A donkey vote is a ballot cast in an election that uses a preference voting system, where a voter is permitted or required to rank candidates on the ballot paper, and ranks them based on the order they appear on the ballot paper. The voter that votes in this manner is referred to as a donkey voter.
Typically, this involves numbering the candidates in the order they appear on the ballot paper: first preference for the first-listed candidate, second preference for the second-listed candidate, and so on. However, donkey votes can also occur in reverse, such that someone numbers the candidates from the bottom up the ballot paper. In systems where a voter is required to place a number against each candidate for the vote to be valid, the voter may give the first preference to the candidate they prefer, then run all the other numbers donkey fashion.
Donkey votes are most common where preference voting is combined with compulsory voting, such as in Australia, particularly where all candidates must be ranked on the ballot paper. There are different versions of the phenomenon applicable in the Australian House of Representatives, Australian Senate and in the Australian jurisdictions that use the Hare–Clark single transferable vote (STV) system.
Donkey votes may occur for several reasons, including voter apathy, protest voting, simplicity on How-to-vote cards, the complexity of the voting system, or voter ignorance of the voting system rules. Alternatively, what appears as a donkey vote may in fact be a genuine representation of a voter's preferences.
Manifestation in compulsory preferential voting systems
Australian House of Representatives
Preferential voting for a single seat is used in elections for the Federal House of Representatives (since 1918), for all mainland State lower houses, and for the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. It was also used for the Western Australian Legislative Council until 1986, and the Victorian Legislative Council until 2006; it is still used for the Tasmanian Legislative Council. A variant was used for the South Australian Legislative Council before 1973, with two seats per "province" (electoral district) being filled at each election, but by majority-preferential voting, not by proportional representation.
Attempt to reduce the impact of donkey votes
In 1983, reforms were made to Federal electoral legislation to reduce the impact of donkey voting including:
- listing of party names besides each candidate (as for the examples below for the Divisions of Gwydir and Grayndler);
- the order of candidates on the ballot paper being decided randomly by the Australian Electoral Commission returning officer after the close of nominations and the commencement of pre-poll voting – candidates were previously listed by alphabetical order leading to parties nominating candidates with names beginning with A.
These reforms as well as an increase in electoral education funding have reduced the impact of donkey voting in Federal elections in recent years. As states have introduced similar reforms, the phenomenon has also been reduced in other jurisdictions. However, donkey voting still needs to be taken into account when assessing the size of the swing or two-party vote in particular electorates.
2005 Werriwa By-Election
The by-election for the Federal electorate of Werriwa, held on 19 March 2005, following the resignation of Federal Labor leader Mark Latham, provides a good example for understanding the nature of donkey voting.
At this by-election, 16 candidates were nominated. This large number of candidates led to an increased incentive to cast a donkey vote. Every candidate that issued how-to-vote cards used some variation of the donkey vote when instructing his or her voters how to mark preferences, presumably to simplify the task of voting, made onerous by needing to vote for 16 candidates, many with no public profile. Candidates generally allocated their first few preferences and last few preferences to candidates according to their wishes, then numbered the rest of the boxes from top to bottom or bottom to top. For example, The Greens advocated the following preferences:
- 15 Woodger, Janey (Australians Against Further Immigration)
- 1 Raue, Ben (The Greens)
- 14 Young, James (Independent)
- 13 Lees, Mal (Independent)
- 3 Hayes, Chris (Australian Labor Party)
- 12 Vogler, Robert (Independent)
- 11 Tan, Greg (Christian Democratic Party)
- 10 Bryant, Joe (Independent)
- 16 Doggett, Charles (One Nation)
- 9 Head, Mike
- 8 Sykes, Mick (Family First)
- 7 Bargshoon, Sam (Independent)
- 2 McGookin, Pat (Progressive Labour Party)
- 6 Locke, Deborah
- 5 Aussie-Stone, Marc (Independent)
- 4 Mannoun, Ned
In this case, the how-to-vote card advocated a first preference for the Greens, a second preference for the Progressive Labour Party, a third preference for Labor and a last preference for One Nation. Apart from these preferences, the card advocates a reverse Donkey Vote.
