Senate fact-checking and myth-busting

The Western Australian and South Australian Senate results under the microscope: which preference decisions mattered, and which didn’t.

In a Senate election that has excited more interest than most, there has been a lot of understandably confused talk over the past few days about the impact of contentious preference decisions. What follows is an attempt to sort through some of them claims which have gained currency around the place.

Claim: Wikileaks preferences cost Scott Ludlam his seat.

Julian Assange has had no more stout defender over the past few years than WA Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, so his party’s failure to fast-track preferences to Ludlam provoked a furious response from many, not least his own mother. Most offensive to left sentiment was the decision to place Ludlam behind David Wirrpunda of the Nationals, which the party justified as supporting Aboriginal representation. When news came through that Ludlam had indeed fallen short (pending of course a possible recount), many on social media jumped to the conclusion that Wikileaks was to blame.

However, the potential of Wikileaks preferences to harm Ludlam actually went unrealised. Wikileaks preferences did flow to the Australian Sports Party and the Nationals in turn, but both were eliminated fairly early in the count. Since Ludlam had a higher placing from Wikileaks than the other late count survivors, namely the two major parties, the Palmer United Party and Shooters and Fishers, he did in fact get their votes – 8150 of them, which in the final analysis still left him 3372 short of Louise Pratt.

Claim: Wikileaks vote-splitting cost Scott Ludlam his seat.

Absent the opportunity to blame Wikileaks for their preferences, some of the party’s critics fell back on the argument that it damaged Ludlam by fielding a candidate at all. One such was Mary Kostakidis, who like many expressed her displeasure on Twitter. This would have been a telling point under first-past-the-post, but it doesn’t work so well under compulsory preferential voting, where every vote of an excluded candidate ends up with somebody else – in this case, as noted, the Greens. If anything, Wikileaks’ entry might have helped deliver the Greens preferences from libertarians who would never have voted for them directly, although I doubt there would have been much in this. It could be argued that the absence of a Wikileaks candidate might have given Ludlam’s campaign clearer air, but I doubt there’d be much in that either.

Claim: Greens preferences elected Family First in South Australia.

Confronted with the allegation that her party’s preferences were responsible for electing Bob Day of their ideological enemy Family First yesterday, Sarah Hanson-Young tweeted: “Actually SA Greens preferences went to Xenophon & Labor well ahead of both FF & Liberals”. Either the Senator was not entirely on top of her own preference ticket, or she was being exquisitely disingenuous – perhaps the former, given that her tweet was deleted shortly thereafter. It was indeed true that Xenophon himself was rated much higher than Family First on the Greens’ preference ticket, but as Xenophon had no trouble getting elected off his own bat, that was beside the point. The issue was Xenophon’s running mate Stirling Griff, who did spectacularly badly on preferences from all fronts. Whereas Xenophon was given a solid but ultimately irrelevant position a third of the way down the Greens’ preference order, Griff was buried deep below. As it happened though, the 11,065 Greens ticket votes delivered to Day after Hanson-Young’s election were surplus to requirements: he would still have been 21,257 clear of a quota without them. So the Greens did not of themselves elect Family First, though it wasn’t for want of trying.

Claim: Labor preferences elected Family First in South Australia.

By contrast, Bob Day would never have made it had not Labor also opted to put him ahead of Stirling Griff. This might inspire comparison with Labor’s preference decision in Victoria in 2004 which gave Steve Fielding his seat at the expense of the Greens, but on this occasion Labor had the Greens second. The decisive factor was actually the transfer of Sarah Hanson-Young’s surplus, which was bloated with the Labor preferences received when Don Farrell was eliminated. This amounted to 41,501 Labor ticket votes which would have elected Griff had they been directed to him instead.

The wonks among you might like to observe that this is an uncommonly severe case of the distortion caused by the “inclusive Gregory” method of calculating transfer values when distributing surpluses. In theory, those Labor votes shouldn’t have been worth so much since they have already been used to help elect Penny Wong. However, the existing system only applies one transfer value to all votes in a given surplus distribution. If votes were reduced in value in due proportion each time they formed part of a surplus transfer (the “weighted inclusive Gregory” method), the Hanson-Young transfer would have contained 23,390 Labor and 18,214 Greens ticket votes, rather than 41,501 and 11,065. In that case, Labor preferences of themselves would not have been decisive.

The value of Labor votes was again inflated when Bob Day’s surplus was distributed, at which point Labor’s remarkable decision to place Griff behind even the Liberals kicked in. This wasn’t decisive, but it might have been if the gap between Simon Birmingham and Griff had been a little narrower. Another factor to be kept in mind here is that Labor got a bigger bang for its buck out of its preference ticket decisions, since 90.8% of its votes were above-the-line against only 81.4% for the Greens.

