Stop holding state by-elections alongside council elections!


This is a message for the state of Queensland, who’ve now done this at the last two rounds of council elections in 2020 and 2024.

For each council election, two state by-elections were held at the same time: for Bundamba and Currumbin in 2020, and for Inala and Ipswich West in 2024. In both cases, one of these seats was in the City of Ipswich. Inala is mostly in the City of Brisbane, while Currumbin is in the City of the Gold Coast.

Prior to the election, particular concern was raised for Ipswich West. For those voters, they would vote using three different electoral systems at once. The state by-election uses compulsory preferential voting (CPV), the mayoral election uses optional preferential voting (OPV), while Ipswich’s ward councillors are elected using a form of bloc vote where each voter gets to mark two candidates equally.

For the other by-election voters, they wouldn’t have had to use a bloc vote system, but still would’ve been confused by different formality rules for council and state.

Queensland state elections switched from OPV to CPV in 2016, and this new system was first used at the 2016 Toowoomba South by-election. Since 2016, there have been seven state by-elections along with 186 individual contests at the two state elections.

Firstly, I’ve looked at informal rates since the start of my Queensland by-elections dataset in 1996.

There wasn’t much of a change in the informal rate with the change in system, despite it becoming harder to cast a formal vote. But the four by-elections held alongside local government elections were much much worse. The previous worst informal rate at a by-election was 3.9% in Brisbane Central in 2007, but the lowest informal rate at a by-election held alongside a council election was 6.5% in Ipswich West in 2024.

But what if we expand the sample size to look at all contests since the introduction of CPV in 2016.

The rate of informality often varies with the number of candidates on the ballot paper, so I’ve matched the ballot paper size to the informal rate. I have marked the four by-elections in question in red, and the other by-elections in orange.

These by-elections stand out like a sore thumb. The two worst informal rates seen in the CPV era (out of a sample of 193) were both by-elections held alongside council elections. Three of the top four were in this situation, and all four of these by-elections ranked in the top seven. Three of those high informal rates were in by-elections with just four candidates.

I am strongly convinced that voters are having more trouble casting a formal vote in these circumstances.

You can actually see this impact in the Brisbane City Council results, too. Inala covers the entirety of the Forest Lake ward, and that ward includes most of the population of the electorate.

This effect doesn’t seem to be obvious when you look at the ward-level results. Forest Lake did have one of the highest informal rates, but it was the worst ward for informal votes in 2020.

But if you specifically zoom into ordinary election day votes, Forest Lake has the worst informal rate of any ward. The average informal rate on election day for a ward was 2.6%, but in Forest Lake it was 4.4%.

And you can also see it at the individual booth level. There were eight booths in Inala. Seven were in Forest Lake, and one was in Jamboree.

There were 209 ordinary election day booths across Brisbane City. Of the ten with the highest informal rate, five were in Inala. Seven of the eight Inala booths ranked in the top 21 (in other words, in the top 10%).

I am not making a case here for OPV or CPV, although I am sure that perennial psephological argument will be triggered yet again. There are arguments for either system. I personally support systems that allow for OPV generosity when it comes to formality of ballot papers, but with CPV-style communication that strongly encourages preferencing.

I also dont’ advocate uniformity of electoral systems at all levels of government. There is always room to improve, and it is hard enough to change electoral systems at one level of government. Expecting all levels of government to move in lockstep would make it impossible.

But I think we can all agree that, as long as different electoral systems are used at different levels, they shouldn’t be held on the same day. We don’t hold federal and state elections on the same day. Queensland clearly has held these elections simultaneously as a way of saving money. But Queensland should invest in its democracy by giving each level of government a dedicated time period for campaigning and voting.

I am not aware of this taking place in any other state. Most states now use postal voting for council elections, so by definition it wouldn’t be possible. New South Wales could theoretically hold council elections alongside state by-elections, but they don’t appear to have done so, at least as far back as 1991.

