How do you run for election under stage 4 lockdown?

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Victorians will soon be voting in local council elections amidst an extended lockdown. While the number of new Covid-19 cases has been dropping, Melburnians will still face a stage 4 lockdown for six more weeks.

Victorian council elections are conducted entirely by post, which will make it easier for people to cast their votes, but the lockdown will make it much harder for candidates to campaign, and give an advantage to those candidates with more money.

In these circumstances it’s hard to see these elections being free and fair, and really makes me wonder why the Victorian government did not postpone the elections.

Candidate nominations close on September 22. Ballot papers will be sent out to voters in early October. Ballots must be returned by 6pm on Friday October 23.

This is the first time that all Victorian council elections will be conducted by post. All but six councils used postal voting in 2016, but the recent local government legislation, in addition to pushing the state back towards single-member wards, also gave the minister the power to change the voting system. Adem Somyurek moved all councils to postal voting in May, just a month before his downfall.

The current Covid-19 restrictions will mostly remain in place with some minor changes from now until around about September 28 (assuming declining case numbers remain on their current trajectory) when some more rules will be relaxed, but more significant rules relaxation is not planned until October 26 and November 23.

There is no exemption for campaigners to do any election campaigning. It’s understandable that some campaigning wouldn’t be safe – you wouldn’t want people conducting street stalls or doorknocking – but it also applies to letterboxing.

Yet the current pandemic restrictions don’t prevent candidates from paying to have their campaign materials delivered, either by paying for addressed delivery or unaddressed mail (although the need for covid precautions will increase the cost of such services).

So if a candidate can afford to pay for delivery, they can get a leaflet delivered to a voter. If you are relying on support of volunteers, you’re out of luck.

Victorian voters receive only a small amount of information from candidates along with their ballot papers. Candidates submit a 300-word statement (all one paragraph) along with a photograph.

Voters don’t receive a how-to-vote card with that statement, although some clever candidates finish their 300 word statement with a recitation of the sequence of numbers they recommend voters use on their ballot. They did so at elections up until 2016, when the Coalition and the Greens disallowed the regulation for this material in the upper house before the election. How-to-votes are now only provided in the City of Melbourne.

I don’t necessarily think any candidate should be able to get a free delivery of a how-to-vote card to voters just because they nominate. You can test a candidate’s viability by requiring them to make an effort to get their how-to-votes into the hands of voters, either by using volunteers or money. But the impact of the current restrictions effectively mean money still has value while candidates with popular support can’t use their volunteers.

Not only does the current situation put a thumb on the scale in support of cashed-up candidates, but it generally chokes off the supply of information for voters. Most candidates don’t officially run for identified political parties, and it can be hard for voters to know who is who. Anything which limits this information will result in less informed voters.

I have heard reports of postal elections for Victorian councils having high numbers of voters casting donkey votes, or at the very least following up their first preference with a neat sequence of preferences, possibly due to the paucity of how-to-vote cards. I would like to investigate this issue when I have more time.

All of these features fit within a vision for local government: one where local councils are not political spaces where representatives of the local community compete over different visions of what their councils should do. A vision of local councils as more akin to corporate boards than representative political bodies. Voting in the Victorian council elections more resembles an election for the NRMA board than a parliamentary election. All of this was already true, but is made worse in the current circumstances, when parties and candidates don’t even have the option of running their own public campaigns outside of official channels (barring online campaigning, which may prove crucial for some campaigns).

You might say: what can be done? The pandemic is a real emergency, and the state government is prioritising public safety over electioneering. That may be true, but it is not necessary to be holding this election at this time.

The New South Wales local government elections were due to be held this month, but were delayed by a year due to the pandemic. There is no reason why Victoria, which has moved heaven and earth to give powers for the government to do what it deems necessary to deal with the pandemic, could not have postponed the elections until next year.

Would we consider it acceptable to hold a state or federal parliamentary election in these circumstances? I don’t think so. Queensland will likely hold their state election while some virus is circulating, but it won’t have anywhere near the restrictions on personal freedom that are currently in place in Victoria. I think if a state election was due now in Victoria, we would find a way to push it back until early next year. Yet they are happy to proceed with statewide elections for another level of government.