Claim: Nick Xenophon started it by shafting the Greens.

The Greens’ motivation to punish Nick Xenophon even to the point of aiding Family First was his own decision to preference the major parties ahead of the Greens. Hanson-Young was heard to complain that Xenophon was “making a political decision, just like any other politician”. However, it seems to me that Xenophon is the only party in all this who was doing just the opposite, his preference tickets appearing at least outwardly to be all principle and no expediency.

The Senate ticket voting system allows groups to have up to three preference tickets for their above-the-line votes to divide evenly between. Xenophon used this to play the straightest possible ideological bat by having one ticket that looked how a moderate left supporter might want it to look, and another pleasing from the perspective of a voter of the moderate right. This meant one of his tickets did in fact have the Greens ahead of the Coalition parties, while the other had them behind both the Coalition and Labor. So the Greens might in fact have received half of Xenophon’s preferences, had those preferences been distributed at a point where there was no Labor candidate in the count. In the event, Xenophon preferences were not distributed at all, as Stirling Griff was left holding the bag when Simon Birmingham was elected at the final count.

The Greens’ sense of grievance that Xenophon’s idea of moderate tickets should place them behind Labor is no doubt informed by the fact that he played it differently at his first Senate election in 2007. Xenophon’s idea of ideological balance at that time was to have a single preference tickets which placed the competitive minor parties of both right (Family First) and Left (the Greens) ahead of the majors. I wouldn’t care to venture if Bob Brown spoke truly when he claimed Xenophon’s objective this time around was to loom larger on a smaller cross-bench (a goal he has spectacularly failed to achieve if so). But if he was wrong and Xenophon was indeed motivated by principle, he offers a useful case study for why so few others followed suit. Despite scoring something between six and seven times as many votes, Xenophon landed the same number of seats as Family First. Stirling Griff started the preference distribution process with 107,110 votes, seemingly well on his way to the quota of 148,348. But as preferences swelled the Family First base vote from 38,909 all the way to 180,670, Griff was only able to limp to 121,743.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

142 comments on “Senate fact-checking and myth-busting”

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  1. WA recount

    I read somewhere they would normally recount the booth ATL group votes first to determine if there was a mismatch miscount. A missing bundle or two. For there to be any change it would have to alter the number of votes allocated to the Christians (Including flow on votes from candidates excluded before the point in which the Christians are eliminated)

    Before they get to that stage I you would recheck the informal votes which I assume Scrutineers were already checking.

    Had they been provided with copies of the preference data file as the count progressed they could have identified the close points and ran queries against the data set to determine which votes if any fall outside the expected distribution and reexamine those particular BTL votes

    Of course the accuracy of the ATL line vote count is crucial also. I would be looking at the reconciliation reports

    Any discrepancy or missing votes both by booth would need to be explained in particular any change in the booth tally and the count tally

    The bruden of proof is on the challenger to demonstrate that there is a reasonable possibility for a change in the result as a result of the discrepancies in the tally.

    If they can not establish a cause of probability then any challenge would lose.

    Even if there are discrepancies in the tally sheets the odds of it falling in the area needed are slim. Changes are the gap could widen

  2. Jon Mac @ 35

    Yes you are right. Wikileaks would not have made a difference as the close junction point did not involve PUP/Greens contest

    The flaw in the method of calculating the surplus transfer value and the segmentation distribution most certainly does.

  3. triton@49


    Seeing reports from @Clarkie1972 journalist AAP, that the call for a recount in WA is being denied (subject to appeal)!

    Yes, it’s surprising to me. There must be some doubt about the count, but the AEC doesn’t want to make the effort. I can’t see how this decision would survive a court challenge. The AEC would be hard pressed to prove that the senators elected would not be different after a recount, particularly in light of the altered numbers following past HoR recounts.

    As I understand it the AEC is required to prove no such thing. The burden is on those bringing the case to demonstrate that there are specific errors that justify the examination of disputed votes, the changing of the margin or the voiding of the election. Just objecting that the margin was close is not likely to stand up in court in my view.

    There are differences with the Reps. In the Reps a single error can cause your vote to become informal so there are lots of arguments about 5s that look like 8s and so on, while in the Senate a missed number usually only leads to a vote exhausting at some stage (and often the vote is not relevant between the contesting candidates anyway). Also I think voters who struggle with completing the House form neatly and legibly would be very likely to vote 1 ATL in the Senate. But still, it’s quite plausible there would still be the odd error getting through.

