Still confused about how voting works? Here’s a simple run-down

17 May 2022

5.8 MINS

Australia’s preferential voting system can be incredibly confusing. Consequently, many voters have a very limited understanding of how the process works… and political parties and lobbyists capitalise on this. Here’s a quick explainer to help you maximise your vote this Saturday

If you’d prefer to watch a video summary of the following content, here’s an 8-minute overview:

Levels of Government (State vs Federal):

Australia is a Federation, meaning we have multiple independent levels of government — state and federal being the most important. Each state has its own government and parliament (based in each state’s capital city), and Australia as a nation has its own central government and parliament, based in Canberra.

As most people would be aware by now, this election is a Federal Election – we are electing a new Prime Minister and a new federal parliament.

The Federal Parliament has two chambers: an upper house (or the Senate) and a lower house (or the House of Representatives).

The House of Representatives — The House of Government

The House of Representatives is where the Prime Minister sits. Whoever controls the House forms government — and the leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister.

There are 151 seats in the House of Representatives. Each seat corresponds with a portion of land called an electorate. The voters in each electorate have the power to elect a local politician to represent their electorate in the House of Representatives.

You can find out which electorate you are in by using the Australian Electoral Commission’s website.

Candidates stand in each electorate, each trying to convince voters that they are the best one to represent the electorate in parliament.

Voting in the House of Representatives (Green Ballot Paper)

When you go to vote, you will receive a green ballot paper with a short list of names on it.

On this paper, you must number each and every box, with #1 being the candidate you support the most strongly.

The order in which you number the boxes is called your “preference”, and your preferences do matter.

Here’s how.

Counting the Vote for Your Electorate

When the counters begin counting the votes, they count all the #1 votes (or the “primary vote”) in the electorate. This is called the first “round” of counting.

If one candidate receives over 50 per cent of the primary (#1) vote, they win the seat automatically.

However, if no candidate receives 50 per cent of the primary vote, we move to a second “round” of counting. The counters eliminate the candidate with the least number of #1 votes. You might protest that this is not fair, but this is actually where preferences become important.

Although the candidate has been eliminated, the votes are still in play.

The counters take the ballot papers for the eliminated candidate and look at which box each voter numbered second. The counters then reassign the votes to whomever the voters preferenced second, adjusting the count accordingly.

This process of eliminating the candidate with the least number of votes during each round of counting and redistributing their votes according to their next preference continues until one party or candidate has received over 50 per cent of the overall vote.

As a result, just because a person receives a high number of #1 votes does not mean that they will necessarily win the seat. It really depends on how the “preferences flow” – or on how people number the boxes on their ballot paper. A candidate with a low number of #1 votes could ultimately be the “preferred” candidate in that electorate.

This is why your preferences are so important.

If you found this explanation difficult to follow, you can check out my video, where I visualise the process with simple animations. Click here to check it out.

In each electorate around the country, this process continues until each electorate has an elected representative. Whichever party has a majority of seats in the House of Representatives gets to form government.

The Senate — The States’ House

The Senate is not involved in forming government. It is a state’s house or a house of review, and is mainly responsible for keeping an eye on the House of Representatives and representing each state equally in parliament.

There are 76 seats in the Senate: 12 for each state. However, there are only 6 positions going up for election in each state.

This is because senators serve for a term of 6 years as opposed to 3 years (like members of the House), so half of them go up for election on a staggered basis every 3 years: 6 from each state, or 38 in total.

Senate Voting

When you go to vote, you will receive a huge white paper alongside your small green paper. The white ballot paper is for the senate.

You have two options here: you can vote above the thick black line or below that same line.

  • Above-the-line voting is for parties. When you vote for a party, you essentially give them your vote and let them decide who in the party it helps to elect.

If you vote above the line, you must number at least 6 boxes.

  • Below-the-line voting gives you a far greater level of control over who you vote for. It lets you designate the exact candidate that you want to support — giving your vote straight to them, rather than to a party.

If you vote below the line, however, you must number at least 12 boxes.

The more boxes that you number, the greater chance your vote will have of being effective, so it is important that you do your research and find as many good candidates or parties to support as possible.

Counting the Senate Votes for Your State

In some ways, senate counting is similar to counting for the House (as we’ve seen above). However, instead of over 50% of the vote being required to get elected, a far smaller percentage is needed. This is because there are 6 spots available per state for the senate, whereas your local electorate had just 1 position available.

This smaller percentage required to get elected is called a “quota”. The best way to visualise a quota is to think of it as a bucket.

As the primary (#1) votes are counted, they begin to fill up the buckets. Each party than manages to fill up a bucket wins a seat. Remember, there are 6 seats up for grabs.

Once no single party has enough primary votes to fill up a quota, the elimination begins.

Just as they did in the House of Representatives count, the counters eliminate the candidate/party with the least number of votes.

But the votes themselves are not eliminated. Instead, they are reassigned to another candidate/party according to the order in which the voters numbered their ballot paper. That new party then gets a boost in votes, hopefully helping to keep them in the race for a senate seat.

This is why numbering lots of boxes is important. The fewer boxes you number, the more likely that the counters will pick up your ballot paper to check who you preferenced next, only to realise that they have counted all of your numbered boxes. There are no preferences left to count.

When this happens, your vote will be “exhausted”. At this point, it won’t count for anything; it won’t support any party — it’s gone.

Significantly, the final senate quota doesn’t even need to be filled. The last seat just goes to the party that has more preferences than anyone else.

This is why it’s important to number all of the candidates or parties that you would like (or wouldn’t mind) seeing in parliament. By doing this, you can boost their numbers and give them a better shot at winning the last senate place.


So, that is how the process works. It’s not straightforward, but once you understand the underlying principle of preferences as directing your vote to different parties, then hopefully the rest makes more sense.

Hopefully, you found this article (and the video) useful. Please remember to pray and vote wisely this coming Saturday!

To recap:

  1. On the green ballot paper, number all the boxes in order of your favourite (1) to least favourite
  2. The counters will follow your preferences when the process of eliminating candidates begins, ensuring that your vote stays in play the whole time
  3. On the large white ballot paper, number at least 6 boxes above the line or at least 12 below the line (in each case, number as many as you can)
  4. The more boxes you number, the lower the chance of your vote being wasted

Helpful Resources

Please compare and cross-reference the resources linked above. Don’t rely on one resource for all your research.


Photo by Edmond Dantès.

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  1. Robert Brown 17 May 2022 at 8:59 pm - Reply

    Where you recap, your dot point 3 states “at least 6 above the line and 12 below the line”. You should change “and” to “or”

    • Jean Seah 18 May 2022 at 5:06 am - Reply

      Thank you very much Robert! Am editing. God bless you!

    • Cody Mitchell 18 May 2022 at 7:47 am - Reply

      Thanks for the feedback Robert, that definitely needed clarifying! 😁

  2. Warwick Marsh 19 May 2022 at 9:34 am - Reply

    A number of people have said to me this is the best federal voting guide they have ever seen. It is certainly the best I have seen and all in 8 minutes. Still don’t know how you did it!

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