Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why proportional representation is better

As I have written here in other posts, the Victorian Electoral Commission has made a preliminary recommendation of three three-councillor wards for Darebin from the 2008 council elections onwards. You can write a submission supporting this recommendation (deadline 24 April), but why are multi-councillor wards better than the current single-councillor ones?

One of the big advantages of moving to multi-councillor wards is the voting system that comes with it – proportional representation. So, how is that different from the current system of majority preferential voting? Under the current system, in which we have one councillor per ward, a candidate must either gain a majority of votes, either from first preferences or from these together with the preferences directed to him/her from other candidates. In this system, running dummy candidates to direct their preferences to you is a tried and tested way of gaining the crucial majority – especially, it seems, if you are a candidate belonging to the Labor Unity faction of the ALP, which currently holds all nine council positions.

In some Darebin council elections, as many as 18 candidates have run in a single ward. It is understandable if voters ask whether any of these candidates might be running as dummies for no other reason than to direct their preferences to another (usually ALP) candidate. Such preferences are directed upwards from candidates who are eliminated at each stage of the counting because they have the least number of first-preference votes. Dummy candidates can therefore be relative unknowns, but as each dummy is eliminated from the count and their preferences are distributed upwards, they can together add up to give a significant advantage to the candidate for whom they are really running.

In proportional representation, however, preferences play a much smaller role and the PR system lessens the impact of dummy candidates. It also lowers the percentage of votes needed for a candidate to be elected from a majority (above 50 per cent) to a quota that depends on the number of vacancies and the total number of formal votes in the ward being contested – 25 per cent under the VEC's preferred preliminary option. For example, in a multi-councillor ward with three vacancies and 30,000 formal votes, a candidate would need a quota of 7,500 votes to get one of the three places on council for that ward - much less than a majority of 15,001. The actual formula and steps are explained in the VEC's proportional representation slide show

As a result, candidates with strong but not majority community support stand a good chance of being elected, whereas under the current majority system they have little chance. If Darebin moves to such a system, we are likely to see more diverse voices on council that have strong support and are more representative of our diverse community.

Dummies have far less influence in such a system because preferences are initially distributed downwards from candidates who have already achieved a quota (and therefore a spot on council) to those who don't. The preferences distributed are the votes the candidate has gained above the quota and are known as a surplus. Surplus votes are distributed at a diminished value worked out according to a formula. Again, this is explained in the VEC's slide show

It is clear from this that, under proportional representation, candidates with substantial community support will have more of a say in the ultimate outcome than do dummy candidates with poor support under the present system, in which their collective preferences may accumulate to get another candidate over the line.

So, be sure to have your say and get your submission into the VEC by 5.00pm on Tuesday 24 April. To find out more, go to

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