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The Senate Preference Hack


The Australian Senate uses an unintuitive system of preference voting. Due to the low barrier to appearing on the ballot there are sometimes many persons and parties vying for the six senate seats per state up for election. To help provide a reasonable and quick voting experience for voters, they have the option of voting 'above the line' where they select just one party (or group) to support and allow that party or group to set the list of preferences for them. In this way they vote with the party.

The seats themselves and the process of filling them is based on a quota system. This means that once a party has secured enough votes to guarantee them a seat, the number of votes dictated by the quota are removed, though all preferences continue to be counted using a weighting system (to account for the already elected candidate). Usually the first 3 or 4 seats are uncontentious, however, the 5th seat and particularly the 6th seat can often be extremely dependant on how preferences flow during the election. Of particular note is the election of Ricky Muir who was elected to the senate during the 2013 federal election. Without these complex preference flows he would not have been elected as the number of first-preference votes the Motoring Enthusiast Party (which he represents) received was well below the quota.

Thus this property of senate voting comes under criticism often as it is seen as a way for illegitimate candidates to become elected. However, I will explain that it also presents a great opportunity for an alternate system of electoral representation using a party as container in which to house a better democratic system.

Mechanism of the Hack

I will define a 'hack' as 'behaviour introduced to a system that subverts some restrictions or properties that were originally intended to hold'. It is not the case that all hacks lead to negative consequences but certainly some subset do, though it is unlikely that his hack can be used to destabilise Australia or cause any political controversy besides discussion of the use of the hack itself.

In this case the Senate Preference Hack (SPH) subverts the traditional Senate electoral method by giving the host party an unfair advantage. As long as a small number of first preference votes are received the hack allows a minor party to obtain a number of seats (expected to be the 6th elected seat) far in excess of what first preference votes would indicate.

The core mechanic of the Hack is to provide something in exchange for preferences. Particularly it is a stake in the seats which the host party is elected in to. In this way there is an incentive for every other party to preference the host party ahead of most other parties. In short the Hack provides a neutral 'better than nothing' alternative for all parties willing to participate. Additionally there is not cost for parties to participate as they are required to preference everyone anyway, and thus are physically required to participate at some level.

Because of this the Hack has the following properties:

  • Mandatory Participation at some level.
  • Reward for preferences given to the host party.
  • Silent and harmless failure (if it occurs).
  • Free participation.
  • Permissionless.

Requirements for the host party

The host party must have some way of providing said stake to those other parties which preference it. Thus there is a requirement that said other parties are able to submit votes in such a way as to guarantee the host party does not manipulate votes to achieve their own ends. If this requirement is violated it is unknowable whether any tampering or censorship has gone on which violates the underlying implicit agreement. The agreement provides the incentive for other parties, thus must remain intact.

I do not think it is coincidence that the Hack therefore requires an open and transparent democratic system. As it also needs to provide some utility not found in our current system it provides an avenue to introduce nearly exclusively superior systems of democracy, with inferior systems failing to gain traction (though superior systems may also fail in this way).

While it is possible to use a simple direct-democracy-esq majority-rule system in which all parties and participants vote, I feel that would be a wasted opportunity, and provide a weaker incentive than a voting system that is more intricate and sophisticated. Particularly this intricacy must create some value that did not exist previously. Thus a system that provides the greatest chance of success is one that is again superior to our contemporary system, insofar as it meets some need better than its host's environment. I do not believe it is unreasonable to look to the internet and computers for a solution here. Most voting systems used in nations today were designed before the advent of the internet and so have a number of restrictions and compromises that were reasonable in a pre-information-age but now are less reasonable. A prime example of this is the philosophy of representative democracy as a whole. Without the internet and with vast distances between citizens it makes sense to elect delegates to act on your behalf. However, if there is no limit to how many others one is able to communicate with, and the speed with which one can do so, the foundation of representative democracy is less competitive.


The Senate Preference Hack enables a political party to gain unfair representation in the senate (by number) only if it then accurately represents those who preference it. It is conjectured to provide a viable method of testing and employing new systems of democracy without sacrificing the stability or integrity of Australian politics. To achieve this it must be wrapped within a new political party, but requires interaction with other parties so is naturally inclusive.