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Folding the tablecloth

A slightly amended version of this was subsequently published in the online version of the SMH 
I have a confession to make. I was one of the 394 candidates on the NSW Upper House ballot paper. And I want to apologise for its ridiculous number of boxes, more than any sane person should need to consider. It doesn't serve democracy to offer so many choices that are ignored.

Last time we had a 'tablecloth', the 1999 NSW election, it inspired reform of dubious utility. The bar was raised for party registration, which clearly hasn't been sufficient, and requiring 15 candidates on a group ticket only increases the amount of paper used. Even the system of optional preferential voting and above the line numbering, which makes it easier to vote as you would wish, adds to voter confusion due to the subtle differences from the federal system.

If we accept that the minuscule number of people who vote for individuals below the line have no impact on the result, and that we have never had more than X separate parties elected to the upper house, then the choice that should be presented to voters is clear: which of these (X + 5) or so likely parties do you prefer? Our upper house paper could be as simple as the lower house one, a short and straightforward vertical list of parties which you could number as you choose.

The only open question is how we obtain such a list fairly while providing enough flexibility for new groups to form. The basis of the list can be parties that already have a member in parliament. Happily, the question of how we allocate the additional spaces for upcoming parties has already been answered, and the result of that answer has just played out in Australia.

The Cricket World Cup isn't run by allowing anyone who can muster 11 players to enter a side: instead, there are those who automatically qualify, and the best of the rest are selected via qualifying tournaments. And you qualify not by managing to hit a certain number of 6s in a 10 minute period against a bowling machine - the equivalent of the NSW election procedure, which demands the collection of an arbitrary amount of signatures and money - but instead by defeating the other hopefuls.

By now, you might see where I'm going with this. We need (a little) more voting. Similar to Labor's recent successful move towards open pre-selections, there should be an optional ballot before each election to select the five or so 'new' parties allowed to stand in the upper house. Not only would this be fair, it would generate natural excitement around the party who polled highest in the qualification, helping them get their message out to all voters. And with a preferential system it's almost as important to know who you're not preferencing as who you are. Disregarding every other problem, the current system is flawed simply because the majority of voters have no knowledge of the majority of parties.

So, vote early, and vote often (or at least twice). But only if you want to. For those who don't, there can be a ballot paper that has only the choices that matter.