Remind me, what is a marginal seat?

what is a marginal seat?

Who’s going to win the election? The short answer: we don’t know. Elections are full of surprises, and many voters won’t have made up their minds yet.

Instead, here’s an explainer on how elections are won and lost and a preview of the key questions and key races that could decide who forms Government after 21 May.

How to win Government

We don’t elect the Government directly. Instead, we elect 151 local representatives to the House of Representatives. The Government is formed by whoever controls a majority (at least 76) of those 151 representatives.

Usually, that’s one of the two major parties: the Labor Party or the Coalition (an alliance between the Liberal and National Parties). In the last election, the Coalition won 77 seats compared to Labor’s 68, with six seats going to others.

If neither major party can get to 76, they need the support of those ‘others’ (independents or minor parties) to make up the gap to 76 and form a Government. That’s called a minority Government –reflecting the fact that the Government doesn’t have a majority in its own right.

The upshot is this: to know who will win, we need to understand what’s happening in each of the 151 local races across the country, not just whether Labor or the Coalition is more popular overall.

Ok. So what is a marginal seat?

Many of the 151 races will not be close. A seat (which represents an electorate) is described as ‘safe’ if one party or candidate traditionally gets very strong support there and is not expected to lose.

A seat is described as ‘marginal’ if it’s believed to be close. This isn’t an official term – it’s an informal label to identify the seats that could ‘swing’ either way on election day and determine the result.

Marginal seats tend to get a lot of attention. Political leaders often visit them during the campaign and offer funding promises to win support.

Where are the marginal seats this time?

In this election, there are likely to be close races all over the country. The Australian Electoral Commission’s suggested definition of a marginal seat is one where the winner last time received less than 56% of the final vote (winning by a narrow ‘margin’). Almost 50 seats fit this description at the last election.

Both Labor and the Coalition hold a handful of extremely marginal seats, which they won last time with less than 51% of the final vote. Liberal-held examples include Chisholm in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs and Bass in northern Tasmania. Labor-held examples include Macquarie in the Blue Mountains and Lilley in Brisbane.

However, it’s not only the seats that were close last time that can be marginal. For example, the seats of Kooyong and Goldstein in Melbourne’s east are traditionally safe Liberal seats but are attracting attention this time because of high-profile independents.

Predicting who will win each of these close races, and what it will mean for who wins Government, is very difficult, especially because it’s hard to run opinion polls with enough responses in every individual seat.

Election analysts often look for bigger picture trends, like how much support a party has Australia-wide, or state by state. For example, Labor’s landslide victory in the South Australian state election last month prompted suggestions the Coalition could struggle in South Australia in the Federal Election as well.

However, Federal elections are fought on different issues to state elections. Many voters are likely to make their minds up over the coming weeks as parties and candidates outline their policies.

At this early stage, there’s only one safe prediction: if you live in a marginal seat, you’ve got a very high chance of encountering politicians on the election trail between now and 21 May.

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