The forthcoming Council elections – how voting works. Part 1

On Saturday 4 September, after a year’s deferral of local government elections due to Covid19, voters in NSW will get a chance to vote for their new councils.

By The Editor and Rob Steurmann

Here, in the first part of a series, focusing on the voting system for council elections, and with a particular focus on Coffs Harbour City Council elections, we present Part 1 of how the elections are run. 

The information below has been obtained from the NSW Electoral Commission.

Councillor elections

Council areas are either divided into wards or are undivided (no wards). The number of councillors elected varies from council to council.  The Coffs Harbour City Council has traditionally had nine councillors.

Council’s in NSW can choose to be undivided or to have wards.  Where councils have wards, an equal number of councillors are elected for each ward.  Voters in a ward elect the councillors for that ward.

Voters in an undivided council, Like the Coffs harbour City Council,  elect the councillors for the whole council area. Councillors are elected for a four-year term.

  • The election of a mayor by voters and the election of councillors are conducted at the same time but are separate elections.
  • For example, if a council has a total of nine councillors to be elected, and the mayor is elected by the voters, like the CHCC, the election for that council would be for eight councillors and one mayor. 

It is compulsory to vote in an election or by-election if you are eligible to do so.

Mayoral elections

Mayors that are elected by the voters in an area serve a four-year term. These mayors are elected in addition to the elected councillors. A person elected as mayor cannot also be elected as a councillor in the same area.  This is the situation in Coffs Harbour.

Some councils do not have mayoral elections. After the new councillors for an area are elected they will vote to elect one of the councillors as mayor for a two-year term. At the end of the two-year term the councillors elect a new mayor for the following two years. The NSW Electoral Commission is not involved in the election of mayors by councillors. 

How to cast your vote for Councillors in a local government election

The number and type of ballot papers in a local government election vary from council to council.

In addition to a councillor ballot paper, an elector may receive a mayor ballot paper if the mayor is popularly elected as is the case for the Coffs Harbour City Council.

Two or more councillor candidates can form a group on a ballot paper. A ballot paper can have one or more groups. Groups may represent registered political parties or groups of independent candidates who have formed to run collectively. Groups may have a group voting square printed above the line on the ballot paper, allowing voters to vote above the line for the entire group.

Ballot papers

Before the election, the returning officer for each council conducts a ballot paper draw, pulling the candidate names out of a ballot box at random.

The names of the candidates are listed vertically according to the ballot paper draw order. If the candidate is endorsed by a registered political party, the name of that party is also shown. If the candidate is not endorsed by a registered political party, they can choose to have ‘Independent’, or nothing, printed next to their name on the ballot paper.

How to vote

To vote, you must place at least the number of preferences indicated in the ‘Directions for Voting’ on the ballot paper. This will be at least half the number of candidates to be elected (rounded up).

 For example:

  • if there is one candidate to be elected, you must vote for at least one candidate
  • if there are three candidates to be elected, you must vote for at least two candidates
  • if there are four candidates to be elected, you must vote for at least two candidates
  • if there are nine candidates to be elected, as is the case in Coffs Harbour, you must vote for at least five candidates.

You may then continue to number more candidates if you wish.

Your first preference is indicated by placing a ‘1’ in the square next to the candidate of your choice, your second preference a ‘2’, your third preference a ‘3’, and so on.

Ballot paper with group voting squares

Before the election, the returning officer for each council conducts a ballot paper draw to determine the order in which groups are listed on the ballot paper, and then the order in which ungrouped candidates are listed on the ballot paper.

The groups and ungrouped candidates are listed according to the ballot paper draw order. If the candidate is endorsed by a registered political party, the name of that party is also shown. If the candidate is not endorsed by a registered political party, the group is identified by a letter of the alphabet.

Grouped candidates

A ballot paper with group voting squares has a thick line running across it, with group voting squares above the line and columns of candidate voting squares below it. Below the line, the group candidates are listed in columns directly beneath their group voting square. The group chooses the order they list their candidates below the line. 

The squares above the line allow voters to vote for all candidates listed in that group (with the topmost candidate receiving the highest preference in that group, and the bottommost candidate receiving the lowest preference in that group). 

Ungrouped candidates

Candidates not included in a group are shown in a column on the right-hand side of the ballot paper, in ballot paper draw order, and these are referred to as ungrouped candidates. 

Example paper

The following diagram, similar to that used in Coffs Harbour, shows how a Councillor ballot paper with group voting squares is structured. Candidates are divided into groups and labelled alphabetically e.g. Group A, Group B, Group C, etc.

How to vote

When completing your ballot paper, you must choose between voting above the line or below the line.

Above the line

You must place a number ‘1’ in one of the group voting squares above the thick horizontal line on the ballot paper. By doing this you are voting for that whole group of candidates in the order they are listed below that square, starting from the top. This is all you need to do. 

You can show more choices if you want, starting with the number 2 above the line. 

If you vote above the line, do not put numbers in any squares below the line as this may invalidate your vote.

