to use them as a scare campaign against preferential voting because the ‘far right’ will get seats.
    Making that argument to me sounds like arguing against minor party representation – but it sounds better to throw the term ‘far right’ in there to stir up fear.

  9. With a preferential vote the UK Parliament would potentially have more racist parties in it.
    I’m not convinced. AV can’t elect a candidate where the majority of the voters would rather have anyone else, which is a fair description of the BNP. (For what it’s worth, the BNP think so too, and are strongly opposed to AV)
    Anyway, we’ve already got plenty of racist MPs in Parliament under FPTP; they’re just members of “mainstream” parties.
    Chris: there are no bi-elections, its just recalculated without the retiring politician included.
    I’m curious – what happens if the recalculation leads to someone who was previously elected not being elected? So, for instance – elect ABCDE, D resigns, recount and elect AFCGE. Quite possible under STV if the last few places are close.

  10. <a href="</a&gt; – the AEC’s website has all the information there about how our voting and counting systems work. I seem to remember at least one little comment along the way about how most of our election-day infrastructure is recyclable – cardboard ballot boxes, cardboard polling booths, paper ballot sheets, paper electoral rolls being checked etc.
    Just in passing, I do love the final “objection” – “But first past the post is a British tradition!”. My immediate reaction was “so were heads on spikes, chattel slavery, transportation of convicts and absolute monarchy”. Don’t see much of those old traditions any more, do we?

  11. Anyway, we’ve already got plenty of racist MPs in Parliament under FPTP; they’re just members of “mainstream” parties.
    That we do. And I’m not sure that a proportional system would change that much of the UK governmental makeup, since a lot of UK voting is negative, tactical to prevent the least desired of the mainstream parties getting in. Proponents of a PV or AV system think it would change that habit, but right now it’s ingrained.

  12. cim – I’m not sure – I think what they do is recalculate the election as if there was now an additional seat available now. So the retiring member is still “elected” but doesn’t participate in the parliament. The order of who is elected still remains the same just with an additional person at the end. I could well be wrong though.

  13. “Addionally I believe there was a trial on a similar system in the federal election of 2006?”
    There definitely was – it was done at the Kooyong early voting centre, at Vision Australia. It may have been done elsewhere too, but we were staffing pre-polling there and our candidate for Higgins at last year’s election, Tony Clark, who’s blind, was very disappointed they didn’t run the electronic voting again as he’d been very pleased to be able to vote without assistance.

  14. Ah, thank you.
    I’m voting for the first time in the UK referendum on the voting system (I’m 18) and was wondering if we would as suggested by a few of the websites be ‘spending £130 million on expensive vote-counting machines’. There’s one of my questions cleared up now. 🙂

  15. Thanks for commenting, Gemma – I’m immensely chuffed that at least one UK voter has found this post useful.

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