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How do you run for election under stage 4 lockdown?

September 7, 2020 - 08:30 -- Admin

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.