The record large Senate ballot papers have probably already annoyed many early voters. Their great length — over a metre in NSW and Victoria — will soon annoy many more voters. However, the real annoyance will come if new senators with very little popular support get elected. The reason why this might happen is a distortion of the Proportional Representation system, where, by voting “above the line”, it is the party — not the voter — that decides the preferences. In this election, more than ever before, large numbers of parties that we have never heard of are on the ballot paper. Preference deal strategies might even lead to some of them getting elected. Back in 2004, Labor and Australian Democrat preferences in Victoria went to Family First ahead of the Greens. Almost no Labor or Democrat voters knew this when they voted above the line, but this led to Family First’s Steve Fielding’s election to the Senate. This can happens because the above the line option — where the preferences are decided by the party you vote for, not by you the voter — was introduced for Senate polls in 1983. These preferences are listed in the Group Voting Tickets.
You can find out what the party you plan to vote for is doing with its preferences by looking at the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) website or by checking the Group Voting Tickets at the polling booth. However, most people don’t look at them, and even those that want to might find it confusing, given that — in Victoria, for instance — there are 39 different parties and one group of independents on the ballot paper.
The reason for the explosion in the number of parties — something that will continue if there is no reform — is that the smaller parties can make deals with each other. With a very tiny percentage of first preference votes, it is possible that one of them can get elected to the Senate by picking up the preferences of voters that are not aware of where their preferences are going.