Between the interminable, increasingly frightening US presidential race and the farce that was Brexit, English-speaking democracies are beginning to suffer from election fatigue.
And now it’s Australia’s turn. This weekend, after an election campaign that lasted a record-breaking eight weeks (which must sound like short-lived heaven to Americans), the coalition of conservative parties under Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has secured a second term in office by the thinnest of margins.
Several razor-thin contests in competitive electoral districts meant it took eight days after polls closed on July 2 for the result to be declared, leading to widespread complaints about the way Australia runs its elections. But Australians’ love of complaining about politics shouldn’t obscure the fact that the country’s unique electoral system is arguably one of the best designed and run in the world: fairer, more accessible, and more democratic than its equivalents in Britain and the US.
The hallmark of the Australian election system is preferential voting. The US and Britain use the first-past-the-post method, in which voters can only make one choice and the candidate who gets the most votes wins. But in Australia, preferential voting allows people to rank all the candidates in the order they’d like to see them elected. If their first choice is knocked out of the race, their vote “flows” to their second choice, their third, and so on, until one candidate has more than 50% of the vote, thereby securing their seat. (The process is explained in more detail here by Dennis the Election Koala and his hapless friend Ken the Voting Dingo. Australia is wonderful.)
Here’s an example. In the tightest contest this election—which still hasn’t officially been called—Labor politician Michael Danby is likely to be narrowly reelected to his seat representing Melbourne Ports, despite only securing around 27% of the primary vote (i.e.: people who ranked his name “1” on the ballot). His main rival, Liberal Party candidate Owen Guest, has collected more than 41%. If we were only counting primary votes, as happens in America and the UK, Guest would have already easily won.
But how would the remaining 28% of voters have felt about that? Greens candidate Steph Hodgins-May is in third place with 24% of the primary vote, and, because the centrist-leaning Labor party is more aligned with the Greens’ leftist values than the conservative Liberal right, most of those Greens voters placed Danby as their second preference. So when Hodgins-May is eliminated from the count between the two highest vote winners, her primary votes “flow” to Danby. Once the preferences are distributed between the two candidates left at the end of the process, Danby currently ends up with 52% of the “two-party-preferred” vote to Guest’s 48%, and will duly be declared the winner.
That may seem unfair to Guest; he did get the most votes, after all. But would it be any fairer if a seat where more than half the votes were cast for progressive candidates ended up with a conservative representative, just because of how the left-wing vote was split? Preferential voting lets people vote for their first choice—even if that’s for a minor or independent party—without worrying that their vote will be locked out by a system that effectively only counts votes for major-party candidates. This election, it meant that the 22% of Australians who voted for minor parties and independent candidates still got a say in the final result.
Applying this voting method to other countries’ systems would yield some dramatic, history-altering results. For example, if the US had preferential voting in 2000, Al Gore would have likely waltzed into the Oval Office thanks to the second-preference votes of most of the 2.8 million people who voted for his left-wing US Green party rival, Ralph Nader. And if Bernie Sanders ran as a presidential candidate in November, he wouldn’t split the Democratic vote with Hilary Clinton, and the White House would be much less likely handed to Donald Trump.
Whether Trump himself would even be the Republican nominee under a preferential voting system is very much in doubt. Trump only managed to gather 45% of the popular vote during the Republican primary, and routinely polled between 30 and 40% in early contests. Had Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich been able to preference each other above Trump—as they almost certainly would have—that majority anti-Trump vote would likely have locked him out of the contest altogether.
None of which is to say the system is perfect. Preferential voting still disproportionately gifts governing power to major parties who didn’t necessarily earn it. For example, the Liberal-National coalition only secured 42% of the vote at this election, but still garnered a majority of seats in Australia’s House of Representatives to form government on its own. The Greens, by contrast, gained 10% of the popular vote, but only earned one seat of the House’s 150. The proportional system used by New Zealand and many European countries (as well as Australia’s Senate) does a much better job at assigning political representation based on a party’s vote share, rather than through luck of the count and built-in institutional advantage.
The other key (and more controversial) aspect of Australian elections is compulsory enrollment. While 70% of Australians approve of the practice, critics argue that forcing people to vote denies them the right not to vote, which is a form of political expression in itself. Most democracies have optional voting in place for that reason.
But that criticism largely stems from mistaking compulsory enrollment with compulsory voting. Technically, Australians aren’t legally required to actually vote—it’s mandatory to be on Commonwealth and state electoral rolls, to turn up to a polling booth, have your name marked off and receive your ballot papers, but once that’s done, you can do with them what you like. As a result, there is a great Australian tradition of defacing your ballot. (Besides the classic artful genitalia and kebab-order alterations, this year one person voted for Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla shot by his handlers in May.)
In any case, Australia’s experience shows that the benefits of compulsory enrollment outweigh the downsides. With a voter turnout of well over 90%, Australia doesn’t have to spend millions on get-out-the-vote drives. It encourages demographics that are historically difficult to get to polling booths—like young voters—to actually turn up; 86.7% of voters between 18 and 24 were enrolled for Australia’s most recent election. Had Britain seen a similar turnout among its younger voters for the Brexit referendum, rather than the lowly 64% who showed up, the result might have been very different.
Despite their flaws, Australian elections are charming, idiosyncratic and wholly wonderful things, and not just because the entire country uses them as an excuse to throw thousands of sausage sizzles (because nothing says democracy like choosing between mustard and ketchup). On their own, preferential voting and compulsory enrollment wouldn’t entirely redeem the bloated rolling catastrophe of quasi-democracy that is the US presidential process. But they couldn’t hurt.