NSW council elections – turnout drops statewide

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screen-shot-2016-11-23-at-10-51-27-pmIt’s taken some time to pull together the data, but I’ve now got a complete set of booth-level data from the 2012 and 2016 local council elections.

The most interesting stat from the elections is that turnout dropped across almost all councils which held elections in September 2016, with turnout dropping the most in metropolitan NSW.

For the purpose of analysis, I have analysed 76 councils which held contested elections in both 2012 and 2016, plus Tweed council, which held a delayed election at the end of October. I excluded the results in Cobar, Leeton, Narrandera and Warren councils, as well as certain wards of Greater Hume and Lockhart, all of which held uncontested elections in 2012, thus making it impossible to make a comparison of voting data.

Out of those 76 councils, turnout dropped in 74. Turnout increased in Balranald council, in the far south-west, and in the City of Sydney. The increase was small in both cases.

It turns out that turnout dropped in 75 out of 76 councils – unfortunately I made an error in calculating the total turnout in the City of Sydney, as there was a big change between the full enrolment and the numbers in a similar dataset. Balranald is the only council which increased turnout.

Turnout increased by 5.6% in Tweed when the election was held at the end of October, almost two months after the rest of the election was held.

The drop in turnout was significantly worse in metropolitan NSW (including the Sydney region and the lower Hunter). Those metropolitan councils make up 58% of those enrolled to vote in the recent elections. While turnout dropped by 2.4% in regional areas, the drop was well over 4% in metropolitan councils.

PartyFormalInformalEnrolmentTurnout (%)Turnout change
Metro1,027,27574,7761,409,74379.46-4.35
Regional741,69852,610989,07180.32-2.43

This map shows turnout for each council, and shows a more nuanced picture. Turnout was particularly poor in western NSW, dropping by over 8% in Wedding and over 11% in Bourke. Turnout also dropped by over 9% in the City of Sydney, almost 8% in the City of Blacktown and by 6.5% in Liverpool.

So why did turnout drop? I can think of two possibilities. Firstly, the election was held within months of a federal election, whereas no election had been held closer than 18 months before the 2012 council election. This could explain why Tweed, which was delayed by more than a month, had a higher turnout.

I find it more plausible that turnout was hit by confusion due to only some councils holding elections. Particularly if you live in Sydney or the lower Hunter, communities, media markets and social networks stretch over numerous councils. Friends and colleagues would not have had elections, breeding confusion about whether any individual voter was required to vote. I heard this confusion myself from family members in Campbelltown and Blacktown councils.

This would explain why turnout dropped more severely in councils in western Sydney than in regional areas, where communities fit more neatly within council boundaries.

I’ve used the same dataset to calculate the vote and seat numbers for each party. Since most non-metropolitan councils are dominated by independents, I’ve split the vote up to give a better picture of the partisan split in the metropolitan half of the state where parties are much more prominent.

The election was a good one for Labor, who increased their vote by 9% in metro areas, mostly at the expense of independents and small parties. The Liberal vote increased slightly, and the Greens vote dropped slightly. We saw similar trends in the number of councillors.

Outside of metro NSW, Labor tne the Greens both had increases in their vote and seat numbers, but the vast majority still cast votes for independents.

Metro councils

PartyVotes%Swing (%)SeatsSeat change
Labor384,63737.99.16418
Liberal276,99227.30.6470
Independents/Others275,06027.1-9.342-15
Greens54,9395.4-0.34-1
Christian Democratic15,3261.50.300
Liberal Democrats4,3560.40.10-1
Australia First2,9480.3-0.40-1

Regional councils

PartyVotes%Swing (%)SeatsSeat change
Independent/Others624,95484.3-3.5491-17
Greens59,6948.01.9217
Labor49,2256.62.2187
Liberal7,8251.1-0.61-3

So you might ask, what is this dataset which allowed you to complete this dataset? I’ve recently been working on a project to take the inaccessible data for state and local elections (particularly at the booth level), clean it up and put it in a standard format to make it easy to use. I’ve now done this for a handful of elections, and they are all available in the new Tally Room data repository. Enjoy!

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Tweed turnout no doubt helped by the fact voters were exposed to a whole extra round of campaigning, from the deferred vote, then the fresh election.

    One of the factors regarding the federal election follow-on would also be the lack of absentee voting. We get this at every council election where some people miss out on voting because they don’t realise they can’t vote on election day outside their council or ward (except now at Sydney Town Hall), but coming so close to a federal election would probably increase that confusion. Also council elections tend to use less polling places, potentially also adding to post-federal election confusion where people turn up at their federal election polling place but find nothing.

    I also agree the lack of elections across the board was probably the major problem.

    I think there’s another underlying issue which this perhaps points to, and that’s the increasingly disparate sources of people’s news and information. People are increasingly exposed to less localised news sources, especially if they don’t seek them out. 20 years ago you can safely assume at some point almost everyone will have had either first or second hand exposure to at least the major ‘local’ news via one of a handful of TV, radio or newspaper outlets. Now, especially younger people, may watch very little free-to-air TV and certainly may never see even the news headlines, won’t be listening to local radio or reading newspapers, and if they read online news it will often be from national or international sources that won’t feature local information, such as any mention of upcoming local council elections. Add to that people’s social networks, particularly through social media, will be less geographically concentrated, making exposure to ‘local’ information through those networks again less likely.

