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A donkey vote is a ballot cast in a preferential voting election, where the voter (a donkey voter) ranks candidates in the order they appear on the ballot paper: first preference for the first-listed candidate, second preference for the second-listed candidate, etc.
Donkey votes often arise where preferential voting is combined with compulsory voter turnout, such as in Australia, and particularly where all candidates must be ranked.
There are different versions of the phenomenon applicable in the Australian House of Representatives, Australian Senate and in the Australian jurisdictions that use the Hare-Clark system. Donkey votes are typically cast by uninterested voters, protesting voters or voters ignorant about the voting system. As voting is compulsory in Australia, "donkey votes" are a measure of apathy and ignorance.
Sometimes the term "donkey vote" is incorrectly used to refer to an informal vote (submitting a blank or defaced ballot paper) although this use is not included in major dictionaries. The number of voters that protest against voting by spoiling their ballot or submitting a blank ballot is not specifically known, as these ballots are tallied along with all the informal ballots. The Australian Electoral Commission reported a national informality rate of 5.55% in the 2010 House of Representatives election, and of 3.95% in the 2007 House of Representatives election. It is said that parties used to deliberately select candidates with a high alphabetical ranking. In 1984 voting reforms were introduced to lessen this effect, including listing names in a random order.
Australian House of Representatives
Preferential voting for a single seat is used in elections for the Federal House of Representatives (since 1918), for all mainland State lower houses, and for the Northern Territory's Legislative Assembly. It was also used for the Legislative Councils (State upper houses) of Western Australia until 1986, and of Victoria until 2006. It is still used for the Tasmanian Legislative Council. A variant was used for the South Australian State Upper House before 1973, with two seats per "province" (electoral district) being filled at each election, but by majority-preferential voting, not by proportional representation.
The donkey vote became established with the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924. As some voters came out to vote only to avoid a fine, some possibly vote in this manner because of apathy.
An example of a hypothetical donkey vote cast at the 2004 Australian House of Representatives might be.
- Anderson, John National Party of Australia
- Sims, Glenn Richard Australian Labor Party
- Anderson, Michael John The Greens
- Stringer, Richard Citizens Electoral Council
- Rogers, Colin One Nation Party
- Haigh, Bruce Independent
This is likely to be a donkey vote because the National Party would have issued a how-to-vote card suggesting that voters place the Labor candidate second last behind the One Nation candidate. It is also unlikely that a National Party voter would give second and third preference to Labor and the Greens.
On the other hand, in some electorates, it is possible to cast a donkey vote consistent with ideological preference or party instruction. For example, in the 2004 election in the Division of Grayndler, it would be possible for a donkey voter to cast this vote:
Division of Grayndler
- Myers, Philip The Greens
- Johnson, Sue Socialist Alliance
- Harrison, Jen The Australian Democrats
- Albanese, Anthony Australian Labor Party
- Kokkolis, Stephanie Liberal Party
Such a vote would be consistent with ideological inclination, and were in fact the instructions on the Greens how-to-vote card.
The donkey vote has been estimated at between 1 and 2% of the vote, which could be critical in a marginal seat. In 1983, reforms were made to Federal electoral legislation to reduce the impact of donkey voting including:
- listing of party names besides each candidate (as for the example above for the Divisions of Gwydir and Grayndler);
- drawing of order on the ballot paper by lot by the Australian Electoral Commission returning officer after the close of nominations and the commencement of pre-poll voting - candidates were previously listed by alphabetical order leading to parties nominating candidates with names beginning with A.
These reforms as well as an increase in electoral education funding have reduced the impact of donkey voting in Federal elections in recent years. As States have introduced similar reforms, the phenomenon has also been reduced in other jurisdictions. However, the phenomenon of donkey voting still needs to be taken into account when assessing the size of the swing or two-party vote in particular electorates.
2005 Werriwa By-Election
The by-election for the Federal electorate of Werriwa was held on 19 March 2005, following the resignation of Federal Labor leader Mark Latham, provides a good example for understanding the nature of donkey voting.
