How-to-votes banned at booths for NSW council elections


Throughout the most recent outbreak of COVID-19 in New South Wales there has been a lack of information about how the election process would be adapted to deal with the risk of infection, apart from postponing the election for three months.

The Electoral Commission had announced plans to make the spaces inside polling places safer, with the same techniques we’d all be familiar with.

The most radical change, however, was quietly announced in the last few days. The Electoral Commissioner had been granted the power to prevent the distribution of election material at polling places or within 100 metres (including prepoll).

There hasn’t been much attempt to justify this change beyond a vague reference to the risk of infection with COVID-19, and I think it’s a pretty big step to remove a key political freedom weeks out from an election while the state is otherwise opening up.

On the weekend (I think – the declarations are undated), the Commissioner announced that how-to-votes couldn’t be distributed in any NSW council election conducted by the NSWEC, across the whole state. He also directed that posters could only be put up or taken down before 7am or after 7pm.

I definitely think there are situations where such a policy would be justified, particularly during a lockdown, although I’d argue that elections should first be postponed and should only be conducted under a hard lockdown when absolutely necessary.

But New South Wales is now moving out of lockdown, with high vaccination rates, and a case count that has declined from the peak. Restaurants are open for the vaccinated, as has retail. Children are now returning to school, and travel from Sydney to regional areas will open up from November 1.

Pre-poll voting commenced on November 22, with election day on December 4. By then, there will be no more restrictions that only apply to unvaccinated people.

Many of these activities carry the risk of infection, but we have decided that those risks have been minimised enough, and with the current vaccination rates we can open up. Yet this particular activity has been prohibited to “reduce the risk of infection”.

I haven’t found any statements indicating that there is health advice warning against people campaigning outside polling places, indeed there’s been no statements beyond the official declarations.

I’m an elections expert, not an infectious diseases expert, but people handing out how-to-votes outside a polling place doesn’t seem particularly risky. It takes place outdoors, and it seems like sensible precautions could be taken. Volunteers at the 2020 Queensland state election wore masks and did not re-use any how-to-vote cards. Whatever the risk, it still feels relatively small compared to all the other things that are now legal.

I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have this power up our sleeve, but it seems like over-reach for the commissioner to have already invoked it for the whole state in current conditions.

When making these calculations, you have to consider both the risks of the activity, but also consider the benefits. I do wonder if the people making this decision, whether they are election administrators or health officials, have factored in the benefits of free public election campaigning when making their risk assessments. It’s easier to quantify the economic value of crowds at a football game or opening retail than it is to identify the benefit of allowing political protests or election campaigning.

I should acknowledge that there are plenty of people who think we should get rid of how-to-votes on election day, perhaps replacing them with the provision of how-to-votes in the voting booth or by using official posters. I see some of this from Greens supporters who have struggled to find enough volunteers to cover their booths and feel like it’s an unfair playing field.

I don’t agree – I think it’s not unreasonable that a candidate’s ability to attract and organise volunteers is relevant to their ability to get elected. I also think there is still value in understanding how to vote, particularly in council elections where voters are less familiar with the candidates and the issues, and regardless of the merits of telling a voter “how to vote”, it’s the last and most universal opportunity to talk to voters. Banning campaigning at the polling booth will advantage candidates with greater name recognition (including independents) or those with the money to advance their campaigns in other ways.

But whatever the merits, such a change should be decided through the political process with public debate, not through a sudden change justified with a vague handwave to COVID infection risks.

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  1. I agree Ben. This seems to me utterly apalling and and an outrage against democracy.
    If they really wanted to improve the electoral system, there’s far more reasonable things they could do.

  2. The same thing happened at the Queensland Local Government elections in 2020, except it was even more confused at the start of the COVID lockdown. We had entire booths removed on the morning of the election and significant issues with prepoll and posting voting.

    The net result was the advantage it gave to sitting councillors, principally due to name recognition and low voter turnout.

  3. All I have to say is good riddance. Voters should never be swayed one way or the other where their preferences go. Voters should decide themselves.