There are also other arguments against holding elections simultaneously apart from electoral system clashes. Holding council and state elections on separate dates allows a separate focus on the issues and candidates for each election. I suspect council elections held alongside state elections would become much more dominated by state politics.

There are other countries which hold elections for all levels of government simultaneously, but that’s not how we’ve done things in Australia.

This is easy to fix – Queensland just needs to stop skimping on democracy and give state by-elections a clear window separate to council elections.

Liked it? Take a second to support the Tally Room on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!


  1. YES!
    Even better, standardise the voting system so we don’t have so many variations. I don’t care what gets chosen as long as there’s some consistency. The voting method used in Ipswich is an abomination.
    Even betterer, move the Council elections to the year before the state election so we don’t have two, and potentially three, elections every four years. It also moves the Council election out of the Christmas period and for those in North Queensland takes it out of cyclone season.
    Even more betterer, move the ECQ to an oversight role and get the AEC to actually run the elections. The ECQ has screwed up election delivery for the past three elections and I’d argue completely stuffed up the 2017 State redistribution as well. They are not fit for purpose.

  2. I don’t think standardisation is a good idea. It’s a recipe for stagnation. Just don’t hold the elections at the same time.

    The Ipswich electoral system is bad, but not because it clashes with the mayoral election.

    NSW holds its council elections the year after the state election. I think that makes more sense, and it allows councillors to run for state parliament without creating a vacancy for too long.

  3. @Ben Raue The Ipswich electoral system had one goal – to elect Paul Tully. Electing two Councillors on a vote of 22.68% and 21.68% is an abuse of process.

    As you would know, tell me the result you want and I’ll tell you what voting process you need to achieve it. 🙂 One of the reasons I like the idea of standardisation is that it makes it harder to rort the system – what achieves a particular result in one area may work against it in another, so there’s an incentive to make it as balanced as possible. If each area has a different methodology it’s too tempting to put the thumb on the scale.

    I’d ideally like a two year gap between Council and State elections, but I’ll settle for winding the current date for Council back five months. The reason for this is that it’s much easier in Queensland to change the date of Local Government elections than it is to change State elections.

    Although I’m also in favour of removing the ability to fill Council vacancies in the last year of the term with any method other than a by-election. That covers political parties filling the spots of endorsed candidates as well as other councils that have the vacant position chosen by the Councillors and Mayor.

  4. Nice one, Ben.

    “Stop holding state by-elections alongside council elections!”

    Yes, good call, agreed.

    “I also don’t advocate uniformity of electoral systems at all levels of government.”

    I agree that uniformity shouldn’t be a goal. The goal of changing a voting system must be to improve it.

    I also agree that different governments need the right to introduce reforms without waiting for and aligning with other governments.

    However, uniformity should be a consideration when systemic changes are being considered. If ‘System B’ can be improved for its own sake, and if this change would also make it more uniform with ‘System A’, then that would make the change from B to A doubly nice to see – for voters’ consistency’s sake. Mark also makes a good point about uniformity providing political consistency too.

    That said, a uniformly good voting system would be great, while a uniformly bad voting system (or worse, FPTP) would be terrible.

    So ‘coincidental uniformity’ around a good system would be nice.

    But what does ‘good’ look like? Without getting into the CPV vs OPV argument again, a system like Ben suggests with CPV-like instructions and an OPV-like savings mechanism appears decently good, and could be capable of achieving consensus.

  5. Ben, I may be missing something, but I would be expecting you to back this up with evidence showing higher informal rates etc

  6. I agree and for election analysts like us here at the Tally Room it’s hard to keep up on all of them.

    Thank God we don’t live in America where they hold basically every single election on the same day (Election Day) each year. Election Day is on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November each year.

    In 2024, Election Day will be on 5 November. There will be the presidential election nationwide; Senate elections in 33 states; House of Representatives elections nationwide; gubernatorial elections in 11 states plus two territories (American Samoa and Puerto Rico); and state legislative elections for 85 legislative chambers (upper and lower houses) in 44 states. Not to mention the mayoral elections in numerous cities, the most notable one being Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And of course tribal elections, attorney general elections, Secretary of State elections and state treasurer elections.