It will be worth watching these elections, both to see how the changes to the voting system will affect the results in numerous councils, and how the all-postal vote works in the current circumstances. I’m hoping to return in coming weeks with some further analysis of the new ward boundaries in councils where the wards have changed.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. I support postal voting as all enrolled voters get candidate statements and a photo, if submitted by the candidate, with the ballot paper and that should be enough for most voters. Voters can also visit party or candidate websites too.

    Recently in Port Phillip a local groups called RoPP (Residence of Port Phillip) have already distributed posters to supporters to place on there front fence a few months ago and have done a few letter box drops over the last few months. If other candidates and parties cant get their act together earlier then that is their problem for thinking campaigning is only for the last month before the election.

    The council tried to hinder this by saying posters on fences can not be put up to early however that deadline has passed and I think was undemocratic too.

    One concern is the requirement to participate in an online candidate training which last for 60 minutes however when I tried to login via the blue link in the section on the VEC website the link was not visible
    as a blue link and an attempt to type in the links series on letters and numbers failed to. I have taken that up with VEC and the new local government minister Shane Leane ministerial staff. I probably wont be a candidate but I wanted to read the training session content.

    We voters are at an advantage with postal voting as attendance voting would have been a disaster with the corona virus plague present.

    I cant see why letter boxing cant continue as it is “work”, all be it unpaid mostly, and we can now walk (exercise) daily too. Australia Post still home deliver so what is the problem with non Australia Post letterbox deliveries? Sounds like a furphy to me.

  2. The second complication with these local government elections is that due to the pandemic, local newspapers and media have largely disappeared. The only news and information about our local suburban council used to be in the local Leader newspaper that you got free in your letterbox. Now Leader newspapers are all digital and behind a paywall and there is no incentive to pay to get the news. Unless you know a candidate personally or have had dealings with them – voting in the local government elections will be akin to pinning the tail on the donkey at a childrens party – and with the same degree of knowledge involved.

  3. The local government elections in Victoria should be delayed, to allow more in person campaigning.

    The only upside to a minister having the power to change between in person and postal voting is that a minister with a different view to Somyurek could insist on attendance voting, which should (when there is no pandemic) be done at least for urban councils (where the preference feeding dummy candidate are an issue).

    Party names should be allowed next to candidates in local government elections, on the same terms as for Parliamentary elections, for greater transparency and voter understanding. In multi-member wards, which should be all of them (bar a few undivided regional councils), candidates (including non-party candidates) should be allowed to organise into groups (as has been the case in the Senate for most of the last century), this is particularly useful with countback in place to fill vacancies with like candidates.

    Local government elections in Victoria are unlikely to improve unless/until the Greens get the balance of power in the Legislative Assembly and get proportional representation up and scrap the city of Melbourne stack.

  4. The link for the LGV candidates training course started working after 5 pm today. I did the training which was pretty basic and nothing I did not already know. However new candidates may find it useful.

  5. Tom – your assumption is that corona virus may not be present later but it will be present, perhaps forever. Attendance voting is from the dark ages.

  6. The Liberal party will win the next victorian state election using the 1992 theme of the guilty party theme.

  7. Mr. Lawrence, 2022 may be two years away (and be here before we know it), but that’s a LONG time in politics – even as a Liberal member, I’m not making a prediction that far out. This being, said, Andrews and Labor will be running for a third term, I’ll check back here in a couple of years.

  8. Stuart Lawrence – I was a Liberal member in 1992 and thought the guilt party adds were very effective however Victoria was $32 billion in debt, we lost our AAA credit rating and there were other fiasco like no money to maintain government buildings like school and cock-ups like the VEDC shambles. I left the Liberal party in 2003 over the Iraq war invasion and I may put the ALP ahead of the Liberals next state election as Andrews is doing a pretty good job with all that infrastructure building happening. The current and previous state liberal leaders are light weights and O’Brien was not even born in Australia. Not a patch on the then great leader Jeff Kennett. Andrews and Kennett are similar in styles and work ethic.

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