The informal rate (so far) in NSW councils

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There’s been a lot of discussion about the high levels of informal voting in the NSW council elections, often with an air of alarm focused on just one council, without zooming out and seeing the broader trend.

The first results reported on election night had very high rates of informal voting, due to the counting procedures used by the NSW Electoral Commission. These rates have already started to fall and I expect them to be much lower by the end of the count, with some of those informal votes reclassified as formal.

In this post I’ve mapped out the current informal rates for each council, and how the informal rate statewide compares to the last election cycle.

To the best of my knowledge, I believe that the NSWEC’s election night process was to throw any complicated ballot papers into the informal pile. This includes votes marked both above and below the line, as well as any where it was not clear who received the first preference. This does not mean that vote will end up being informal. This is why the website describes this category as “Informal/Other”.

If a vote was marked both above and below the line, it is examined separately. If either half is formal, that vote is counted. If both are formal, just the below the line vote will be counted.

This is a longstanding practice, but it’s hard to track how prominent it was in the past since this trend disappears in the final results. I know it’s a thing I was aware of in past council and Legislative Council elections.

I suspect it may be a bigger phenomenon this year due to the absence of how-to-vote cards at many booths. It’s also likely that this has led to an increase in actual informal voting, but we will need to wait and see.

The informal rate dropped on Wednesday night when the iVote reported. There are informal iVotes but they are very rare – once I have the complete data I will report on that more precisely, but it seems to be less than 1% – dozens of informal votes in samples of many thousands of votes.

Right now, if I just look at councils that were fully contested in both 2016-17 and 2021 to produce a fair comparison (sorry Shellharbour), the informal rate in 2016-17 was 6.7%, and it is currently 10.9% in the equivalent parts of New South Wales. That is quite high, but I suspect that to go down.

When you look at the trend geographically, something more interesting emerges.

The informal rate is actually lower in many rural councils, but not in the bigger ones. I suspect this is because those councils tend not to use groups for their elections. If there is no above-the-line/below-the-line split, the ballot is simpler and it’s harder to produce those complicated votes.

In contrast, the informal rate is at least 2% higher in almost every Sydney council. The only Sydney council with a lower informal rate is North Sydney. Perhaps a function of them moving from having a separate mayoral ballot to just using a single councillor ballot in 2021?

Some of the councils with the highest informal rates are those councils where the Liberal Party withdrew from running: Cumberland, Blacktown, Bayside, Strathfield and Parramatta all have informal rates over 6% higher than in 2016-17, with Inner West up by 3%. Fairfield (which uses a private election company and thus may have different counting procedures) is just up 1%. I suspect some Liberal voters simply opted out in the absence of a local choice.

That’s it for now, I’ll be back tomorrow with an analysis of how turnout rates are comparing to 2016-17 to give us some sense of how much is left to count.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. It annoys me how many commentators talk about “the informal rate” without qualification, when as you note the Electoral Commission’s reported figures always refer to “Informal/Other”. I scrutineered on election night and the instructions to poll workers, or at least the interpretation taken by the workers at my polling booth, was that every ballot with marks both above and below the line *must* be counted in this “Others” basket (I decline to use the word “Informal” here as most of them are not) and that their formality would be checked later in the count.

    Besides which, it is the practice of the NSW Electoral Commission to data enter every ballot, even those which are clearly informal, so what really matters is whether the counting software is correctly set up to handle saving provisions and not whether on-the-night counters initially put a ballot in the correct pile.

  2. I voted below-the-line, and the current results show that my first preference candidate has zero votes at my polling place. So clearly my vote has not been counted (yet), or has been miscounted. The results for that polling place have not been updated for a while. I triple-checked and I’m certain my vote was formal. I’m hoping this is a case of a “complicated ballot” that you mention.

    I numbered every box below-the-line including ungrouped candidates. One group I numbered the second candidate first, then the first, and then the third, because I liked the second candidate more. Another group I numbered backwards (makes sense to do that for parties you dislike). Too “complicated” for the NSWEC?

  3. Pity the Shellharbour comparison is not able to be made Ben, as that is where I was scrutineering on the night.

    To the larger point, to my mind the clerks at the booths had sufficient time and training (and personnel) to take ballots that went into the Informal/Others pile (called simply the “Informal” pile at Albion Park High School where I was) due to being marked above- and below-the-line and count them and place them in either the Group pile (if only formal ATL), the BTL pile for those only formal BTL or formal ATL + BTL or back into the (now correctly named) “Informal” pile if they truly were informal on the Saturday night. Leaving them to be done later is unfair to candidates, volunteers, ECNSW workers and voters alike. People deserve to have the most accurate results in the most timely fashion possible. I’m no libertarian, but why does government make everything so inefficient and opaque when it’s so infuriatingly unnecessary???

  4. Nicholas, if you didn’t leave any marks above the line then it sounds more like a case of human error, which will hopefully be picked up in the check count or data entry. A ballot such as yours, with only numbers below the line, sufficient preferences given, and an unambiguous first preference, should have been counted as a below the line vote for your first preference candidate no matter how elaborate your subsequent preferences are.

  5. I had reports from scrutineers that ballots marked above and below the line were not being counted. Indeed, there were printed instructions to treat them this way. Thus we have reported informals (or “others”) of 15% to 30% at almost every booth – even higher at some small booths. (A couple of booths reported informals in the more normal range of 5-6% which suggests the instructions were not followed uniformly.) The check count will rectify this, but I don’t see why we should have to wait up to two weeks to get this right.

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