  4. WA

    Two party preferred

    1. 773853 Liberal Party
    2. 537584 Australian Labor Party

    Followed by
    3. 207919 Palmer United Party
    4. 182319 The Greens (WA)
    5. 84158 Shooters and Fishers
    6. 76356 The Nationals
    7. 72131 Liberal Democrats
    8. 46062 Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party
    9. 34298 Australian Sports Party
    10. 23501 Australian Christians
    11. 21518 Sex Party
    12. 13354 Animal Justice Party
    13. 10173 The Wikileaks Party
    14. 9016 Family First Party
    15. 8770 Smokers Rights
    16. 7829 Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party
    17. 6091 Australian Democrats
    18. 5812 Australian Fishing and Lifestyle Party
    19. 4161 Australian Independents
    20. 3979 Katter’s Australian Party
    21. 3929 Rise Up Australia Party

  5. Western Australia
    Without Droop Quota
    (x/y) 218573

    Elected Candidate Group
    1. JOHNSTON Liberal
    2. BULLOCK Australian Labor Party
    3. CASH Liberal
    4. LUDLAM The Greens (WA)
    5. WANG Palmer United Party
    6. REYNOLDS Liberal

  6. It’s perplexing these discrepancies continue. It shouldn’t be difficult to avoid them and to still have unexplained differences between House and Senate tallies after a month is a bit odd. If there is not to be a recount then the discrepancies should at least be explained.

  7. Kevin Bonham @ 53
    I wonder if the judge would be willing to bet his house that there wasn’t simply a human-error miscount of the votes somewhere out of 1.3 million ballots amounting to a potential reversal of Shooters v. Christians (aside from other forms of error and the minimal impact they might have on the result). I doubt it. It’s common sense that errors greater than that magnitude will have occurred.

  8. WA

    Here is a good example why Scrutineers need access to the data file

    There are 906 Ballot Papers that record these preferences in the data file



  9. Who’s to say that the same or different errors wouldn’t occur during a recount? If a recount produces a result 20 votes different to the first count, who’s to say the first was wrong and the second is right? There would have to be a third count to confirm one or the other.

  10. Triton/Truth

    There may be a miscount but what are the odds that they effect the contest between Christians and Fishermen.

  11. Who’s to say that the same or different errors wouldn’t occur during a recount? If a recount produces a result 20 votes different to the first count, who’s to say the first was wrong and the second is right? There would have to be a third count to confirm one or the other.

    I agree. It is assumed that the second count is error free.

    It seems to me in a single member constituency if a recount produced a different outcome then there should be the possibility for consideration of a third count until the result is confirmed twice

    There is more likely to be a human error in counting the vote. We need to move towards a computerised data-entry option but first we have to address issues of data security, accountability and verification

    There could be a scan in option. Where you scan in a HTV card QR code or press a button to nominate a group HTV card or preferential vote above the line with the option to auto fill in remaining preferences based on the order of a nominated registered group ticket.

    It’s eliminating the human factor that is the first challenge. 🙂

  12. Myth: ALP actually won the election
    This seem to be the view of the majority in here. The ALP actually did not elect even 2 senators in 2 states. A primary vote of 14.28% gets you one senator. A 54-46 result is much worse then the Ruddslide. If Rudd had won the election 54-46 it would have been a Ruddalench

    Myth: Tony Abbott is un-electable
    Actually Tony was pretty electable in 2010 too, 50% 2PP is better then Beasley in most of his elections. The polls has said for 3 years that Australia will elect Tony Abbott in a landslide and then they DID
    On the other hand the poll had consistently said Julia and Kevin (apart from his kudos for removing Julia bounce) is unelectable

    Tony A

  13. Myth: the ALP should force another election because Australia really do not want Tony Abbott as PM
    Anytime a party could not even get 2 seats in a Senate election, anytime a party loses in a 54-46 landslide. The Australian public is sending that party a message. The ALP can tell the public …. we did not get that message … and see what the public does. Australia had voted already, they will punish those who force them to vote again

    The Greens did well at this election
    The Greens wants to be the 2nd party in Australia politics. They are stuggling to get to 4th party at the moment

  14. D@W 61: My own Senate vote has two “??”s recorded – my last two preferences were written as 987 and 1002, and I wanted to see how they’d get entered into the system.

    The 002 that you mention is strange, but I suspect that all the others are actual numbers written on ballot papers, or blanks etc.

  15. Psephos, excellent point. Presumably this is why mere closeness is insufficient to justify a recount, and the onus is on the appellants to indicate specific discrepancies.

