ACT election 2016: Does preference exhaustion kill off independents?
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ACT election 2016: Does preference exhaustion kill off independents?

The micro-parties and independent candidates did relatively well in Saturday's poll.

They almost nabbed, between them, 15 per cent of the total vote. That's 3.3 percentage points more than the anti-establishment vote four years ago.

Kim Huynh, who ran in Ginninderra, collected the most votes of any micro-party or independent candidate.

Kim Huynh, who ran in Ginninderra, collected the most votes of any micro-party or independent candidate.

Photo: Kirsten Lawson

And it's just shy of one quota: the amount of votes needed to win a seat. In two electorates – Brindabella (Tuggeranong) and Ginninderra (Belconnen) – these candidates tallied more than a quota between them.

But don't expect to see any of them in the Legislative Assembly. The ACT's voting system, with its new arrangement of five, five-member electorates, makes an independent victory a herculean feat.

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The Sex Party's lead Brindabella candidate, Steve Bailey, almost tallied five per cent of votes single-handedly.

The Sex Party's lead Brindabella candidate, Steve Bailey, almost tallied five per cent of votes single-handedly.

Photo: Steve Duncan

It's not proportional representation that hampers the non-aligned: indeed, it gives them a fighting chance.

It's the decision – made relatively recently – to allow voters to exhaust their preferences that effectively kills off the micro-parties and independents.

Ironically, many anti-establishment candidates encourage voters to do this: that is, number only some of the boxes on the ballot paper, rather than all of them.

They say it's a way to opt out of the two-party hegemony by refusing to choose either of them.

In practice, it means votes, or partial votes, can be extinguished entirely before they are passed on to a micro-party or non-aligned candidate who might otherwise have been elected.

Consider the typical Labor or Liberal voter. They only need to number five boxes. Each of these parties fields five candidates. Why would a typical voter bother to number more than that?

In other electoral systems, which demand that voters number all boxes or allow parties to direct above-the-line preferences, the main parties' excess votes might have percolated through some of the other candidates' tallies.

A glance at the results from Saturday suggests that strong anti-establishment candidates, such as independent Kim Huynh and the Sex Party's Steve Bailey, might have been better placed – perhaps even in the Assembly – if the system had allowed them to "catch" leftover votes.

But that's a debate the main parties are unlikely to be much interested in.

Markus Mannheim

Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant and writes regularly about government.

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