This Saturday is the Australian Federal Election. A friend of mine decided that she wanted her Saturday for herself so decided to vote early. She’s vegan, so it’s no surprise that when she saw the newly formed Animal Justice Party she was intrigued. She’d done some research online to find the party was formed in 2011, since the last election, with a manifesto :
“…to focus public attention and bring about change to the way humans at large treat other animal species as a result of political decision making.”
She voted ‘above the line’ for them in the Australian senate. Without knowing it this left leaning animal lover, who did her research, could just have had her vote counted in electing a senator from nationalists (One Nation), conservative Christians (Family First) or anti-environmentalists (not carbon tax climate skeptics) before it reaches a major party who wants to establish an independent office of animal welfare(The Greens).
How did this happen? It’s all of the design of a voting system - the single transferable vote - along with a service that hides transparency.
The Ballot - A Broken Touchpoint
For those not in Australia, we have two houses of parliament; the house of representatives and the senate. In both houses we have preferential voting - otherwise known as ranked voting - where voters rank an order of preference in a hierarchy and have their vote transferred to their next preference when their preferred candidate is eliminated. In the lower house we have what is called instant runoff voting where the order of preference is explicitly stated by the voter). The senate is different. There is a literal line on the ballot paper and voters have the preference of voting ‘above the line’ or ‘below the line’.
Whilst the parties are separated into columns, in the below the line the voting we can nominate individual senators in an order of preference.
However, we also have the option of placing a single vote of a single party above the line and casting what is known as a single transferable vote; voting above the line. In this instance the voter is not only voting for their first preference party. They also delegate the right for the party to allocate their vote in a preference they give to the Australian Electoral Commission prior to polling day. As this form of voting is easier it’s not really a surprise that 95% of people vote above the line.
Here is the catch though: the preferences are essentially invisible. You can see the parties preferences on some websites but I doubt few look or any remember. At the polling booth, as far as I know, they’re nowhere to be seen. They’re certainly not next to you when you are voting. It’s all memory.
Historically, this wasn’t really a problem. The number of parties was low and it was pretty obvious on a general political left to right. But in recent years things have changed. There has been a proliferation of minor parties and the ballot has progressively got longer. It’s at the point now where my senate ballot paper is over a metre long:
As the senate ballot papers have gotten longer so have the number of votes not counted because of the way the ballot was filled out. This reached 3.89% at the last election, nearly 1 in 25 people. And whilst that is a problem, the invisible preference flows have become a bigger problem. You see it is no longer obvious where preferences go, largely caused by the smaller parties making preference deals. These all seem to be about staying in the race long enough to grab a senate seat as a with a tiny number of first preference votes. Political scientist John Wanna puts it well:
“What’s happened is, once we’ve gone over the line, the micro-parties have realised, as a result of things like the New South Wales Legislative Council elections, that they can piece together these deals, which are basically anti-democratic deals really. They’re trying to shift your vote to somewhere else. And they’ve had a couple of decades now to work out how to game the system. And they’ve learnt how to game the system.”
The term for this is pretty sinister sounding; vote harvesting. I leads to some seriously bizarre preferences, like the one mentioned in my about my vegan friend. Perhaps most notably is the preference deal between the Australian Sex Party - a self described civil libertarian alternative - and One Nation - ultra conservative populists. Both have preferenced each other over the other major parties. In the state of Victoria, Fiona Pattern of the Australian Sex party was one of the last candidates eliminated in 2010 and stands a very good chance of being elected on preferences, including those of One Nation. In NSW the infamous Pauline Hanson stands a chance of being back in federal politics on the back of preferences including those of the Australian Sex Party. To use hyper-sterotypes, this means gay, pot-smoking, immigrant strippers could end up voting with white, anti-immigrant nationalists to elect two very different senators.
