PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION SOCIETY OF AUSTRALIA                           Tel  +61429176725                                     2016-08-25


The ‘How-to-vote’ Cards in Australia’s elections with preferential voting


Introduction: The first jurisdiction in Australia to legislate for all of the seats in at least one of its Houses to be elected by a modern preferential voting system was Tasmania, when Tasmania's Electoral Act 1907 extended, to the whole State, the use of the Hare-Clark quota-preferential system of proportional representation in multi-member electoral districts that had been used, since 1896, just for the election of the members of the House of Assembly for Hobart and Launceston. That Act also substituted preferential voting for the first-past-the-post voting that had, until then, been used for Legislative Council elections.


Tasmanians have long valued the real choice that Hare-Clark gives, and that seems to have prevented 'How-to-Vote' cards from gaining the foothold they have on the mainland, which accepted them when preferential voting spread there around 1919 to prevent the two conservative parties - the urban Nationalist Party and the rural Country Party - splitting the conservative vote, particularly in the State-wide electoral districts used for Senate elections.


Use of 'How-to-vote' Cards: Except in A.C.T. and Tasmanian State elections, 'How-to-vote' cards are proffered to voters as they enter polling booths at most Australian elections so that parties can be sure their recommendations will be followed by voters diligently copying the recommended voting order onto their ballot-papers. The parties' efforts are re-inforced by electoral legislation for all mainland Upper House elections, which are counted by quota-preferential proportional representation in multi-member districts, where electoral legislation allows each party's candidates to be listed in the party's column on the ballot-paper in the order desired by the party. How-to-vote cards are a poor way to discourage "donkey voting", as Robson Rotation deals with it far better.


That use of the law for parties' electoral convenience readily tempts a large majority of voters to simply vote according to the party's ticket. The Tasmanian State candidates’ examples below are brochures rather than cards. They start being distributed well before polling day rather than being proffered to voters as they enter polling booths, and they do not give voters an order in which to vote for the party’s individual candidates, but pointedly leave that up to the voter.


Constructive Initiative by the Greens Party: At the 2010 Federal election, the Australian Greens followed the practice established earlier by the Australian Democrats of respecting below-the-line voters by giving equal weighting on its how-to-vote cards to the recommendation of numbering all squares there.


The other parties, possibly to their disadvantage, still discourage such voters, and herd them into just following a party line. The Greens once did better, by their initiative of adding a brief explanation of How Preferences Work, as clicking on their 2010 card to enlarge it shows. Sadly, the Greens failed to explain that on their cards in later years. See below some 2016 cards for the Liberals, ALP and Greens, which can be enlarged by clicking on them.


gr alp 

Australian Greens

Australian Labor Party



Click on one of the photos or the blue hyperlinks above for an enlargement.


Group Voting Tickets: From 1983 until they were discontinued in March 2016, a Group Voting Ticket option appeared on Senate ballot papers to further tempt voters to follow their party's recommendations, and that device still persists for all mainland State Upper Houses, and unfortunately has even been extended to municipal elections in NSW and the City of Melbourne. That option appeared "above-the-line" on Senate ballot papers, with the previous sole option relegated to "below-the-line". The "line" is a thick black dividing line across the ballot paper. Major parties made no mention of their Senate candidates' names, so it is no wonder that few Australians could name their State's major party senators, although their Greens and independent senators tended to be better known.

Tasmania, where the Hare-Clark system meant that 'how-to-vote'
has moved in the other direction, and introduced Robson Rotation to counter the use of 'How-to-vote' cards. A 1995 Australian Capital Territory referendum included Robson Rotation in the electoral features now legislatively entrenched there.

Examples of 'How-to-Vote Cards' at various other polls:


How-to-vote cards preceded preferential voting in Australia as an 1897 South Australian Labour party card shows.

The 1984 Liberal card (first year with Group Voting Tickets) set out the below-the-line equivalent of an above-the-line Liberal Senate vote, and gave the explanation that “Your 1 Liberal vote means that you have voted as below”, with the below-the-line equivalent overwritten with the message, “No need to mark this section”.


The 2001 Liberal card omitted that first statement, but still set out the below-the-line equivalent of an above-the-line Liberal Senate vote, and still overwrote it with the message, “No need to complete this part”. Labor and the Democrats named their top 3 and 4 Senate candidates respectively, but only the Democrats were even-handed in advising voters whether they should vote above-the-line or below-the-line.


By 2010, neither the explanation nor the below-the-line equivalent remained, but there was still the message, ‘No need to complete the “below-the-line” section.


At the 2010 poll, the Labor card used a similar message to the Liberals. It stated “No need to fill in this part”. By 2013, part of that had moved off the edge. The Greens' message was to vote above-the-line, or vote below-the-line by numbering every box in order of your preference. They named their No. 1 Senate candidate.

At the 2016 poll, by which time the optional preferential voting for individual candidates that was last available in 1934 had been restored, and Group Voting Tickets had fortunately been discontinued, the Liberals had become the only large party that still gave the gratuitous advice on their how-to-vote cards that there was, "no need to number the boxes below the thick black line".

Federal Polls
Year How-to-Vote-Cards for both Houses
2016 Liberal Labor Greens Xenophon Team Voluntary Euthanasia Party 2016 Goldstein

2013 Goldstein
2010 Liberal Labor

2010 Goldstein
2001 Liberal Labor
Independent 2001 Goldstein
1984 Liberal

1984 Isaacs

* Note that, for Tasmania's House of Assembly polls below, the documents shown are not the normal How-to-Vote Cards handed out at polling booths in other Australian public elections, as Hare-Clark has given such free choice since its first State-wide use in 1909 that issuing cards did not become the practice. Since then, Robson Rotation has made such cards ineffective, and State legislation has outlawed their distribution on polling day within 100 metres of a polling place, so the documents shown below are brochures distributed before polling day. Each of the two larger parties' candidates recommends a first preference vote for him or her self, with next preferences to his or her colleagues, but they are silent about later preferences. The Greens party often recommends a single order, as its vote has so far been too low to elect two or more candidates. Unlike larger parties, it might worry over its voters placing its preferred first preference too low on the ballot.

State Polls
Year House Electorate How-to-Vote-Cards* Results
2014 Tasmanian
House of Assembly

Greens 2014 Bass

Labor Greens 2014 Denison

Liberal Labor Greens 2014 Lyons
2010 South Australian Legislative Council
Whole State

The 31 groups that lodged Group Voting Tickets

2010 SA Legislative Council
1996 Tasmanian
House of Assembly


1996 Bass  

1996 Franklin

Greens 1996 Lyons
1992 Tasmanian
House of Assembly

1992 Denison


Entrance to a polling booth at the 2016 federal election with party supporters handing out how-to-vote cards