  16. WA
    BTL preference data

    Cross tab of mismatch preference data showing number and type of mismatch (coma delimited)

    Does not include duplicate preference numbers within the range 01 to 62

    24264,van BURGEL,,,,,1,,,,,,,4,2,,,,1,,,,,,,,,,,,,
    24719,DI RADO,,,,,2,,,,,,,49,11,2,,,1,,,,,,,,,,,,,

  17. Psephos
    [Who’s to say that the same or different errors wouldn’t occur during a recount? If a recount produces a result 20 votes different to the first count, who’s to say the first was wrong and the second is right? ]

    I agree with the theory, but in practice you are likely to have much more rigorous checking and scrutineering the second time. Palmer, the Greens and Labor would have big teams of scrutineers and probably lawyers now they know it’s a super thin margin (don’t know what the Sports party can muster up, though!).

    Also, the original count can be done in a way that enables you to identify the causes of any errors, say by dividing votes into small parcels and in the recount checking that each parcel contains what its label says. The parcels can be bundled into larger parcels and so on.

  18. D@W 69: Your table shows a very high number of 63’s and 64’s. These are surely voters who skipped a number or two and hence finished their numbering a little bit past 62. I don’t think there is any problem here.

  19. Correct on both counts. The Qld result has already been declared, so I see no problem in saying which vote mine is.

  20. You could have a situation where a person who want to challenge the results pays a deposit to cover the costs of a recount and if the recount is successful they get the deposit back.

    They could nominate where in the count they want a recheck
    Such as
    ATL Votes
    Particular batches based on location/polling place/vote type
    Specific selection of ballot papers base on preference data distribution
    Informal votes that record a preference

    Unfortunately the AEC has not provided a copy of the informal vote data-file so no analysis of this data can be made. (It would be interesting if this was also made available)

  21. If there is good reason for a recount why should someone have to pay for it to be conducted? If there’s no good reason, then it can be denied. If there is a good reason, then it’s in the public interest for the recount to occur and this overrides any concerns about the costs involved (in my view).

  22. If there is a good reason and justification that payment of a deposit is reasonable. It would be refunded is there is a change in outcome.

    The payment of the deposit is one trigger for a review not the only one.

    Had Scrutineers been provided with copies of the BTL preference data and other information they could have identified ballots of interest and request that they be subject to review.

    The person requesting the recount should provide details and reasons for the recount not just “I want a review – its close”.

    They can and should undertake a selective qualitative review of a nominated batch distribution based on solid statistical analysis that can justify the need for a review.

  23. David Barry @73

    I am only reporting on the statistics of data of interest

    I am a little concerned about the 060 and 020 votes and what have you.. not to mention the ?? / *

    Again I have highlighted these for information only. What you do with or make of that information is up to you

  24. d@w
    [If there is a good reason and justification that payment of a deposit is reasonable. It would be refunded is there is a change in outcome. ]

    The electoral version of the Hawkeye challenge system in tennis.

  25. Would only twelve errors be needed to send WA back to the Senate Ballot boxes or is their a higher number because of the unlikelihood of all 12 errors being about the single point of exclusion that matters?

  26. truth seeker’s blog
    [Anonymous 11:29 am, October 04, 2013
    WA Senate Declaration postponed till further notice (was to be at 11.30am WST) pending review of further appeal by Greens candidate ]

    (Anonymous posts there have been on the mark with news so far.)

  27. Tom the first and best@79

    Would only twelve errors be needed to send WA back to the Senate Ballot boxes or is their a higher number because of the unlikelihood of all 12 errors being about the single point of exclusion that matters?

    If counting errors were found they would be corrected; they would not necessarily result in a Senate by-election. A by-election tends to happen when there are issues that cannot be corrected, like specific voters being incorrectly allowed to vote or denied having their votes included.

  28. [Would only twelve errors be needed to send WA back to the Senate Ballot boxes or is their a higher number because of the unlikelihood of all 12 errors being about the single point of exclusion that matters?]

    * There has never been a successful appeal to the Court of Disputed Returns about a Senate count. I don’t even know for a fact that anyone has ever tried to bring such a case.
    * The Court is not obliged to apply any formal criteria in determining whether to uphold an election result. It makes a judgement based on whatever factots it likes.
    * The Court doesn’t have to order a revote – it could just unseat Pratt and Wang and seat Ludlam and the sports guy if it so determined. There is no appeal against the Court’s decision.

  29. David Barry@71

    D@W 69: Your table shows a very high number of 63′s and 64′s. These are surely voters who skipped a number or two and hence finished their numbering a little bit past 62. I don’t think there is any problem here.