Voters are now left with the problem of voting below the line in filling out nearly 100 boxes, where they cannot possibly know the information to preference correctly if they manage to do it at all, or voting above the line and hoping their preference ends up working to their wishes. To summarise generally:
Voting below the line = Pain + Control
Voting above the line = Speed + Hope
Election Day - A Broken Service
A traditional method used in service design, my profession, is that of the customer journey map. The point is to take the customers, or voters, through a service to both empathise with their situation and identify ‘touchpoints’ for future design. (Touchpoint is essentially jargon for an encounter that can be altered.).
Whilst a real journey map would be more detailed, a brief look at users on voting day reveals it’s obvious why people tend to only vote above the line. By the time you’re inside that small, cramped booth, where the massive senate ballot paper can’t even be held flat, you’ve already been through a rough time. Perhaps:
- you only remembered late in the day that you had to squeeze in voting.
- You’ve driven around the block 5 times looking for a park.
- There’s bored kids running amuck around the polling place.
- An at-the-time-delicious sausage in bread is now rumbling in your guts.
- You can’t find a loo because you’ll lose your place in line.
- You’ve now waited an half hour in a line, only to be placed in another line because you are in the wrong electorate.
You notice nowhere along that journey I described is a user actually exposed to the preferences of their chosen candidates. Political Antony Pink says:
“It becomes almost an impossible nightmare for all but the most prepared to show their preferences on the largest possible Senate ballot with the smallest possible fonts.
It’s easy to see why voters, even if they are sure of some preferences, just say ‘stuff it, mate’ and place a 1 above the line. They might head out hoping their vote gets allocated the way they want, but probably don’t think about it at all.
Fixing the Service
People tend to think of voting systems as fixed designs. But that is simply not true. Over time the design of voting has evolved to make voting easier and less error prone. For example, in 1856 Australia was the first country to include the candidates names on the ballots. In fact, above the line voting itself has only existed since 1984. Anything can be designed.
Whilst there are a number of clear issues including the irritation of voting and the simple inability to actually remember the political stance of all parties. However, it’s the lack of transparency of preferences that is at the heart of the problem. The point of doing a service journey is so that you know where the opportunities might lie. Whilst you’d want a detailed analysis do do the design, stopping short of fundamentally changing the electoral system, there are basically 4 main opportunities to improve transparency:
1. Fix the Touchpoint
Identify opportunities in the ballot booth or on the ballot paper that clearly show preference flows of above the line voting. Having the preference flows clearly visible in polling booths would ensure people have access some information on the day so they can use what prior knowledge the have and make an informed vote. You could also, let voters partially fill below the line, giving them a right to vote nobody if a some number of their preferences were passed over.
2. Utilise the Voter’s Journey
The process of polling day does tend to involve some degree of waiting. It also involves passing through places getting how to vote cards. There are numerous opportunities to allow voters to discover preferences as they enter. Maybe it’s volunteer organisations showing people ipads where they can check preference flows. Maybe it’s handing people bound books whilst they are in-line. Maybe it’s simply showing them on large walls.
3. Change the Channel
Channel is service design jargon for a conduit for delivering goods, services or information. Department stores have their physical space as one channel, and their webstore as another. Voting already has other channels, most notably the postal vote. We have already written about how this changes the voting experience, most notably removing time pressure and allowing access to wider information. For example, voters could utalise tools such as below the lineand research who you’re ranking thoroughly as you do it.
4. Create a Channel
Why not create a whole new way to vote? Australia brought in electronic voting at polling booths for persons with a disability in 2007. This fundamentally opens up the possibility of making invisible preferences visible. But why stop there. Surely online voting can’t be far away. Transparency would be there with the click of a button.
But, of course none of this will be fixed tomorrow.
And that’s a shame, because we could see it coming. Anthony Green, Australia’s most well known and respected electoral commentator, took aimat the electoral system:
“Conducting an election under such circumstances is a farce that Australians, and the politicians responsible for not acting ahead of time to fix the system, should be embarrassed by.”
In short, don’t hate the player. Hate the game.
Let’s fix our ballot by 2016.
Rohan Irvine - Guest Post and UX/Service Design job seeker
Thought this was good? See our post on the US ballot or the Australian Census.