Alice Springs Council: bad electoral systems at work


A friend recently referred me to an academic paper (PDF) produced by Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University. The paper discusses the electoral system used by the Alice Springs Town Council (and all local government in the Northern Territory) to elect council members.

Alice Springs has an elected mayor and a further eight aldermen elected to represent the entire council area. Darwin elects twelve aldermen through four three-member wards, as well as an elected mayor.

Rather than using a system of proportional representation, NT councils use a system of exhaustive preferential voting to fill seats in multi-member districts. This page shows the counting process and results of the 2008 council election.

Under this system, the first seat is filled using a regular preferential ballot (like how a House of Representatives seat, or a mayoral race, is decided). The second seat is decided by a similar preferential ballot after excluding the candidate who has already been elected. This process continues until all seats are filled.

This tends to result in lopsided results, with a majority voting block winning most of the seats up for election. While you would win one of eight seats with a vote of 11% under a proportional system, most or all seats would go to the majority under the exhaustive preferential system.

A similar system was used to elect Senators from 1919 to 1946. Almost all elections produced a result where all three of a state’s Senators up for election were from the same party. The United Australia Party and the Country Party collectively held 33 of 36 seats following the 1935 election, and the ALP commanded a similar lopsided majority following the 1946 election.

It is also used to elect two-member wards in New South Wales. It was used to elect Wollongong and Shellharbour councils prior to their sacking in 2004, and is used for the City of Botany Bay. Botany Council consists entirely of Labor members, who were all elected unopposed in 2008.

Alice Springs is a controversial council, with a recent history of targeting the homeless and conflict between the council and communities on the fringe of the town. The area has been the centre of conflict over the federal government’s intervention on indigenous issues. In 2009, the council decided to begin fining beggars and remove blankets from local homeless people.

The paper focuses on the indigenous population who live in town camps on the outskirts of Alice Springs. They make up approximately 10% of the population of the town of Alice Springs but are socially distinct from the urban Alice population.

While this population could consistently elect a single alderman to the Town Council under proportional representation, they have been locked out of the council under the current system.

With Alice Springs Council regularly taking a hostile attitude to local homeless people and the indigenous population, it is interesting to consider the way that the majoritarian electoral system encourages neglect of minorities and locks them out of representation.

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  1. I don’t think that the fact that this electoral system is in use is any kind of accident.

    Why does a territory with a population of 230k need a third level of government anyway?

  2. I don’t think population has anything to do with it. Regardless of population size, it doesn’t make sense for a government in Darwin to do a lot of local government work.

  3. That is a good piece of work by Will Sanders – glad to see it getting some attention. A changed electoral system would make a real difference to the policy debates on the Alice Springs council.

    On the issue of a third tier of government in the NT – the rest of the Territory would reckon that Darwin knows nothing about what is going on outside the city limits and want control over issues that are close to home.

  4. Some southern US cities in the 60s in response to the enfranchisement of African-Americnas (who tended to be geographically concentrated) scrapped single-member wards in favour of at-large elections to swamp the minority. The Supreme Court eventually stopped this. There’s a huge US literature on electoral systems and minority rep.

  5. I think you will find that it was legislation that stopped at large elections for the US HoR (and any state local elections where it is banned). Multi-member districts for the US HoR were banned by legislation in 1967. This ban also covers minority representation friendly PR.

    DC and all states except Maine and Nebraska elect the electors to the Electoral College by at large block majoritarian voting (the only system more likely to deliver the representatives from the same party/group than the preferential block voting used in the NT for local government).

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