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How Proportional Representation works today
To show why Catherine Helen Spence and others were, and are, so passionate about effective voting, I have looked at an example used by respected South Australian political commentator, educator and writer Professor Dean Jaensch to show the different results produced under the three major systems of counting votes in parliamentary democracies: First-past-the-post, Preferential Voting and Proportional Representation.
The following extract is adapted with kind permission from Professor Jaensch from two of his excellent books, Election: how and why Australia votes (St. Leonards, NSW, Allen & Unwin, 1995) and The Australian politics guide (South Melbourne, Macmillan Education Australia, 1996) both held in the Bray and Mortlock libraries of the State Library. A discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of Proportional Representation can also be found in these two books.
The First-past-the-post system is the simplest for voters, administrators and political parties and is the basis for elections in Britain, Canada and the United States of America. The voter simply votes for one candidate in a single-member constituency and the candidate who wins the most votes wins the seat, even though a majority of voters may not have voted for that candidate.
Preferential voting system (PV)
The Preferential voting system in single-member electorates is widely used in Australia. Voters are required to show preferences, in order, for all candidates on the ballot paper. (Some states (New South Wales and Queensland) allow optional preferences). The criterion for election is at least 50% + 1 vote of the total formal votes. If no candidate has this absolute majority, the least supported candidate is removed from the count, and their second preferences are distributed. This process of exclusion and distribution continues until one candidate achieves an absolute majority.
Proportional Representation (PR)
Proportional Representation requires multi-member electorates. Election under this system is based on the achievement of a quota, under the formula [V divided by (S + 1)] +1 where V = total formal votes, S = number of vacant seats. Australia uses a Single Transferable Vote system of Proportional Representation whereby if quotas are not filled by first preference votes, surplus votes of elected candidates are transferred and, if one or more quotas remain unfilled, preferences are distributed from the least supported candidates.
All three systems of translating votes to seats are designed to produce a representative Parliament, but the interpretation of 'representative' varies. Given the different results obtained under different election systems, it is not surprising that the attitudes of political parties to them show wide variations. A party will tend to favour a system which offers advantages to it. Most minor parties are in favour of proportional representation as they are more likely to win seats under this system.
The results of three hypothetical elections held under the three different systems are compared. The hypothetical electorate has eight candidates, representing two major parties, two minor parties, and four very small parties or independents.
The following table shows the different results under the three
This hypothetical election result shows the different effects of different methods of translating votes to seats. Under FPP, the Labor (ALP) candidate won the seat. Under PV, the Liberal Party won the seat. Under PR, the electors were represented by Labor, Liberal, National and Democrat members in the parliament. This difference in results emphasises a key point: all systems of translating votes to seats are designed to produce a representative assembly, but the interpretation of 'representative' varies. FPP is designed to produce a majority government in a legislature; PR is designed to reflect in the legislature the (party) choices of the electorate."
In South Australia there are 45 electorates in the Lower House of Parliament, returning 45 members of Parliament. If Proportional Representation applied there would probably be 9 electorates, each returning 5 members, thus keeping the same size of Lower House.