    I think clearly this trend will only continue, which would mean increasingly declining turnout, and increasing numbers of people who genuinely didn’t realise there was an election on. For me this raises questions about the appropriateness of issuing fines for failing to vote, when the failure to vote is likely to have been completely innocent and due to a genuine lack of awareness or failure of the electoral process to engage the person. At least fines should be waived where people indicate a genuine lack of awareness or confusion regarding the election date.

    I think it also has implications for how election campaigns are run, as it makes door-to-door campaigning more crucial, and free and paid media vastly less important, but that’s another topic.

  2. Hey Ben

    Thank you for all the work you do here.

    I would like to ask about formality and enrollment. Did they change much at all between 2012 and 2016?

    By way of background in the federal election with record enrolment, turnout increased but participation went down.

  3. In 2016 there have been far too many elections. We had the federal election, we had the council election and then we had the by elections. I am just fucking over elections! People are just bored with elections. It is the same every election “we promise this we promise that and once we get in we change our mind!”

  4. To The electoral commission NSW & The Talley Room.

    “Apathy and confusion could keep residents away from Blacktown Council election on Saturday”
    (Quoted from the Daily Telegraph.com.au)

    I can understand why the turnout also dropped by over almost 8% in the City of Blacktown… “Confusion” as stated in the stats from Ben Raue, good work.
    My Husband & I were so shocked to receive today “Apparent failure to vote” notice. As mentioned above by “Nick C” he is totally correct with his comments. First statement he made which was totally correct was…. “I think there’s another underlying issue which this perhaps points to, and that’s the increasingly disparate sources of people’s news and information. People are increasingly exposed to less localised news sources, especially if they don’t seek them out. 20 years ago you can safely assume at some point almost everyone will have had either first or second hand exposure to at least the major ‘local’ news via one of a handful of TV, radio or newspaper outlets. My Husband & I are law abiding citizens and do vote every year, I even received a letter last year stating I voted twice!!!!! Which I didn’t….
    We both do not listen to the radio/ free to air TV or read the local paper. There were no mail drops at all, to state that there was an Election.

    Also the other comment that “Nick C” has written is totally correct… “I think clearly this trend will only continue, which would mean increasingly declining turnout, and increasing numbers of people who genuinely didn’t realise there was an election on. For me this raises questions about the appropriateness of issuing fines for failing to vote, when the failure to vote is likely to have been completely innocent and due to a genuine lack of awareness or failure of the electoral process to engage the person. At least fines should be waived where people indicate a genuine lack of awareness or confusion regarding the election date.

    “We are that couple who genuinely didn’t realise there was an election on”.

    To add to our confusion of this election this article link below is really just so appropriate and reflects our dilemma which is outlined in detail.

    http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/newslocal/blacktown-advocate/apathy-and-confusion-could-keep-residents-away-from-blacktown-council-election-on-saturday/news-story/1123e1887ade8d988dbad8495d1b2452

    As mentioned also by “Mr Quilkey” in the article post above is so very apt.

    He states “Blacktown Council candidates are afraid voter apathy and confusion will lead to a low turnout at Saturday’s election despite compulsory voting.
    (In that statement ” “afraid voter apathy”) is not relevant to us in any way…just the Confusion!!!!.
    Both of us would have wanted to vote & voice our opinion with what is happening in our area.

    Labor candidate for Ward 1 Chris Quilkey said many people he met on the hustings seemed not to be aware there was an election.

    He goes on to state….

    “I’m standing outside the pre-poll now and people are seeing the posters there and saying, ‘Is there an election on? We didn’t know’,” he said.
    Mr Quilkey said while the council mergers had caused confusion among voters, there had not been enough advertising to let residents know they needed to vote.

    “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a low turnout and I would be very disappointed if they were to fine people who didn’t vote, given the poor publicity leading up to the election,’’ he said.

    Ward 1 Liberal candidate Jess Diaz said July’s Federal Election was also causing some confusion.
    He expected more interest in the days before the election, when parties ramped up their campaigns with letter box drops and train station visits.

    A NSW Electoral Commission spokesman said election ads had been run in the press, on radio and online.

    “For postal and pre-polling, which we’re in now, there’s been online, social (media) and radio advertising,” he said.

    “That will be followed by reminder-to-vote ads in the final week in press, (on) radio and online. A fair bit of advertising has gone on.” (Which my Husband & I as mentioned above does not listen to Radio or read the Local paper)

    A Blacktown Council spokesman said it had put roadside signs throughout the electorate publicising the election.

    To sum up the two of us are genuinely again as mentioned below above by “Nick C” innocent rate payers/ residents and now are facing a issued fines/fine for failing to vote, when the failure to vote was completely innocent and due to a genuine lack of awareness or failure of the electoral process to engage the person. At least fines should be waived where people indicate a genuine lack of awareness or confusion regarding the election date.

    Kindest Regards,

    DJ & WJ

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