How to make sure your vote really counts

Millennial voters and Australian citizens aged under 45 made up 43 percent of the voters in the 2022 federal election. Analyses show that their vote mattered in swings against the major parties and revealed just how discerning young voters can be.

But clearly, for their votes to count, and to ensure their most preferred candidate is elected, understanding how the preferential voting system works is essential. This requires civics learning, so that young people can be informed citizens, with experience of voting systems.

However, results reported in 2021, from the National Assessment Program – Civics and Citizenship (NAP-CC, 2019), conducted every three years since 2004, showed that the proportion of Australian school students with the skills and knowledge required to be active and informed citizens has not changed since 2016.

At the national level, only 38 per cent of Year 10 students, and 53 per cent of Year 6 students, attained the stated proficiency standards regarding core aspects of Australian democracy, and their roles and responsibilities as citizens. So, there is significant room for improvement in building understanding of civics and citizenship education.

The Australian Curriculum: Civics and citizenship includes developing understanding of the electoral system as part of the focus on exploring how the people, as citizens, choose their governments; how the system safeguards democracy by vesting people with civic rights and responsibilities; how laws and the legal system protect people’s rights; and how individuals and groups can influence civic life.  It also aims to develop students’ knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the values, principles, institutions and practices of Australia’s system of democratic government and law, and the role of the citizen in Australian government and society. There is a specific focus on the preferential voting systems. 

So, what is the preferential system, and how can students be engaged in effective learning about the processes involved?

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) explains that there are many different types of preferential voting systems in use across Australia and the world.

Some preferential voting systems make it compulsory for voters to mark a preference for all candidates on the ballot paper, whereas others require a defined number of preferences to be indicated. Australian federal elections use a preferential voting system where voters are required to:

·       mark a preference for every candidate on the green ballot paper (House of Representatives)

·       mark a preference for a designated number of preferences on the white ballot paper (Senate)

The AEC explains that the preferential voting system used for the House of Representatives provides for multiple counts of ballot papers, in order to determine who has acquired an absolute majority of the total votes (more than 50% of formal votes). During the counting process, votes are transferred between candidates according to the preferences marked by voters. 

The AEC provides multiple online, plain language resources that schools and community members can access. One document explains that at each polling place, when voting closes, officials sort all ballot papers by first preference votes, which are then counted for each candidate. Informal votes that are incorrectly filled in are identified and removed from the count. All the ‘1’ votes are counted for each candidate in an electorate. If a candidate gets more than an absolute majority – they are immediately elected. Even though they are elected, a full preference count is completed to show how the electorate voted. If no candidate has an absolute majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded from the count. The votes for this candidate are then transferred to the candidate numbered ‘2’ on each of their ballot papers, the voters’ ‘second preference’. This process continues until one candidate has more than half the total formal votes cast and is then declared elected.

The National Electoral Education Centre (NEEC) at Old Parliament House in Canberra provides onsite experiential learning experiences for students visiting the national capital to engage and inform young people about voting and elections. Students meet DemocraBot and are immersed in DemocraCity, a brand new interactive virtual world, to learn about representation, enrolment, and voting and to experience the electoral process in action by running their own election in a dedicated polling place. Students vote, count the votes, and declare the election result, while taking on the roles of voters, ballot box guards, scrutineers and polling officials!

The NEEC also offers online education programs and resources for primary, secondary and adult groups.. One of these programs links learning about voting and the preferential system to Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive objectives that describes learning in six levels in the order of: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Students are challenged for example to: examine why sometimes the person with the most first preference votes is not elected in a federal election; debate different systems of voting (full preferential, partial preferential, first past the post); make a flowchart to show how the preferences flowed in a real election at your school, and construct arguments for and against full preferential voting. Understanding the preferential system also requires critical thinking and knowledge about who the candidates are and their policies and standpoints on critical issues.

Voters also need to know what to do when they get to the ballot box, so the AEC provides images of the ballot papers and simple instructions about how to make sure that your ballot paper is completed properly for the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The Get Voting resource provides a step by step guide to running a mock election in a school as a hands-on way of developing understanding of the preferential systems.  As the introduction to the Democracy Rules resource says: ‘Teachers play a critical part in shaping young people’s understanding of their role as citizens and future electors. In fact, the work of the teaching profession helps to guide the democratic development of our nation’.

There is no lack of resources available to teachers to ensure that young people can build their knowledge and skills. But since Civics and Citizenship is not often a designated subject in school timetables, the challenge is for schools to ensure that they do plan multiple opportunities for students to experience and learn about voting and elections.

 Understanding the preferential system matters, so that students can be active, participatory citizens, capable of thinking about their choices and registering their vote for the candidates that they most and least prefer. But this learning should also be part of whole school approaches to Civics and Citizenship education that empower young people to have voice and agency. They should not be citizens-in-waiting, but have opportunities to be citizens now. This involves learning about and participating in critical debates about issues they are concerned about. 

Results from triple j’s What’s Up In Your World survey, conducted in May, 2022, that surveyed more than 1,600 18-29 year olds, show that young Australians are highly politically engaged, but extremely disappointed with leadership from the major parties. Only two percent believe that politicians are working in the best interests of young Australians.

Ariadne Vromen (May 30, The Conversation)  pointed out that Prime Minister Albanese wants to change the way we do politics in Australia. With a new government there is an opportunity to re-engage citizens in policy-making and politics; and this includes young people in schools.   She reported the OECD’s view that ‘when citizens are more engaged in politics and involved in decision-making, the more likely it is that good policies will result that can address critical, difficult issues. Citizens will be more invested in the outcome when they see their views are heard and acted upon’.

It’s clearly a good time for a renewed focus on civics and citizenship in schools.

Libby Tudball is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, at Monash University. Her research and publications focus on teacher education and the humanities and social sciences, with a particular focus on civics and citizenship education.