South Australia’s Unique Electoral System – A Closer Look

South Australias Unique Electoral System A Closer Look

The Electoral Act requires candidates for the Legislative Council to receive a minimum number – known as a quota – of formal votes. Once these are declared, the process of distributing preferences begins.

Voters rank the candidates in order of their preference – marking 1 for their favourite, 2 for their second and so on. If no candidate achieves a majority on the count of primary or first-preference votes, lower-order preferences are transferred.


The state of South Australia has a unique electoral system, with only one other country in the world using it. The system allows voters to mark their ballot papers with a number for every candidate, rather than having to select only one or other of the candidates. This is known as the preferential Instant-runoff voting (IRV) system and it is designed to ensure that one vote has the same value regardless of which candidate a voter chooses.

It is used to elect members of the lower house, the House of Assembly, and members of the upper chamber, the Legislative Council. The state’s constitution requires that the government in the House of Assembly be the party or coalition that gets more than half of the votes. The constitution also provides for a bicameral parliament, with the Governor as head of state and a Speaker of the Legislative Council acting as the head of government. General elections are held every four years.

While other states and the Australian national parliament use first-past-the-post voting, South Australia adopted a system of ranked-choice proportional representation in its House of Assembly and Legislative Council elections in 1975. Under this system, candidates are required to receive a minimum quota of formal votes. If a candidate does not receive this, their votes are distributed to other candidates according to the order in which they were marked on the ballot paper. The resulting votes are allocated to candidates until one candidate receives a majority of the total number of formal votes.

In addition to requiring a minimum quota, the IRV system uses group voting tickets to reduce the number of informal ballots that are counted. A voting ticket is a written statement of the order in which voters allocate preferences. It can save informal votes that would otherwise be declared invalid if there is a duplication or break in the numbering of preferences or if a vote is not signed by the polling officer.

While the IRV system is fairer than the undemocratic first-past-the-post voting, it is not without its problems. In particular, it is difficult to ensure that all votes are cast by eligible voters. This can lead to wasted votes and insincere (tactical) votes.

Legislative Council

The Legislative Council is the upper house of the South Australian parliament and serves as a check and balance on legislation passed through the lower house, the House of Assembly. It has 22 members elected for eight-year terms under a proportional representation system similar to that used by the Federal Senate. Casual vacancies in the Council are filled by a joint sitting of the two houses. The Council has been a chamber of review for legislation passed through the House of Assembly since it was first formed in 1925.

Unlike the lower house, which uses an optional preferential voting system, elections for the Council use a compulsory preferential ballot paper and single transferable vote counting method. Voters are required to number all squares on their ballot papers if they wish their vote to be counted. The ballot paper includes three rows of party boxes ‘above the line’ and three rows of candidate lists ‘below the line’. The Sainte-Lague electoral system, a divisor based system of proportional representation, is used. The system has a high quota, making it difficult for micro parties to win seats.

A ‘quota’ is the minimum percentage of formal votes required for a candidate to be elected to the Legislative Council. The quota ensures that winning candidates are elected with a near equality of numbers of votes. It also prevents ‘wasted’ votes, where the same voters put preferences to different candidates. A ‘quota’ system is considered fairer than the more common first past the post systems, which can result in insincere tactical voting and wasted votes.

Like Australia’s other states, the Legislative Council is composed of a mixture of independent and party-based voters. The two largest political parties are the South Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Democratic Party (now merged into the Nick Xenophon Team). The remaining members are from local government, which is represented in the Council by councillors who are elected from electoral divisions throughout the state.

The Council was given constitutional protection in 1902, which ensures that it cannot be abolished or altered without the consent of a referendum. This protection has been further strengthened by amendments which inserted a new section 7A into the Constitution Act, stating that any bill to change the powers or constitution of the Council must be passed by both Houses of Parliament and approved by a referendum before it can receive assent.

Local Government

South Australia has 68 local government areas that are independent of state and federal governments. Each council manages its own local communities and resources according to a set of laws called the Local Government Act. Councils deliver services to citizens and provide for the sustainable development of the community. They also play a critical role in delivering infrastructure and services to remote and rural areas.

During the first years of colonisation, local governments were heavily dependent on state funds. In order to secure those grants, they had to demonstrate that they were providing a service for their constituents. The introduction of the secret ballot in 1856, which allowed voters to mark their choices privately and without coercion or intimidation, greatly enhanced the legitimacy of local elections.

The early local elections were chaotic and often violent. Alcohol, bribery and coercion were common. Nevertheless, the majority of voters supported a secret ballot and an independent legislature.

Since 1978, Labor premier Neville Wran’s reforms have radically changed the way local governments are elected. The state is now divided into electorates whose members serve nine-year terms. Voting is preferential and the number of seats is reduced to 45 from 59.

Wran’s reforms also introduced group voting tickets (GVTs) for the election of the Legislative Council. GVTs are a form of proportional representation that allows party lists to gain preferences over individual candidates. GVTs have been used at the federal level in Australia and in a number of other states.

In addition to introducing GVTs, the Wran government also increased the size of the Legislative Council by 12 members, and reduced its term length from eight years to four years. This made the LC more electorally balanced, but at the expense of increasing the number of smaller councils.

Despite these reforms, the underlying problem of unequal funding remains. The LGA of SA represents the 68 local councils and strongly advocates for policies that ensure a fairer share of funding. This has been achieved in the past through federal top-up supplementary payments, but those arrangements are now expiring.


A vote in South Australia takes place when a registered voter attends their polling station on election day and marks a ballot paper in the prescribed manner before depositing it in a ballot box. However, there are several alternative voting methods which are available to voters including postal votes and absentee ballots.

In the past South Australia used the Sainte-Lague system to allocate Senate seats, but it was replaced by a version of d’Hondt in 1984. Despite being an improvement on the previous system, d’Hondt was never considered a fair or effective system and its use was abandoned in 1992.

The electoral legislation in South Australia allows parties to lodge one or two “voting tickets” to be displayed at polling places. This provides an interpretation of a voters order of preference and can render informal votes formal. The consistently low number of informal ballot papers each election indicates that most voters have a clear idea of their preferences when they receive their ballot paper and, having attended their polling place, are not inclined to simply fold it up or put it in the ballot box without marking it.

While initial enrolment on the state roll is compulsory, once a voter has been enrolled it is voluntary to vote. Nonetheless, a majority of voters do vote and this helps to ensure a high level of voter turnout.

As a result of this and the state’s unique electoral system, South Australia has one of the lowest rates of informal voting of any place that uses compulsory preferential voting. This is in contrast to the much higher rates of informal votes seen in other states and territories that use different systems, such as group ticket voting.

In 2014, the Electoral Commission of South Australia reviewed its electoral laws ahead of the next state election and was considering several options. These included a return to first-past-the-post voting, but the review was dropped after the state election.

It’s hard to predict how the upcoming SA election will play out, especially as Xenophon has positioned himself as a third party challenger and could win some of the Liberals’ core vote in a three-horse race. However, political observers are concerned that if Xenophon does emerge with one or more seats, his presence will split the centre-right vote and cost the incumbent Labor government, led by Steve Marshall, the majority needed to govern.