How to use your power at the ballot box on election day

AUSTRALIANS will go to the polls earlier than we had expected thanks to the double dissolution call.

But as you enter the polling station on Saturday July 2, evading those enthusiastic political party volunteers, your mouth watering at the smells of the busy sausage sizzle, remember that voting this time around will differ slightly.

Reforms to the way we will elect the new Senate will streamline the approach to preference selection, giving voters a real-world ability to ensure their vote still counts way down the line as they want it to.

In the past, preferences have been linked to the far-from-transparent deals conjured up through group voting tickets.

Yay me, but hmm, what are preferences?

In Australia, we use a proportional representation system so a candidate needs a majority of the vote to win a seat instead of a "first past the post" system where the candidate with the highest number of votes wins.

You vote for several candidates in the order you prefer and if your first choice has the least number of votes when the numbers are tallied, he or she is eliminated from the running and your vote passes onto your second favourite, then your third choice and so on.

Preferences are allocated until one of the candidates contesting the seat has a majority of votes.

Seems fair, so why the change?

While Australians have always had the opportunity to vote their preferences very few actually do, less than 5% in fact.

Group voting tickets were introduced for Senate elections in 1984.

Political parties and groups were able to register an official order of preferences with the Electoral Commission so if you voted above the line for a political party by placing a number 1 next to their box and left the others blank, your preferences were counted according to the group's official list.

Ricky Muir
Ricky Muir AAP Image - Alan Porritt

Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party's Ricky Muir, for example, was elected to the Senate with just 0.51% of the overall vote.

Goody for Ricky but you lost me at line. Voting above what line?

The Senate ballot paper is divided into two parts.

The names of the political parties and groups in the top section, with the names of all the hopeful candidates in the bottom.

A horizontal line separates the two sections.

You had the choice of just putting a number 1 in the box of your political party above the line or assigning your preferences for individual candidates below the line but had to fill out every box.

This can be tricky when there are more than 100 candidates. Failure to allocate a number to every candidate below the line voided the vote.

Well, how is this year different?

Ok, let's be clear. Voting for the House of Representatives - Australia's lower house from where the Prime Minister is elected - is unchanged except for the fact that you will now see the logos of political parties next to their names.

You still number the boxes in the order you would like.

It is the Senate voting that has changed. If you are voting above the line, you have to number at least six boxes from 1 to 6 according to your choices. So if Labor is your first choice, put a 1 in their box, if the Greens is your second choice put a 2 in their box and so on. You are free to label all the boxes but you must label at least 6 for your preferences to pass on.

If you select just one box your vote will still go to your party but won't live on if your party doesn't get enough votes.

Below the line, underneath each party logo, are the names of the candidates in the order in which the votes will be distributed.

What the Senate ballot paper will look like when voting above the line.
What the Senate ballot paper will look like when voting above the line.

You can preference your vote by numbering the candidates from any party in any order.

You have to number at least 12 boxes from 1 to 12. You don't have to agree to the order in which the Parties have their candidates listed and you can choose from different parties if you want.

The freedom is yours. I feel so empowered! Now once more, but quickly so I won't forget ok.

In the voting station you will get two forms - green and white. The green ballot is for the House of Representatives and you must number the boxes or candidates according to who you want to run the country.

The white ballot is for the Senate. Here, you must either number 6 boxes above the line from 1 to 6 or 12 boxes below the line from 1 to 12. Only the consecutive numbers will be counted, so if you leave out number 8 only 1 to 7 will be counted.

How to vote below the line on this year's Senate ballot paper.
How to vote below the line on this year's Senate ballot paper.

What if I stuff it up?

How? By thinking about the sausage sizzle? 

Don't leave all the boxes blank and certainly don't use crosses and ticks. Just numbers, people.

And please, please don't write your name and address on the ballot - you would be surprised at how many people do.  If you make a mistake you can ask for a new ballot paper. Just be sure to take your time and use your preferences. If you don't, you can hardly complain about the government you get. 

Ready to face the ballot box? Your vote will help decide whether Labor, led by Bill Shorten, or the Liberals, win a majority this year.
Ready to face the ballot box? Your vote will help decide whether Labor, led by Bill Shorten, or the Liberals, win a majority this year. David Nielsen


By the numbers - 2013 election
- 14, 712, 799 Australians were enrolled to vote at the 2013 federal election
- 1188 candidates were nominated for the House of Representatives and 529 for the Senate
- There were 470 female and 1247 male candidates
- There were 9146 polling stations including 500 early voting centres
- 38 mobile teams visited more than 400 remote locations across Australia
- Voting services were made available at 102 diplomatic offices around the world for Australians working, living and travelling abroad
- Over 43 million ballot papers were printed
- 140 km of string and more than 100,000 pencils were used
- 80,000 temporary staff were employed to work at the polling stations and counting votes afterwards
- The 2013 election cost more than $110 million to run plus election funding payments of $60m
- More than 3.2 million Australians voted early with 1.3 million postal votes received
- Geographically Wentworth (NSW) is the smallest division in Australia and Durack (WA) the largest

WHAT IS?

The House of Representatives:

This is our lower house. Each of Australia's 150 electorates elect a single member to the House of Representatives.

The party that has the most members usually wins government and chooses the Prime Minister. Each electorate has approximately 150,000 residents with an average of 94,000 voters.

The premise is that all Australians have roughly the same representation but the reality is that half the seats come from New South Wales and Victoria because more people live there. Members are elected every three years.

The Senate:
The Senate is for all intents Australia's upper house and was formed to ensure the people in less populated areas also got a say in parliament.

The Senate decides whether bills proposed in the House of Representatives pass into law and acts as a measure of the government.

There are eight senate electorates made up of the six states and two territories. Each state elects 12 senators to a six-year term while the territories have two representatives, each for a three-year term.

The state senators usually sit through two parliaments as six senate seats are filled at each election except in a double dissolution when all 12 seats in each state are up for election as it is on July 2.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Sunday, May 8, 2016. Mr Turnbull today asked the Governor-General to dissolve both Houses of Parliament to call a double dissolution election for July 2, 2016.  (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Sunday, May 8, 2016. Mr Turnbull today asked the Governor-General to dissolve both Houses of Parliament to call a double dissolution election for July 2, 2016. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING LUKAS COCH

Double dissolution:

An unusual occurrence, a double dissolution election is called when there is a deadlock between the two houses of parliament and the Prime Minister asks the Governor-General to dissolve both the House of Representatives and Senate so the government can seek a mandate from the people.

It is the only time that all seats are open for contest.

This is only the seventh instance since Federation of a double dissolution election and was triggered by two bills - the Registered Organisations bill and the bill to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission which the Senate rejected twice.

The bills will be presented again after the election and the Turnbull government is hopeful it will not only return to power but have a majority in the Senate so it can pass legislation easily. But this type of election does not always favour the government that called it. Three of the six - in 1914, 1975 and 1983 - resulted in a change in government.

On the day: Make sure your vote counts on July 2.
On the day: Make sure your vote counts on July 2.


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