Preferential voting

The term preferential voting (or preference voting) has several different meanings:

  1. A ranked ballot or preferential voting system is a type of voting system in which each voter casts their vote by ranking candidates in order of preference. Voting systems which use a ranked ballot include:
  2. Preferential voting is a synonym for instant-runoff voting, especially in Australia, where such ballots are actually in use in elections. See Australian electoral system.
  3. In Europe, preferential voting denotes what is in United States known as the Open List Proportional Representation (Open list PR). It is a voting system giving a voter an option to vote for one of the party lists and then also express a preference for one of the candidates of this list.
  4. Often the term preferential voting is used for any kind of intraparty preference.

Ballot design or voting machine instructions are particularly important in such systems, as each voter is expected to express a rather complex set of tolerances or preferences in each vote.


Ballot variations

  • Column marks: Optical scanner ballots use the ballot with column voting with ovals.
    • Column rank ballots have limits rankings due primarily to available paper space. For example the image below is limited to three rankings.
  • Write numbers: Hand-written numeric rankings are more compact to vote and easier to hand count.
  • Write names: Hand-written names as a list from first to last preference.
  • Touch screen: A slightly different category of voting is a computer Touch screen could also be used, asking voters their first, second, etc preferences, and showing the selections so far and remaining choices, allowing selections to be removed if the voter makes a mistake or changes her mind during voting. Some people want touch screen voting to print a paper ballot at the end as a hardcopy backup.
Missing image

Scope for corruption

A potential problem with preferential votes is that they can be used to undermine a secret ballot, and thus enable corruption by vote buying. If there are enough candidates then the number of possible voting patterns may be much larger than the number of voters, and it then becomes possible to use early preferences to vote for the desired candidates and then to use later preferences to identify the voter to the person who has purchased the vote and looks at the ballot papers.

As an example, in the Irish general election, 2002, the electronic votes were published for the Dublin North constituency. There were 17 candidates allowing more than 966 million million possible patterns of preferences, but there were fewer than 44,000 votes cast. The most common pattern (for three of the candidates in a particular order) was chosen by 800 voters, and more than 16,000 patterns were chosen by just one voter each.

One way to avoid this possibility for buying a vote and confirming it has been cast as specified is to prevent partisan observers from systematically viewing each voter's preferences.

How to Vote Cards

In Australia, which uses preferential voting for both houses, candidates hand out at the entrance to Polling Stations "How to Vote Cards", which advise voters how best to fill in their ballots to support that candidate, and any cross preference deals they may have arranged with other candidates. These HTVC cards are voluntary, and no voter is obliged to do so, but high proportion are happy to do so.

Above the line Voting

In Australia, election for the upper houses which use proportional representation as well as preferential voting, it may be daunting to have to fill in 70 boxes - preferences are compulsory. Some voters would choose their early preferences and then vote for other candidates in the order they appeared on the ballot paper - known as a donkey vote.

To ease this onerous task, "Above the line" voting, allows the voter to choose one party or group, and all the remaining squares are deemed to be filled in according to a registered party ticket. About 95% of voters choose to use this method. It leads to pre-election trading between parties on how each party will allocate later preferences to other parties and candidates.

"Above the line" voting has been criticised because electors do not know, and have no practical way of finding out, where their preferences are being directed. However, all details are published in advance both electronically and in a free booklet, published by the Australian Electoral Commission. The booklets may be viewed at polling booths on request to the poll officials. However, such is the complexity of the information it is unlikely that the average voter could easily determine the fate of his or her vote's preferences particularly as some parties submit multiple allocations (ie. 30% to one party 40% to another and so on).

Counting of ballots

In Australia, lower house ballots (which might have 5 to 10 candidates) are counted by hand.

Upper house ballot with 50 to 100 candidates are now data-entered into computer systems, which then process the ballots.

See also

Further reading

Works of Richard S. Katz, David Farrell, Michael Marsh, Arend Lijphart, Lauri Karvonen.


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