Voting in Australia is generally compulsory and Australia uses the 'preferential' system. This system is fairer than 'first past the post' systems, but is complex and encourages many parties and individuals. Voting is done by voters attending a voting booth and marking voting papers with numbers indicating their order of preference of the candidates.
Australia's voting system is preferential voting, which is designed to ensure that the candidates with the most support get into office, rather than the candidate with the most primary votes. So if three candidates, A, B, and C, get 40%, 35%, and 25% of the votes respectively (so no candidate has more than 50% of the votes), then the second preference of the voters who voted for C (the candidate with the least votes) are distributed to the remaining candidates. The result might be that A ends up with 45% of the votes, and B with 55%, indicating that 55% of the voters prefer candidate B over A. If there are more than three candidates, this distribution of preferences will be repeated as many times as necessary until one of the candidates has more than 50% of the votes.
One consequence of this voting system is that it encourages a multiplicity of parties and even independent candidates. There have been times when the balance of power has been held by minor parties or independent individuals.
In most federal elections, the six candidates receiving the highest number of votes in the state are elected, which means that each candidate has to achieve about 14% of the vote. This makes it relatively easy for smaller parties to get a member into the Senate, which itself encourages a large number of candidates. For example, in the 2007 federal election, the Victorian Senate ballot paper had 68 candidates listed in 23 parties and groups, and the ballot paper was approximately eight inches/200 mm by three feet/900 mm.
With the voting system, vote-counting is a protracted affair, and the major television networks broadcast live coverage of the progress of the counting of House of Representative votes. Senate votes can take days or over a week to count, or longer if the results are close and a recount is ordered.
Voting in elections is generally compulsory, although there are exceptions for elderly people in state and municipal elections and non-residents in municipal elections. It is often claimed that voting is not compulsory; only attending the voting booth is compulsory.
The penalty associated with failure to vote without sufficient explanation is a fine, generally not exceeding $A100. Failure to pay such a fine can result in court proceedings and harsher penalties.
Informal votes and Donkey votes
In a secret ballot is impossible to ensure that voters casting a vote actually mark their ballot paper properly, and there is always a percentage of ballot papers that have not been filled out, have been filled out incorrectly or have been vandalized. These votes are known as informal votes and are not counted. There is also what is known as a "donkey vote", where the voter simply numbers the candidates in order from top to bottom as they appear on the paper. Donkey votes are legitimate, thus usually make up a small percentage of the total votes each election.
Voting is run by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). Voting booths are set up in school, public, and church halls in each electorate, and fitted out with tables and booths made from cardboard. When a voter arrives outside a voting booth, he will be met by representatives of the candidates who will offer him their "how to vote" cards, printed material recommending how they think the voter should vote. These representatives are not permitted to hand out their material inside the voting booths.
Once inside, the voter will be asked his name and address, and his name will be marked off a list of voters. These will later be computer-scanned to ensure that nobody has voted more than once, and that everyone has voted. The voter will also be asked if has already voted today. He will then be given two ballot papers, a green one for the lower house, the House of Representatives, and a white one for the upper house, the Senate.
The voter will take these ballot papers to a cardboard voting booth, and use the pencil supplied in the booth to mark his ballot papers.
On the House of Representative ballot paper, the voter must mark the candidate of his choice with the number "1", his second choice with "2", and so on until all candidates have been numbered.
On the Senate ballot paper, the voter has a choice of two ways to vote, known as voting "above the line" or "below the line". In "below the line" voting, the voter must again mark all the candidates from "1" to the number of candidates. In "above the line" voting, the voter simply puts a "1" against the party or group of his choice, and his vote will be treated as if he had voted "below the line" with preferences allocated according to the wishes of the party or group he selected.