At this by-election, 16 candidates were nominated. This large number of candidates led to an increased incentive to cast a donkey vote. Every candidate that issued how-to-vote cards used some variation of the donkey vote when instructing his or her voters how to mark preferences, presumably to simplify the task of voting, made onerous by needing to vote for 16 candidates, many with no public profile. Candidates generally allocated their first few preferences and last few preferences to candidates according to their wishes, then numbered the rest of the boxes from top to bottom or bottom to top. For example, The Greens advocated the following preferences:
- 15 Woodger, Janey (Australians Against Further Immigration)
- 1 Raue, Ben (The Greens)
- 14 Young, James (Independent)
- 13 Lees, Mal (Independent)
- 3 Hayes, Chris (Australian Labor Party)
- 12 Vogler, Robert (Independent)
- 11 Tan, Greg (Christian Democratic Party)
- 10 Bryant, Joe (Independent)
- 16 Doggett, Charles (One Nation)
- 9 Head, Mike
- 8 Sykes, Mick (Family First)
- 7 Bargshoon, Sam (Independent)
- 2 McGookin, Pat (Progressive Labour Party)
- 6 Locke, Deborah
- 5 Aussie-Stone, Marc (Independent)
- 4 Mannoun, Ned
In this case, the how-to-vote card advocates a first preference for the Greens, a second preference for the PLP, a third preference for Labor and a last preference for One Nation. Apart from these preferences, the card advocates a reverse Donkey Vote.
The donkey vote was also reflected in the high vote (4.83%) for Australians Against Further Immigration, who would normally gain far fewer votes, but were placed first on the ballot.
The Senate also had a preferential system between 1919 and 1949. From 1934, to elect a State's three senators at a periodic Senate poll, voters had to mark against the names of each of the candidates on the ballot paper (with consecutive integers beginning with 1) their preference order among them from candidates listed down the ballot paper. Candidates could be listed in groups, but voters could choose, because Section 7 of the Constitution provides that senators must be directly chosen by the people, any order of candidates regardless of their grouping. Within each group, the candidates were listed in alphabetical order, and the groups were listed in what was called 'ranked alphabetical order', which ensured that a group in which all surnames started with 'A' would be at the top of the ballot paper if there were no other group with that feature. The groups were not identified by a party name, but just shown as Group A, Group B, etc. Donkey voters, by definition, marked their earliest preferences against the candidates in Group A, so a group that appeared in that position had an inbuilt electoral advantage. The most famous example was in the NSW Senate election in 1937. In that election, Labor's group featured four candidates named Amour, Ashley, Armstrong and Arthur - all of the "Four A's" were duly elected. That prompted the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1940 replacing that ballot paper layout with one closer to the present layout where the order of candidates' names within each group was determined by those candidates' mutual consent - which in practice means it is determined by the party organization.
"These days, the order of candidates on the voting form is determined by a draw from a hat. Back then, the Electoral Commission [scil. Electoral Office, pre-1984] simply followed the alphabet. This led to many interesting battles of tactics between the Comms (Communist Party of Australia) and their arch-rivals the DLP (Democratic Labor Party), who were also keen to get their people at the head of the ticket. The Comms usually won, thanks to their recruitment of numerous members of the Aarons family: short of re-christening their own candidates something like Aardvark, there wasn’t much the DLP could do about it.... Those crucial ballots [in the Queensland electoral district of Moreton, in the extremely close 1961 House of Representatives election] turned out to have cast not by Communists but by donkeys, and as [Liberal candidate James] Killen’s name preceded that of the now-forgotten Labor candidate in the alphabet, they flowed largely to the Libs." - Mungo MacCallum, Mungo: The Man Who Laughs (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 2001), pp 64-65.
The Chifley Government introduced proportional representation for the Senate in 1948. Candidates were listed alphabetically in party order and the position of the parties candidates on the ballot paper was determined by lot after the close of nominations.
In large states such as NSW or Victoria, there might be over 100 candidates on the ballot paper with requirements for voters to list each candidate in order of preference. Consequently, there was a high percentage of informal votes and donkey votes cast in Senate elections.
As a result, electoral reforms were introduced in 1983 allowing voters an alternative of voting 1 above the line for the party of their choice and the preferences to be distributed according to a ticket lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission prior to the commencement of voting. This reform has greatly reduced the incidence of donkey voting and informal voting in Australian Senate elections.
However, this system has led to a great increase of horse trading by parties in the development of the distribution of preferences as it makes the difference in deciding who fills the final few positions in the Senate representing that State. For example, the election of Steve Fielding of the Family First Party in the Victorian Senate election with a party vote of 1.88% is an example of the results of horse-trading associated with this process. States that use proportional representation to elect their upper houses such as NSW use a similar system to the Senate.
