The basic way that a preferential ballot differs from the traditional first-past-the-post system is that instead of marking just one of the names on the ballot, you rank them in your preferred order (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Your ballot remains valid even if you don’t mark more than one, but that would reduce your overall chances of influencing the outcome.
Conceptually, this is what happens when your ballots are counted:
- Right after close of voting, the ballot boxes are opened and all the ballots are dumped on a large counting table;
- Each ballot is checked to confirm that it’s valid under the applicable rules;
- Assuming that yours is indeed valid, it’s placed in the pile of the contestant who you marked as your first choice;
- All the piles are counted and, if no contestant received more than 50% of the valid first choices, the contestant receiving the fewest number of first choices is eliminated;
- The ballots of the contestant who was just eliminated are then re-examined and placed in the piles of the remaining contestants based on who was marked as the second choice;
- Steps 4 and 5 are repeated until one contestant has received more than 50% of the vote and is declared the winner.
The maximum number of counts required before a winner emerges is one less than the number of contestants. Close races frequently require that number of counts.
Please be assured that ranking some or all of the other contestants in no way diminishes the chances of your first-choice contestant. If he or she wins, your ballot will have stayed in his or her pile through every round of counting, so your second, third and subsequent choices will have had absolutely no effect. If, however, she or he doesn’t win, then your second, third and subsequent choices could be what determine the ultimate winner. Which means that ranking all or most of the contestants is the one way that you can ensure your ballot counts in every round.