Please Explain: Voting

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Why are there so many boxes? What is a preference? Who lives in the House of Representatives, and what does the Senate have to do with anything? Grace Joseph explains the ins and outs of voting.

Nerd alert: when I turned 18, I was more excited about being able to vote than I was to go clubbing. All my friends may have mocked me then, but now, on the eve of the 2019 federal election, they're hitting me up left, right, and centre, trying to wrap their heads around preferences, ballot papers, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Does this sound like you? Well, read on! Even if the next prime minister is kicked out within months of being elected (and as you probably know, that's more likely than you might think), at least you can say you gave democracy a red-hot crack.


The House of Representatives

Do me a favour and cast your mind back to your year six school camp, the one where you visited Canberra and spent too much money at Questacon. Hopefully, you visited the Parliament House when you were there, too, and you have some vague recollection of the green room and the red room (insert Fifty Shades of Grey joke here). Well, the House of Representatives is that very same green room, and its job is to debate and draft new laws.


The House of Reps is made up of our local members, who each represent one electorate in Australia. Each electorate contains approximately 100,000 people, and there will actually be 151 members elected this year (historically there have only been 150), reflecting Australia's population growth.

Voting for the House of Representatives

On election day, you'll be given two pieces of paper, and voting for the House of Representatives is done on the small green one (handily corresponding to the colour of the actual chamber). There will generally be around eight names listed on the paper, although this will obviously depend on the number of candidates in your electorate.


Take this paper and place a number one next to your favourite candidate. Then, number the rest of the boxes, all the way from your second favourite to the person you don't want to run the country.

The most important thing about this ballot paper is that you absolutely have to number every box. If you don't, it's counted as 'informal', and your vote won't be included in the final count. So even if it pains you to put that '8' next to a Clive Palmer candidate (which you very well might - he's put up 173 candidates!), rest assured it's better than not voting at all.

Preferences in the House of Representatives

In the past couple of months, I've undertaken rigorous research of the media (i.e. I've watched the news) and I think I can safely say that the most common catchphrase at the moment is 'lucrative preference deal'. Preferences are made out like some big sneaky government conspiracy, where nameless, faceless politicians steal your vote against your will

Needless to say, this is false. Preference deals simply refer to the 'How to Vote' cards that volunteers give you outside the polling booth, which you can completely ignore if you want. Preferences are entirely up to you, especially in the House of Representatives. Triple J Hack has a great explainer on preferences in the House of Representatives, which I'll summarise here.

It's rare that someone gets 50% of the electorate's votes. So let's say that the person who got most of the votes received 40% of the total. This means that 60% of people voted for other people, even though this 60% is spread out across other people.

To address this, the officials look at who scored the least amounts of votes. Then, they go back to the ballot papers that put this party first and see who is second on that ballot paper. For example, if Party X had the lowest percentage in an electorate, and you put them first and Party Y, then your vote is allocated to Party Y. The officials keep allocating votes in this way until someone has a majority or all preferences. Then we have a winner! Easy, right?

The Senate

Now onto the Senate! You've probably guessed by now that the Senate is the red chamber, and it's where new laws get sent once they pass through the House of Representatives. Senators then debate these new laws, and either agree to implement them, or make modifications and send them back to the House of Reps. 76 people sit in the Senate, twelve from each state and two from each territory.

Voting in the Senate

The other ballot paper that you'll be given is a massive white sheet with an overwhelming number of names and boxes on it. This is the Senate ballot! It's a little bit more confusing, and not just because of the size: there are two ways you can vote on this ballot.

Method one: above the line. You'll see a long line across the top of the paper, on top of which there will be boxes and political party names. This option is for if you don't know any of the individual people, but you know what party you want to represent you. If you're voting above the line, you must number at least six boxes, choosing your six favourite parties. Make sure they are your six favourites, too - you don't need to keep numbering boxes unless you like all the candidates, as you're indirectly supporting them then (I'll explain this more below).

Method two: below the line. You'll see a whole bunch of boxes on top of each other, corresponding to the order that parties want candidates elected. If you vote above the line, you're supporting this order. But if you're super organised and know exactly what people you want representing you, number your top 12 candidates below the line. Actually, you don't have to stop at 12. Theoretically, you could go through and stick a number in each of the boxes - but only do this if you genuinely support each of them.

Preferences in the Senate

Preferences in the Senate are slightly more complex, but still much easier to understand than some media outlets make out. Again, the good folks at Triple J Hack created a cool little explainer, so head over there if you need clarification on what I've said.

In the same way that they are for the House of Representatives, your votes above the line are allocated until one party has a majority. The difference is that because you don't have to number every box, you are giving more support to the ones you do. So don't number all the boxes unless the last one is actually a favourite of yours, not one that you hate!

Votes below the line are allocated in the same way, but you technically have more control, as you decide what parties and what people your vote goes to. Same principle applies here - you only include the people you hate if you number every single one of the boxes!

Democracy can be very confusing (can I get an amen), but voting gives you a chance to shape how our country is run, which can be very rewarding. Obviously, it's not the only way, and should not be done in isolation – we all need to get out there too and start signing, protesting and storming politician's offices. Maybe eventually they'll start addressing issues we care about.

Grace is a second-year Communications/International Studies student, who majors in Creative Writing because she wants to be a barista for the rest of her life. She's probably the only uni student alive who'd rather wake up at 5:30 am than still be awake at 10:30 pm - an early bedtime each day keeps the doctor away