Below the line

You can vote below the line if: 

  • you want to vote for candidates within a group in the order of your choice
  • you want to vote for candidates from different groups in the order of your choice
  • you only want to vote for ungrouped candidates
  • you want to vote for a mixture of grouped and ungrouped candidates.

To vote, you must place at least the number of preferences indicated in the ‘Directions for Voting’ on the ballot paper. This will be at least half the number to be elected (rounded up).

For example:

  • if there are three to be elected, you must vote for at least two candidates
  • if there are nine to be elected, like in the Coffs Harbour City Council, you must vote for at least five candidates.

You may then continue to number more candidates if you wish.

Your first preference is indicated by placing a ‘1’ in the square next to the candidate of your choice, your second preference a ‘2’, your third preference a ‘3’, and so on.

If you vote below the line, do not put numbers in any squares above the line as this may invalidate your vote.

In the 2016 CHCC election approximately 60% of valid votes cast were above the line with 40% of valid votes being cast below the line.

However, analysis done by us shows one in ten voters, or 10%, had no idea what to do and cast invalid votes as a result.

Our analysis tells us if approximately 2,000 of those who voted above the line and/or voted informally voted differently the make up of the current council would have changed.

An informal vote could be one that is not marked at all, does not have the required number of votes or is numbered incorrectly.

PREFERENCE DEALS? BUGGER THAT, VOTE BELOW THE LINE Poster | Pat | Keep  Calm-o-Matic

Voting above the line might be a minute quicker but does it deliver the council you want?

In Part 2 of this article we will look at the issue of voting for a group above the line or taking a minute longer and voting for five or more candidates below the line.

We will argue that you lose control of who your vote goes to by group voting above the line.

And we will show you why spending just a minute longer when casting your vote will help you attain a far more representative council on September 4 this year.

5 thoughts on “The forthcoming Council elections – how voting works. Part 1

  1. Terrific resource and information; I hope these articles are shared far and wide.

    One area that interests me is how to ‘un-elect’ a councillor. Clearly you don’t vote for them; the initial interest here though is how that advice is portrayed to the community in things like flyers and banners prior to the election.

    There are probably strict rules for this, so until I can verify that it’s legally okay to do the following, I think the best way to impart the advice is in the simplest terms possible. Once a pamphlet goes into detail, the horrors of ‘name recognition’ come into play and the advice could be rememebered as the opposite to what was intended. (A pamphlet or flyer loses all of its impact if it’s a gripe sheet — it has to give a strong clear message that’s immediately remembered and stays remembered.)

    Thus, an initial idea per above verification is simply:

    Denise Knight: WARNING.

    George Cecato: WARNING

    Michael Adendorff: WARNING

    Hopefully it holds up. In any case, those words together look very, very good.

    1. Excellent simple plan. In my opinion this must be ascribed to these lowest tier councillors with WARNING in fire engine red.
      Next tier:
      Keith Rhoades: PAST USE BY DATE
      John Arkan: PAST USE BY DATE
      Sally Townley: CAUTION in green.

      1. I really like the ‘CAUTION’, Private Eye. Wasn’t sure what to put next to Sally Townley and you’ve got it right. The idea is that a candidate’s name is associated with clear advice, so when a pencil hovers over the box that association mentally kicks in. By advising ‘CAUTION’ the pencil is given permission to choose that candidate if the remaining selections are worse.

        I know it’s early days, yet preparedness is key. Meanwhile, thanks enormously to CCO once again, and hopefully the article above is also bookmarked to be recalled.

        Editor; We are publishing an article tomorrow on how Councillors get to be elected via a quota and we also argue strongly that voters should spend a minute longer and vote below the line so as to get a more representative Council. Streamlined versions of these two articles will be published just before and during the election too.

    2. We will be in Far Nth Qld. How do we vote from there.

      Editor: Judy, you may be able to vote early before you leave or you could arrange a postal vote. We will publish details on the process around both of these options as soon as they come to hand.

  2. The council system is designed to be exploited by outside suspect corrupt interests. The voting system can easily be manipulated and is full of obscure loopholes controlled by state government. For years now I’ve been advocating change to the council system so it can finally benefit all towns within shires. Personal and political interests also play a huge roll in determining the fate of towns. There is no real system of accountability and many of those wanting to be part of council don’t have to offer anything other than their name.

    Councils spend and delegate hundreds of millions of dollars and you have total amateurs that can’t even let you know what their plan is for the town or for the people. Promises and talk is cheap and we see enough of that in politics so you don’t need any of that in local councils. It should be obvious to most by now that councils have and are used by politicians for their agendas. Not for the benefit of each town.

    The council system no longer benefits the people or towns but is designed more around administration costs and waste, jobs for mates, political marketing, town debt and poor vision for the real needs of the community and each town.
    I’ve written the following short paper to lay out initial changes the state government should consider to finally re-design the council system and to put it into town ownership and benefit that they say they’re supposed to represent.
    Please read if interested: http://www.bargainmarket.com.au/council.html

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