The donkey vote was also reflected in the high vote (4.83%) for Australians Against Further Immigration, who probably would normally gain far fewer votes, but were placed first on the ballot.
The Australian Senate had a preferential system between 1919 and 1949. From 1934, to elect a State's three senators at a periodic Senate poll, voters had to mark their preference order among the candidates listed on the ballot paper against the names of each of the candidates (with consecutive integers beginning from 1). Candidates could be listed in groups, but voters could choose any order of candidates regardless of their grouping, because Section 7 of the Constitution provides that senators must be directly chosen by the people. Within each group, the candidates were listed in alphabetical order, and the groups were listed in what was called 'ranked alphabetical order', which ensured that a group in which all surnames started with 'A' would be at the top of the ballot paper if there were no other group with that feature. The groups were not identified by a party name, but just shown as Group A, Group B, etc. Donkey voters, by definition, marked their earliest preferences against the candidates in Group A, so a group that appeared in that position had an inbuilt electoral advantage.
At the election of senators for New South Wales in 1937, Labor's group featured four candidates named Amour, Ashley, Armstrong and Arthur—all of the "Four A's" were duly elected. This prompted the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1940, which replaced that ballot paper layout with one closer to the present layout where the order of candidates' names within each group was determined by those candidates' mutual consent, which in practice means it is determined by the party organization.
"These days, the order of candidates on the voting form is determined by a draw from a hat. Back then, the Electoral Commission [scil. Electoral Office, pre-1984] simply followed the alphabet. This led to many interesting battles of tactics between the Comms (Communist Party of Australia) and their arch-rivals the DLP (Democratic Labor Party), who were also keen to get their people at the head of the ticket. The Comms usually won, thanks to their recruitment of numerous members of the Aarons family: short of re-christening their own candidates something like Aardvark, there wasn’t much the DLP could do about it.... Those crucial ballots [in the Queensland electoral district of Moreton, in the extremely close 1961 House of Representatives election] turned out to have cast not by Communists but by donkeys, and as [Liberal candidate James] Killen's name preceded that of the now-forgotten Labor candidate in the alphabet, they flowed largely to the Libs."
The Chifley Government introduced proportional representation for the Senate in 1948. Candidates were listed alphabetically in party order and the position of the parties candidates on the ballot paper was determined by lot after the close of nominations.
In large states such as New South Wales and Victoria, there were at times over 100 candidates on the ballot paper, with voters required to list each candidate in order of preference. Consequently, there was a high percentage of informal votes and donkey votes cast in Senate elections.
As a result, electoral reforms were introduced in 1983 allowing voters an alternative of voting 1 above the line for the party of their choice, with preferences being distributed according to a ticket lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission prior to the commencement of voting. This reform has greatly reduced the incidence of donkey voting and informal voting in Australian Senate elections.
However, this system has led to a great increase of horse trading by parties in the development of the distribution of preferences as it makes the difference in deciding who fills the final few positions in the Senate representing that State. For example, the election of Steve Fielding of the Family First Party in the Victorian Senate election in 2004 with a party vote of 1.88% resulted from horse-trading associated with this process. States that use proportional representation to elect their upper houses such as New South Wales use a similar system to the Senate.
Two Australian jurisdictions use the Hare–Clark proportional representation system: the Tasmanian House of Assembly and the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly (the latter being a unicameral system). Tasmania has used Hare–Clark since 1907, and the Australian Capital Territory since 1995.
In Tasmania, candidates used to be listed in alphabetical order within a party column, leading to a donkey vote effect. For their ballots to be valid, voters only need to number as many candidates as there are vacancies to be filled, although they are free to number all the candidates if they wish.
However, it was observed that often a candidate whose name appeared below the name of a popular candidate (such as a State party leader) would be elected on the leader's second preferences. As popular leaders such as Robin Gray, Kate Carnell or Jon Stanhope have achieved several quotas of first-preference votes in their own right at the height of their popularity, the impact of this position can lead to candidates being elected on the leaders' "coat-tails". A similar phenomenon has been observed in Ireland and Malta, which also use STV (with candidates ranked alphabetically).
