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Common(wealth) Knowledge #43: Optional Preferential Voting in NSW

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

The unique element of voting in the NSW lower house.

Today is election day in New South Wales. And that means that millions of voters will be going to polling booths to fill out their ballot papers and snag a democracy sausage. These voters will be using Optional Preferential Voting to cast their vote, a form of voting not found anywhere else in Australia.


Optional Preferential Voting is, as the name suggests, a variation of the preferential voting system used at the federal election and in other state and territory elections. Ballot papers for the Legislative Assembly only require voters to number the box for their preferred candidate. Unlike federal elections, there is no requirement to number every box on the ballot paper. The voter may number one box, some of the boxes, or all of the boxes.


The same rules apply to voting above the line on Legislative Council ballot papers. Voting above the line means voting for all the candidates in that column or group. It is only necessary to number one box when voting above the line, though voting for more candidates is allowed. However, OPV does not affect voting below the line, aka voting for individual candidates, which is done the same way as at the federal election. If a person is voting below the line, they must vote for a minimum of 15 candidates, and can choose to add more.


In federal elections, numbering less than the required number of boxes will mean that a ballot paper will be counted as an ‘informal vote,’ and so it cannot be used as a vote. As a result of OPV, NSW elections tend to have a lower number of informal votes. Only ballot papers that are left blank or are defaced by the voter, such as by writing on the paper or ticking boxes, don’t count. At the 2019 NSW election, 3.46% of ballots were counted as informal votes, compared to 5.54% at the federal election that same year.


The biggest difference between voting in NSW and federally is ‘preference exhaustion.’ This happens if a person does not number all of the boxes. If a person numbers 6 of the 8 available boxes, then their vote will be counted for the first 6 rounds of vote tallying. However, suppose it takes 7 rounds of vote tallying for a candidate to have a majority of the votes. In that case, the person’s ballot paper will be ‘exhausted’ and won’t be used in the 7th round of voting, as the voter did not select a 7th candidate.


OPV also means that parties and candidates distributing how-to-vote cards don’t need to number all of the boxes on the card. Candidates and parties may only number some of the boxes, allowing individuals who decide to follow their HTV card to either stop numbering boxes on their ballot paper once the HTV card stops assigning preferences to parties and candidates, or they can choose to continue numbering boxes. HTV cards don’t need to show a complete list of preferences.


While OPV may have its quirks, at the end of the day it is still a form of preferential voting, just one that doesn’t require voters to list all their preferences on the ballot paper.


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