    And to make matters worse: the US House of Representatives has 435 seats (not including the six non-voting-delegates representing Washington DC and the five unincorporated US territories), plus a total population of over 300 million people with nearly 160 million voters at the last election with a turnout rate of 66.6%, plus all the time zone differences.

    What a mess.

    Again, thank God we don’t have that in Australia!

  7. There are pros and cons of having local elections and state by-elections on the same day.

    Prior to election day, I believed that the biggest arguments are:
    1. It minimises the use of taxpayer funds and resources to run elections.
    2. It minimises inconvenience for voters as they don’t need to go voting on two different days.

    Ben, you make some valid points relating to being democratic. Looking back, there are disadvantages in having them simultaneously.
    1. It might disadvantage independents as well as minor parties just contending one race. The big three – LNP, ALP, Greens will contest two elections and they can dispatch more resources there as there’s more on the line and more to gain.
    2. It could create a consistency bias(?) whereby if you are say, an LNP voter at local elections but a Labor voter at state elections, you might end up voting the same way for both.

    Just my two cents, I think it’s better that the council elections be held a year after the state election, with same party replacements to replace resignees. It’s not only to minimise “voter fatigue” but also by-elections to replace state MPs who want to run for council. It won’t happen as it would mean making this term or the next council term a 5 year one so that it falls after a leap year. Extending just one term would be politically difficult.

  8. The problem with same-party replacements rather than by-elections is it leads to a much larger number of vacancies when the representative could just finish out their term, but takes advantage of providing incumbency to their successor.

  9. @Nether Portal You forgot to mention that each State sets it’s own rules for the process and conduct of elections, from the design of the electorates to how the votes are counted. And invariably they’re mostly partisan.

  10. @Votante From an admin point of view it’s a lot easier to change the date of Local Government elections in Queensland than the State date. I’ve mentioned before that ideally I would like the election cycle out of sync, so two years between elections, but I’d take the less disruptive option of moving the council elections back five months to the previous October so there’s a year between them. You end up with the Federal election coming in like a rogue comet anyway. And it’s much more likely that Councillors would be wanting to move to State or Federal seats than State or Federal Members wanting to move to Council. Jim Madden in Ipswich West was very much the exception and it was more a case of jumping before he was pushed.

  11. There should be a clear way to minimise informal votes.. so that for the most part the
    Cause is not confusion but a voters clear intention. I think the votes should be formal to the extent that a voters intention can be clear…eg numbers 1233345
    There is a clear first and second preference but beyond that the intention is unclear

  12. Just reflecting back on Queensland’s Super Saturday. It was a weird one.

    Labor did terribly, in fact slightly worse than expected, only gaining one ward in Brisbane (Calamvale) whilst losing the safe ward of Wynnum Manly to the LNP for the first time in 72 years while the LNP lost Paddington to the Greens. This puts Lytton as a likely LNP gain at the next election and Labor is now in trouble of losing safe seats in Brisbane, especially along the coastline which is already bluer than it is red. Safe Labor wards like Forest Lake also swung heavily against Labor. As expected, Adrian Schrinner was re-elected Lord Mayor heading the LNP, with the party winning a fifth consecutive term in office in a fourth consecutive landslide.

    Labor had a massive swing against it in the once very safe seat of Inala and lost the safe seat of Ipswich West to the LNP.

    A bunch of incumbent mayors also lost for the first time in years. Independent Labor Mayor Jenny Hill and her team suffered a shock defeat in Townsville, with Jenny Hill losing to former disendorsed One Nation candidate Troy Thompson.

    Incumbent mayors were also unseated in Bundaberg, Cairns and many other LGAs.

    Independent LNP mayors faired better. Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate was re-elected for a historic fourth term in office, while Teresa Harding was re-elected Mayor of Ipswich. Independent LNP Mayor of Redland Karen Williams did not recontest.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here