In 1979, Neil Robson, a Liberal member for Bass in the Tasmanian parliament, introduced the system known as Robson Rotation. Under this system, each ballot paper contains a different permutation of candidates so each candidate has a certain percentage of instances at every position in their party's column, therefore equally dispersing the donkey votes and nullifying their impact on the result as to which of a party's candidates is favoured, but allowing the party as a whole to be properly benefited.
Manifestation in other electoral systems
Donkey votes have been observed in democracies other than Australia, even those without compulsory preferential voting, although the presence of these two factors in Australia makes the phenomenon more visible.
In systems where voting is not compulsory, it seems counter-intuitive that many who attend the polls would be apathetic. However, there may be countervailing factors that produce a "donkey vote" even with voluntary turnout. In many US elections, a voter may well be intensely interested in (e.g.) the Presidential contest but not in other, less prominent races on the same "long ballot".
Since most non-preferential elections require the voter to mark only one single candidate, or one single party list, it becomes impossible to speculate how many votes for the first candidate or party on the ballot are genuine supporters and how many are donkey votes.
In some elections (e.g. Germany and some US states), the order of parties on the ballot is in descending order of their support at the previous election (with new parties being placed lowest in random order). Such a system makes high ballot position both a cause and an effect of high electoral support.
Donkey voting shows up in US state elections that use the "long ballot" for numerous offices, or in multi-seat elections where there are several candidates from the same party. In his book The Rise of Guardian Democracy: The Supreme Court's Role in Voting Rights, 1845-1969 (Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1974), Ward E.Y. Elliott notes:
"One long-time Democrat precinct captain in Denver noted that, besides having party or lobby support, a candidate had to rank high in the ballot list. Since ballot ranking was alphabetical, most of the eight Denver [district State] Senators had names beginning with A, B or C." (p 362, citing appellants’ brief in Lucas v Colorado).
In 2018 North Carolina Supreme Court election, a rule change resulted in the order of the names on the ballot differing from previous years. The Charlotte Observer claimed that "Studies have shown ballot order favors the candidate listed first, and could make a difference in a close race", even though the State has first-past-the-post voting with voluntary turnout.
British pro-STV campaigner Enid Lakeman noted the same effect in UK local elections, where significant numbers of voters invited to X (say) three candidates for three council seats would simply mark an X against the three highest on the ballot-paper, even if they belonged to different parties.
In Ireland, where voting is preferential but not compulsory, the donkey vote has its greatest effect not between parties but within them. With an alphabetical list of candidates, and several candidates from each major party for the three to five seats per district, the proportion of Dáil Éireann deputies with surnames A to M is typically much higher than 50%, whereas it is only about half the population (according to the Irish telephone directory). In O’Reilly v Minister for Environment, the Irish High Court upheld the constitutional validity of alphabetical listing against an equality-rights challenge, noting that despite its faults, A to Z does have the advantage of making it easy to find candidates on the ballot-paper.
- Malcolm Mackerras, The "Donkey Vote", The Australian Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec., 1968), pp. 89-92
- Mungo MacCallum, Mungo: The Man Who Laughs (Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove, 2001), pp 64-65.
- Morrill, Jim (6 July 2018). "How a small change in the law could have a big impact on NC's Supreme Court race". The Charlotte Observer. Retrieved 20 November 2018.
- B Walsh and C Robson, Alphabetical Voting: A Study of the 1973 General Election in the Republic of Ireland, Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), General Research Series No #71, Dublin, January 1973
- O’Reilly v Minister for Environment  IR 143
- Australian 2004 Election Results
- Article by election analyst Anthony Green on preference flows including the donkey vote
- Proportional Representation Society of Australia page on Robson Rotation
- Werriwa 2005 by-election Results
- "Ballot Order for Blokes" by Amy King and Andrew Leigh – suggests that donkey vote benefits only male candidates