We Australians owe the U.S. Founding Fathers a vote of thanks. When our young continent-sized democracy emerged as a nation in 1901, the U.S. experience provided a template of ideas to draw on: federalism, constitutionalism and electoral democracy. These have served us well.
In one area, however, the flow of ideas ran the other way. When our early elections were held, Australians quickly shifted away from the first-past-the-post system used in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Under this system, candidates needed only a plurality of the vote to win a seat. Australia, instead, moved toward what was seen as a better option for electing our representatives: Ranked-choice voting, as recently adopted in Maine.
There were several reasons ranked-choice voting, which we call “preferential” voting, was seen as superior.
First, it guaranteed that any elected member would be chosen by a majority of the community, either outright or after second and third preferences were counted, rather than the minority victories and split-votes common under plurality voting.
This majority mandate was key to a second advantage: Australian politicians quickly learned that they needed to try to represent the broadest possible sweep of their electorate to maximize their chances of winning a district. There is no room under ranked-choice voting for narrow or extremist positions when election and re-election requires an absolute majority of the vote.
Hence, in Australia politics tends to be centrist, without the polarization seen in other western countries in recent years. While we have a mostly two-party system like the U.S., these two parties seek to win not only their own first-choice votes, but pick up preference flows from smaller parties, too.
Our center-left Labor Party, for instance, relies on voters for Green and other left-wing parties choosing it as a “second best” option, and has shifted its policies to incorporate environmental issues accordingly. In earlier decades, the main center-right Coalition similarly benefited from smaller parties to their right to keep them in office for many years.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of ranked-choice voting for Australian national elections, a lengthy period by any measure. This stability is the result of ranked-choice voting being popular with both voters and politicians.
Voters like the system because they can choose a smaller party and still then give a second-choice vote for one of the big ones, without worrying that their vote is going to be “wasted.”
Politicians appreciate being able to claim a majority mandate, particularly when in or aspiring to be in government. In some cases, this enables them to win office even in situations where they may be a compromise choice between two more polarizing opponents.
In Australia, about one in every 11 districts are won by a candidate who gains fewer first-choice votes than their opponent, but as a compromise or “least unpopular” choice picks up sufficient preference votes so as to come through the field during the count from second (or very rarely third) place and win the seat.
But this is the exception, not the norm. In two-third of all districts, the counting of secondary votes results in the first-count leader winning, while in the remainder, the winner gains a clear majority on the first count and wins their seats without second preferences ever being counted.
Given this, some have questioned whether ranked-choice voting is worth the effort.
In Australia, the answer is clearly yes. The system has helped maintain social harmony by delivering centrist politics. There is a focus on the middle ground in elections, and a similar convergence on many big-ticket policy issues such as health, education and defence by our two main parties.
Ranked-choice voting is not perfect. It asks more of voters, and much more of electoral officials, than many other electoral systems. But it also gives more in return, subtly changing the incentives politicians face during campaigns and in government. Our experience suggests that it is a good choice.
Benjamin Reilly is a political science professor at Murdoch University in Western Australia. He will give a public lecture about Australia’s experience with ranked-choice voting at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 4 at the Bangor Public Library in the Crofutt Room.
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