It's safe to say that Senator Stephen Conroy, the federal communications minister, has upset a lot of people in the IT community with his push for mandatory Internet filtering. Although it may seem remote, the thought of him being unseated at the upcoming federal election would no doubt bring a smile to a lot of people's faces. But what would it take?
The answer, as it turns out, is quite a lot.
For those who need a refresher, a normal federal election sees half the senate seats being contested. Each state gets to send six senators to Canberra while the ACT and NT send two.
As an elector, you have two methods of voting in the senate. You can either put a single number against a party (known as voting "above the line"), or you can number all the candidates (known as voting "below the line"). Voting above the line means that your vote is allocated as chosen by the party that you have voted for. You can check how parties will apportion those votes on the AEC Web site.
Actually counting the votes is quite simple. As there are six senate seats, candidates need 1/6th of the vote to be elected. This is known as a quota. The vote counting algorithm itself is also quite simple:
If the top candidate has a quota, they are elected. The leftover votes are then redistributed according to the preferences. Here's an example. Assume the quota to be elected is 4, and the following 7 votes have been cast with candidate A as the first preference:
As the quota is four, A is elected, leaving three votes to be redistributed. In this case, candidate B would receive 5/7th of the three redistributed votes, and candidate C would receive 2/7th of the three redistributed votes.
This process is repeated until there are no candidates left that have enough votes to meet a quota. At that stage, things start getting interesting. To get the process going again, the candidate with the least votes is removed, and the candidate's votes are redistributed using the same process as before. Candidates keep getting removed from the bottom of the list until someone else gets enough votes for a quota. When all 6 senators have been elected, all votes have been allocated.
What does this mean for Conroy? Judging from previous election results, he is pretty safe. He is the second candidate on the ALP ticket for Victoria, which means that his fate is entirely in the hands of Victorian votes. At the 2007 election, the ALP received enough primary votes in Victoria to fill roughly 2.5 quotas without having to resort to preferences from other parties. The ALP would need a shift of over 20 per cent against it for Conroy to not be re-elected simply from ALP preferences.
An alternative would be for a high number of Labor voters to vote below the line, and change the order in which they preference Labor candidates. This would require a large change in voting behaviour to happen. At the last election, only 2.05 per cent of Victorian voters voted below the line in the senate elections. The situation is even better for Conroy if we only look at Victorian ALP voters; only 1.07 per cent of them voted below the line three years ago.
Interestingly, while Conroy's chances are quite good at this coming election, three parties in Victoria have sent a message with their allocation of preferences. The Greens and the Sex Party of Australia have both chosen to preference Conroy after all the other ALP candidates. The Shooters and Fishers Party have taken the opposite approach. They've preferenced Conroy above the rest of the ALP list.