Two Australian jurisdictions use the Hare-Clark proportional representation system to elect their lower houses: namely, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory (unicameral system). Tasmania has used Hare-Clark since 1907, and the ACT since 1995. In Tasmania, candidates used to be listed in alphabetical order within a party column leading to a donkey vote effect. For their ballots to be valid, voters need only number as many candidates as there are vacancies to be filled, although they are free to number all the candidates if they wish.
However, it was observed that often a candidate whose name appeared below the name of a popular candidate (such as a State party leader) would be elected on the leader's second preferences. As popular leaders such as Robin Gray, Kate Carnell or Jon Stanhope have achieved several quotas of first-preference votes in their own right at the height of their popularity, the impact of this position can lead to candidates being elected on the leaders' "coat-tails". A similar phenomenon has been observed in Ireland and Malta, which also use STV (with candidates ranked alphabetically).
In 1979, Neil Robson, a Liberal member for Bass in the Tasmanian parliament, introduced the system known as Robson Rotation. Under this system, each ballot paper contains a different permutation of candidates so each candidate has a certain percentage of instances at every position in their party's column, therefore equally dispersing the donkey votes and nullifying their impact on the result as to which of a party's candidates is favoured, but allowing the party as a whole to be properly benefited.
Outside of Australia
Donkey votes are not limited to Australia: a similar effect has been observed in other democracies, even those without compulsory preferential voting, although the unique presence of these two factors in Australia makes the phenomenon more visible. Donkey voting shows up in US elections, for example, in states that use the "long ballot" for numerous offices, or in multi-seat elections where there are several candidates from the same party. In his book The Rise of Guardian Democracy: The Supreme Court’s Role in Voting Rights, 1845-1969 (Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1974), Ward E.Y. Elliott notes:
"One long-time Democrat precinct captain in Denver noted that, besides having party or lobby support, a candidate had to rank high in the ballot list. Since ballot ranking was alphabetical, most of the eight Denver [district State] Senators had names beginning with A, B or C." (p 362, citing appellants’ brief in Lucas v Colorado).
British pro-STV campaigner Enid Lakeman noted the same effect in UK local elections, where significant numbers of voters invited to X (say) three candidates for three council seats would simply mark an X against the three highest on the ballot-paper, even if they belonged to different parties.
However, since most non-preferential elections require the voter to mark only one single candidate, or one single party list, it becomes impossible to speculate how many votes for the first candidate or party on the ballot are genuine supporters and how many simply "donkey-voted".
Furthermore, in societies where voting is not compulsory, it seems counter-intuitive that many who attend the polls would be apathetic. However, there may be countervailing factors that produce a "donkey vote" even with voluntary turnout. In many US elections, a voter may well be intensely interested in (e.g.) the Presidential contest but not in other, less prominent races on the same "long ballot".
In Ireland, where voting is preferential but not compulsory, the donkey vote has its greatest effect not between parties but within them. With an alphabetical list of candidates, and several candidates from each major party for the 3 to 5 seats per district, the proportion of Dáil Éireann deputies with surnames A to M is typically much higher than 50%, whereas it is only about half the population (according to the Irish telephone directory). (See, e.g., B Walsh and C Robson, Alphabetical Voting: A Study of the 1973 General Election in the Republic of Ireland, Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), General Research Series No #71, Dublin, January 1973). In O’Reilly v Minister for Environment  IR 143, the Irish High Court upheld the constitutional validity of alphabetical listing against an equality-rights challenge, noting that despite its faults, A to Z does have the advantage of making it easy to find candidates on the ballot-paper.
Moreover, in some elections (e.g. Germany and some US States), the order of parties on the ballot is in descending order of their support at the previous election (with new parties being placed lowest in random order). A system like that makes high ballot position both a cause and an effect of high electoral support.
- "Analysis of Informal Voting: House of Representatives, 2010 Federal Election". Australian Electoral Commission. Retrieved 2 February 2013.
- Australian 2004 Election Results
- Article by election analyst Anthony Green on preference flows including the donkey vote
- Proportional Representation Society of Australia page on Robson Rotation
- Werriwa 2005 by-election Results
- "Ballot Order for Blokes" by Amy King and Andrew Leigh - suggests that donkey vote benefits only male candidates