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It pops up every election: political parties warn voters to put their opponents last on the ballot paper, because of scary “preference deals” that will see unwanted candidates gain power.

While these preference deals exist, they have no power on how you vote – unless you let them.

From how to vote cards to democracy sausages, here’s a crash course on how Australia’s voting system works.

Party representatives hand out “how to vote” cards in Sydney during the 2019 Federal Election. (Jessica Hromas)

Elections are simple, aren’t they? The person who gets the most votes wins, right?

Yes, fundamentally elections are simple beasts. 

But throw in multiple candidates and multiple counts and suddenly you have enough data to make a statistician dizzy.

Australian federal elections use something called a “preferential voting system”.

Under this system, voters are required to mark a preference for every candidate on the green ballot paper (which is the House of Representatives) and mark a certain number of preferences on the white ballot paper (which is the Senate).

To win, a candidate must secure an “absolute majority” or more than 50 per cent of formal votes.

In real terms, an “absolute majority” is essentially support from more than half of voters.

Under federal electoral law, it’s compulsory for all eligible Australian citizens to vote in federal elections. No, there isn’t a dress code. (Bloomberg via Getty Images)

That makes sense. So why can’t we just put an X down for the candidate we want, and leave it at that?

Because the result may not show an “absolute majority” of support for one candidate. 

At every polling station, officials start by sorting the formal votes by who voters have placed a number one next to.

If one candidate gets more than 50 per cent of formal first preferences (a clear absolute majority) then they are elected, but a full “preference count” is still done.

If no single candidate wins a clear absolute majority on the first count, polling officials then go through several counts where they factor in the order of the numbers you placed next to the candidates.

Political parties try to have polling booths well staffed with representatives handing out ‘how to vote’ cards on polling day. (Louise Kennerley)

It sounds like you are describing preference deals to me …

Preference deals – as described by political parties – are only about those “how to vote” cards that party volunteers hand out at polling stations.

Political parties make agreements to have a streamlined message on these “how to vote” cards, where they provide a suggestion to voters on which numbers should go next to which candidates.

You as the voter can preference whoever you like – and in whatever order you like – when you number the boxes.

Voters are not obliged to take any notice of the party-printed “how to vote” cards at all, and preference deals do not impact your vote if you do not follow the “how to vote” cards.

Political parties know that these “how to vote” cards do have an influence, and thus have polling booths well staffed by representatives who hand out materials.

An example of a “how to vote” card from WA Labor in 2018. Voters are not obliged to follow these kind of cards. (Nathan Hondros)

So I should ignore those How to Vote cards that suggest what order I should put the candidates in?

How you vote on polling day is entirely up to you.

You can choose to be influenced by the materials or not.

What’s most important is that your vote – whatever that may be – actually counts.

Come May 21, that means you must number every single box on the green ballot paper for the House of Representatives and either every box above the line on the white senate paper, or at least 12 boxes below the line.

Non-political instructions on how to vote will be on the ballot papers themselves.

No dramas if you make a mistake – you can always ask polling booth staff for another ballot paper.

When politicians facing the public gets ugly

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