    I have been looking at the same thing for Tasmania (54 candidates). Incidentally in Tas the most overfrequent number is 4 which occurs in 220 more cases than 1 (as a result of duplicates); the most underfrequent number before 50 is 44 with an undercount of 185. The overcount for 4 is three times the overcount for anything else and the undercount for 44 is nearly twice that for anything else before 50.

    There is a small degree of cessation indicated at the first allowed cessation point 50 (undercount 139), and then at 51 (undercount 127), 52 (undercount 297). 53 has an undercount of 1195 and 54 has an undercount of 1818.

    Then there is a rapid tailoff of cases where a voter skipped one or more numbers: 55 occurs 444 times, 56 71 times, 57 12 times, 58 4 times, 59 7 times. No number higher than 59 occurs more than 4 times, but there is an oddity in that above 78 there is a single 85 and four 88s.

    There was also a voter who voted 1-50 and 73-76. I think we can safely assume that they knew what they were doing. And there’s a 0.37.

  30. Very proud of WA getting rid of Ludlum – great work.

    A liitle suprised and dissappointed David Wirrpanda didn’t do better.

  31. I don’t think they meant to get rid of Pratt either.

    Recount or not recount, the two most likely combinations of senators 5&6 would be Pratt+Wang or Ludlam+Dropulich.

    If we want to go to the usual argument of who most deserves a seat based on primaries (or primary quotas)

    – ALP got close to 2 quotas so “deserve” 2 seats
    – Greens got around 2/3rds, and in the last 8 elections this has usually been more than enough to get a seat
    – PUP has about a third of a quota – this would raise eyebrows about “deserving” a seat
    – SPORTS has a tiny fraction of a quota, and by the usual argument wouldn’t “deserve” a seat

    One would then argue that the “most democratic” result (accepting the argument, rightly or wrongly) is one result that actually can’t happen in this case.

    Unusual, perhaps, but rules is rules. Either of the likely outcomes for 5&6 would comply with the rules as they are today.

  32. On the question of who “deserves” the final two seats I think the ideal test is imagining how voters would preference between the various candidates if they had a PUP on about .35 of quota would have to catch the Greens on .66 on the preferences of about 1.02 quota worth of various rats and mice (headed by .24 quota of LDP voters who are probably mostly mistaken Liberals, and also including .1 quota of Coalition surplus, but over .2 of a quota from Green-friendly parties.)

    I don’t think PUP would close the gap in such a case especially with over .1 of a quota being soaked up electing Labor. So 3 Lib, 2 Labor, 1 Green does seem like the fairest result (as well as being the one that cannot happen.)

  33. Te Greens/AEC need to address both the method of calculation of Surplus transfer value and segmentation distribution if confidence is to be restored. You can not just correct one and ignore the other as Western Australia State has done.

    Both are flawed in principle

    We should also discuss the issue of the Droop Quota but this is a separate debate to the above two issues.

  34. Kevin, I understand the issues and arguments about 63 and 64 etc.. I am just reporting the stats on discrepancies in the data set.

    As to who deserves to win

    I am an advocate of pure proportional representation. A reiterative count using a weighted surplus transfer. Single transaction per candidate no segmentation.

    I would even go as far as scrapping the Droop quota

    using this as a guide in WA 2 Liberal 1 ALP a PUP 1 Grn,

    If we maintain the Droop quota then 3 Liberal 2 ALP 1 PUP

  35. HOWEVER there is one other change that I am yet to analysis and that is the option for a group to spread the vote. IE if you have 2.4 quotas then you should be allocated 0.8 quotas for three candidate., This could change the order of exclusion.

  36. There is nothing stopping ALP or LP having spilt tickets between their top 2 or 3 candidates under current rules.

    Except of course it opens the way for other parties to pick off particular candidates eg ministers and make a mess of the party selection priority.

  37. 97

    Nothing except section 211 (2) (b) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, which specifically bans it.

  38. Wakefield @97

    That is not true, We looked at this as Victoria allows this. As Tom @98 has pointed out. I think if parties can submit multiple tickets they should be able to nominate the percentage each ticket is allocated. There could be savings provisions that determines the order of exclusion from any group.

  39. Turns out a Senate recount has been done before. From Scott Ludlam’s appeal to the Electoral Commissioner:

    [There has been a Senate recount before, following the 1980 election in Western Australia. At that election, Mr Noel Crichton-Browne was found to have been elected, on the initial count, by 214 votes. Following the recount, the margin was 560 votes. The difference of 346 votes was considerably greater than the 14 votes in contention at the critical point of this count.]

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