    That’s why I do research on the candidates in my area before I vote so I know where I out them. I understand not everyone has the time to do this or they can’t be bothered but it’s not like we have elections everyday. Democracy would serve us all better if people know exactly who they are voting for and know what parties they are putting above or below other’s.

    It seems illogical for a conservative for example to put the Greens above Labor considering the Greens are more left wing than Labor.

    It doesn’t take long to find out the issues your candidates stand for and it’s not like elections are everyday. I understand if you have 10+ candidates and the senate and legislative council is more tricky but the people should rely on research to influence their preferences rather than party pamphlets.

  4. It’s not illogical, it’s completely tactical.
    Conservatives preferencing the ALP below the Greens is merely to stop Labor, as in these supposed Grn-Lab contests, the LNP would rather have the Greens than Labor, mostly around who’s competing for which votes.

    Also a side note: Labor are not a left-wing party anymore. Their left-wing roots in social justice and protesting nuclear is gone, and democracy is worse because of it. Not to mention the fossil fuel company donations.

  5. @Ryan Spencer

    When was the last time Labor was a “left-wing” party?

    You could hardly call the Labor Party “left-wing” under Hawke and Keating. It is refreshing to watch parliament from that era, when Labor politicians would talk about the economy in a way you would never hear from Labor politicians today. It was under Hawke and Keating that the the top marginal income tax rate was cut from 60% to 45%. The Liberals opposed it! Compare that to the politics of the last federal election.

    Perhaps Whitlam was the last time the Labor Party were “left-wing”?

  6. I despise HTV cards for one reason – they feed into the false narrative that preferential voting is “undemocratic” because “parties control preferences”.

  7. To follow on from what Mark said: It was bad enough in Brisbane City, but for other jurisdictions without party-partisan candidates? I’d go so far as to say that the majority of Queenslanders didn’t have a clue who most of the local candidates were or what they were about. Getting HTVs and Interacting with local council candidates and volunteers at the polling booth might be the only chance many people have at approaching even the very lowest threshold of an informed voter.

    So this doesn’t seem remotely proportionate, or even effective, given how lax all other COVID restrictions will be by the time of the elections.

  8. I asked the NSWEC media contact whether there was any health advice indicating “that there was a particular risk of infection from this activity beyond the risk from many other activities which are now legal in New South Wales?”

    And I received this response:

    · All decisions made by the NSW Electoral Commissioner to reduce the risks posed by COVID-19 at these elections have taken into account guidance published by health and safety agencies.

    · The Electoral Commission has also convened a working group with NSW Health and other stakeholders to review and contribute to its COVID-19 planning.

    · Supporting public and worker health and safety is the sole purpose of the Electoral Commissioner’s new directions.

    · The prohibition on handing out how-to-vote cards and putting up posters after 7am is based on readily available public health and safety guidance, including the importance of continuing to maintain physical distancing even as public health orders are relaxed.

    · At this point of the pandemic, all event organisers and employers must still consider what steps they must take to reduce COVID-19 risks in the context of their own undertakings.

    · In the case of running state-wide elections when there are still hundreds of COVID-19 cases each day, the Electoral Commissioner was satisfied that limiting the number of people gathering around polling places to hand out material and put up posters was necessary to reduce the risk of transmission by promoting physical distancing.

    · The sheer volume of people and scope of locations involved in this election event also raises its overall risk profile compared with other activities that NSW residents can choose to participate in since lock-down ended.

    · With 5 million electors across NSW required by law to vote in these elections from 22 November through to 4 December, it remains essential to take steps to protect electors as they exercise their legal duty to vote.

    · The Electoral Commission also has 30,000 temporary election staff whose work health and safety is of critical importance – all of these people are members of the local communities in which they work and they put their hands up to serve local democracy by working as casual employees at polling places.

    · The Electoral Commission is doing everything it reasonably can to reduce the risk of COVID-19 at these elections, while still delivering democracy.

    · We note that restrictions on how-to-vote materials have been implemented for many recent elections in other jurisdictions, both in Australia (eg Queensland) and overseas.

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