Mail-only elections for NSW councils – not so fast

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There was a story in the Sydney Morning Herald last week about how the NSW state government is considering a switch to postal voting for all voters at the 2021 local council elections.

These elections were originally scheduled for September 2020, but were postponed by twelve months in the hope of avoiding the pandemic.

Things are looking pretty good in New South Wales now, and unless the disease manages to re-emerge it seems likely that full-scale council elections could be held in September 2021 without major disruptions to the electoral system (although I’d expect some basic hygiene practices to remain in place for a while).

While such a change could be necessary during the heart of a pandemic, it seems far from necessary for an election due in 15 months. Moreover I think moving away from using polling places sends a message about council elections being less important and not worthy of the transparency, privacy and security provided by voting at a polling place.

Four of Australia’s six states now vote entirely by postal voting. This has been the case for a long time in Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. A small number of Victorian councils still used attendance voting up to the most recent elections in 2016, but a change in legislation has allowed the local government ministers to end that practice at the upcoming October 2020 elections.

New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory still use attendance voting for most or all of their council elections.

It’s not clear what justification the state government is using for a potential change. It may save money, but I don’t see why the Covid-19 pandemic would prevent the normal operation of an election on the current timeframe.

A switch from attendance voting to all-postal voting would radically change the experience of voting in NSW local government elections, and I worry that such a decision would be quietly ushered through under the shadow of the pandemic.

All-postal voting can improve turnout for elections with low turnout and low profile, but compulsory voting in New South Wales means we achieved an 80% turnout at the 2017 council election, and a 79% turnout in 2016. That’s pretty good for local government.

I’m not going to make a blanket claim about how postal voting would change how local government would work in a negative way (I suspect it would, but I don’t have the evidence to back it up) but it would certainly change the way elections work.

Postal voting is a handy tool for those who want to use it, but it remains an inferior way to vote, with reduced privacy and security. Think of the inferior voting experience at the 2017 same-sex marriage plebiscites, where bundles of ballot papers were found dumped on the street. There was a surge of voters updating their address to ensure their ballots arrived. I don’t think you would see the same diligence in a local council election.

The end of polling booths for local council elections would also be terrible for the collective ritual of us all coming together and casting our votes to choose our councillors. Council elections are important, but a move away from our standard method of voting would send a signal that they are different and inferior to state and federal elections, and I think that would be a bad thing.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. I strongly agree. While much of the discussion (especially in the USA) is about security of postal ballots, just as worrying is the secrecy issue. People tend to think of polling places as just for issuing and receiving ballots, but their real significance is that they provide people with a state-guaranteed opportunity to cast a secret ballot. By moving to universal postal voting, the state abdicates its responsibility for that. (Just recently, I heard from a retired senior electoral official who more recently has been involved with the White Ribbon movement that he had heard directly from women escaping controlling partners about how one element of that control had been controlling how they voted.) For a more detailed discussion of the secrecy issue, see my article with Jorgen Elklit in the Journal of Democracy last year, at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/729169.

    Also, postal voting lends itself to corruption, including vote buying. We tend to think that can’t happen in Australia, for cultural reasons, but in fact one of the rare recent cases of proven electoral fraud arose in local government: see http://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/salim-mehajer-jailed-for-electoral-fraud-20180622-p4zn1x.html. Not surprising really: corruption in Australia has often arisen at the local government level, where a lot of money is at stake. And in LG elections, small margins of victory make a bit of fraud more attractive to the dishonest.

  2. There’s also an emerging problem with postal voting, which is that as Australia Post continues reducing the frequency of mail deliveries, it already now often takes much longer periods of time for mail to arrive than it used to. Whilst you used to be able to expect mail to arrive pretty much anywhere around the state within a few business days, it can now often take up to two weeks (at least in my experience, and I’m not in a remote area). These increased turnaround times mean more voting packs and completed ballot papers don’t arrive in the required time-frames.

  3. I think going fully postal would have been a superior option to postponing the election 12 months. Certainly doing both does seem unjustified.

    As for diminishing the importance of local government, that’s already occurred with the steady transfer of council powers to unelected administrators and bureaucrats. A far more consequential change than the method of voting.

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