As Sinclair Davidson kindlyÂ noted in comments the other day, Gary Nairn, the Special Minister of State, wrote a letter to the Australian Financial Review last Friday to criticise my paper with Amy King on ballot order:
Your “Ballot change urged to counteract donkey vote” (September 18) quotes research claiming to have found that male candidates who were listed first on the ballot received an additional 1.4 per cent of the vote, while the ballot order had no effect for female candidates.
I have some reservations about this research from the Australian National University and University of South Australia.
Donkey voting is generally understood to mean a vote where the elector numbers preferences in sequence down the ballot paper, starting with a first preference for the candidate whose name is at the top. Thus, if there are four candidates on the ballot paper, a donkey vote is cast by numbering the ballot paper 1, 2, 3 and 4, from the candidate whose name appears first on the ballot paper to the candidate whose name appears last.
The article does not discuss subsequent preferences down the ballot paper, it discusses only the possible advantage to a candidate whose name appears first on a ballot paper. For these researchers to suggest that our electoral process is “manifestly unfair” because of the impact of donkey voting is quite frankly, manifestly misleading.
Since 1984, the Commonwealth Electoral Act has required the order in which candidates’ names appear on a ballot paper to be determined by a double randomisation draw conducted after the close of nominations. This means there is no advantage for a candidate from the alphabetical order of their last name, the name of their party or the time their nomination was lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission.
Introducing a Robson rotation system, as proposed by the researchers – printing multiple versions of each ballot paper, rotating positions so each candidate tops the ballot as often as every other candidate – would serve only to cause voter confusion and increase the rate of informal voting.
Special Minister of State,
Nairn’s suggestion that the current systemÂ is fair depends on how you think about fairness. As we point out, randomisation is fair before the ballot draw takes place. After the draw, the first placed candidate has a better chance of winning for reasons entirely unconnected with competence. And my understanding is that the introduction of Robson rotation in the ACT and Tasmania wasn’t associated with a rise in informal voting in those states.
Then again, perhaps if Amy and I really wanted to get the law changed, we probably should not have opined that Nairn would have lost his seat in 1998 but for the fact that he drew the #1 spot on the ballot.