What is a donkey vote?

In my post-election conversations and eavesdropping I have heard several people refer to informal votes as ‘donkey votes’.

In standard usage – still supported by the Macquarie Dictionary and several random Australian politics books I checked – a donkey vote is defined as the practice of numbering all candidates in the order they appear in the ballot paper, rather than according to the voter’s political preference. This is a formal vote, which will eventually go to whichever serious candidate appears first in the list of candidates. However Wikipedia is wobbling, suggesting that informal votes can also be classified as ‘donkey votes’.

In Bryan Garner’s five stages of language change, ‘donkey vote’ is at stage two or three. Several of the people I have heard use ‘donkey vote’ when they mean informal vote have university degrees.

Stage 2: The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.

Stage 3: The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.

While I tend towards language conservatism, I am less opposed to this change than others (eg reticent/reluctant, uninterested/disinterested) where I think important distinctions are being lost through clumsy usage. I take it that the key idea being conveyed in the expression ‘donkey vote’ is that the voter is a ‘donkey’ who lacks the intelligence or interest to cast an informed vote. Arguably someone who cannot fill in the ballot paper correctly is a bigger ‘donkey’ than a person who knows how to do it but does not care who wins.

12 thoughts on “What is a donkey vote?

  1. I think the term “donkey vote” is probably confused nowadays because it no longer has any significant effect, just like an informal vote. Candidates (or in proportional elections, parties) are randomly sorted so that parties get a random benefit from the donkey vote effect. Maybe there’s also greater knowledge nowadays that you can make a deliberately informal vote, and the sort of person who made a donkey vote before, now casts an informal vote? (I guess to some extent that’s what you’re saying.)

    It does annoy me though, when people misuse the term, because a donkey vote is a formal vote and theoretically counts. An informal vote isn’t and doesn’t.


  2. Example from today’s Crikey:

    “Voters go blank. I worked at a polling booth for the 2004 federal election and again on the weekend. Difference in the informals: 2004 was mostly donkey votes, while this year was mostly blank papers.”

    But later on they explain the difference:

    “What is the difference between a donkey vote and an informal vote?

    A donkey vote is a vote that typically numbers the candidates down the ballot paper, with the first candidate labelled as 1 the second as 2 and so on. Less typically they may do it the other way around, beginning with a 1 on the bottom candidate. The donkey vote is considered formal because there is no way of distinguishing actual preference from a lack of consideration.

    An informal vote is a vote that fails to indicate preferences for all of the candidates, a vote that is left blank or a vote where numbers are left out or repeated. It can also be a vote that has been scribbled over and the ballot paper deliberately spoiled, or a vote whereby the voter is identified.”


  3. I heard the incorrect usage (informal votes) from Greens scrutineers on election night and on Monday recounts, who really ought to know better.


  4. I had an AEC person say to me while scrutineering “This is a donkey (1,2,3,4) vote, so we don’t count that right?”.

    The donkey vote in this electorate happened to be labor greens liberal family first. I nearly fell over. the officer in charge set her straight!


  5. “lomlate, an AEC person’s not knowing what is and isn’t a formal vote is rather scary.”

    I’ve done some scrutineering myself over the years and once I saw a scrutineer from a major party try to convince the AEC officer in charge that a perfectly formal vote was informal. The officer had no clue and but for my intervention, the officer would have believed him. AEC officers at polling places are mostly election day volunteers whose knowledge of the Electoral Act is, shall we say, thin.


  6. I read somewhere that the word ‘idiot’ derives from the Greek, originally referring to someone too stupid to cast a valid vote. Perhaps it should simply be known as ‘the idiot vote’.


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