The Presidential poll in the United States provided a perfect example of how not to run an election: decentralised decisions, varying rules, and cost-cutting are among other factors that helped make the US a basket-case when it comes to collecting the vote.
In Australia we have been much more fortunate, with well resourced, competent and independent election administrators at a federal and state level. Yet a recent experiment with privatisation in New South Wales local council elections could be the start of a disturbing trend in management of Australian elections.
Since the 1980s, NSW local government elections have been managed by the NSW Electoral Commission or its predecessor, the NSWEC. Like the Australian Electoral Commission, the NSWEC is a professional, independent government body that runs all state elections. In the past, the cost of local council elections has not been passed on in full to local councils, but in 2008 these costs were revised and much larger bills were passed on to councils.
Following this election, the Local Government and Shires Associations attacked the NSWEC and demanded the right to run their elections locally, rather than using a central authority.
Following the 2011 state election, the O’Farrell Government passed legislation that gave local councils such an option. Instead of using the NSWEC, they could appoint their own returning officer and organise the election without reference to the usual authorities.
Most councils chose to stay with the NSWEC, but 14 councils chose to go elsewhere. This included six councils in the Hunter region.
The theory behind the legislation is that councils could use their own resources to support a local returning officer. In practice, however, most of these councils did not have the experience to run a professional election, and instead outsourced the election to a private company. About half of the councils chose to use the Australian Election Company, while the others ran their own election.
Throughout the campaign, there were problems caused by these councils setting up their own systems. The NSWEC took a position that they would provide no support or advice to councils or residents living in council areas which weren’t being run by the NSWEC.
Most of the issues were relatively minor, and wouldn’t have been seen by most voters. Nomination forms varied, and were harder to use in the case of what were called "non-compliant" councils. While the NSWEC posted information about how the election would be run months in advance, some non-compliant councils didn’t appoint returning officers until the last minute and it was very difficult to find out any information about how each election would be run.
In the case of Port Stephens Council, they had to appoint at least three different people to the position of returning officer over the course of the election.
When nominations closed, there were a number of issues with some of those councils running their own elections. In Fairfield, candidates complained after others had their nominations accepted despite submitting their nomination fees hours after the deadline.
There were also serious process issues when it came to the posting of nominations. All nominations for NSWEC councils were posted on the Electoral Commission’s website within hours of nominations being declared, including all relevant information including party name, candidate name and the full details on the ballot order. Some non-compliant councils provided very little information, sometimes posting scanned, hand-written documents, or posting forms that lacked key information about candidates. In at least one case, no information was posted about candidates for days after nominations closed. This may seem petty, but laxity and mistakes can make voting difficult for voters who want to be well informed.
Following nominations closing, all how-to-votes to be used on election day must be registered with the local returning officer. For NSWEC councils, these decisions were ultimately referred to the head office in Sydney if there was any questions about whether a document fulfilled the criteria. In a number of non-compliant councils, returning officers implemented their own rules which weren’t the same as the NSWEC, sometimes as petty as demanding that candidates change colours on a how-to-vote card. Due to privatised election processes, candidates had no capacity to appeal these decisions.
On election night, most primary vote results for NSWEC councils were available on the NSWEC website. In contrast, very little information was available on the relevant websites for non-compliant councils, due to slow counting and delays in putting information on the website. While it took just over one week for all NSWEC council results to be finalised and completed, some non-compliant council election results were still not posted on the election company’s website over two weeks after election day.
Some of these issues may seem small and petty, and it is true that large parts of the elections were run effectively and appropriately. Yet this experiment shows what dangers can be found if the running of elections is privatised — or if the cost of running a professional, impartial election is considered too much for the taxpayer or ratepayer to bear.
Since the council elections there have been attempts to reduce opportunities to vote in the name of cost-cutting. The recent NSW Local Government and Shires Association conference passed a motion calling on the state government to allow councils to reduce the number of days of pre-poll voting in order to reduce election costs. Recent US experience suggests that allowing different areas to have different standards for early voting, and allowing local officials to fiddle with their local election rules is a very bad idea.
Local councils face a lot of strain in paying for all of the services they are expected to provide with limited revenue streams, and it is understandable that councils would find it difficult to cover the full cost of their own elections. However reducing the quality and standard of election administration is no solution — if councils can’t pay for high-quality professional election administration, the state government should subsidise this service.
Australia has a very high standard for election management, and it is a key part of our democratic system. Cost-cutting and undermining of professionals could seriously endanger this proud Australian tradition.
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