Local elections draw record turnout despite pandemic

October 2, 2021 BY

At the 2020 council elections, 71 candidates stood across the Greater Geelong, Surf Coast and Queenscliffe municipalities. Photo: VICTORIAN ELECTORAL COMMISSION

VOTER turnout hit record highs in the 2020 local council elections despite the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report tabled in the Victorian Parliament.

The 2020 Local Government Elections Report – the Victorian Electoral Commission’s (VEC’s) “scorecard” on its performance and services during the election – showed voter turnout jumped from a statewide average of 72.15 per cent in 2016 to 81.47 per cent in 2020.

Informal voting – ballot papers not completed according to the instructions – also fell from 6.29 per cent in 2016 to 4.76 per cent in 2020.

In the City of Greater Geelong, 39 candidates stood for the 11 seats across the municipality, with a turnout of 84.37 per cent and an informality rate of 4.34 per cent among the 204,091 voters.

In the Surf Coast Shire, 21 candidates stood for the nine seats (Gary Allen was elected uncontested in Lorne Ward), with a turnout of 84.45 per cent and an informality rate of 3.26 per cent among the 30,227 voters.

In the Borough of Queenscliffe, 11 candidates stood for the five seats, with a turnout of 87.11 per cent and an informality rate of 4.18 per cent among the 4,143 voters.

While participation overall was high, there was a decline in the number of council-enrolled voters – voters enrolled as a ratepayer on the council roll – down from 626,894 in 2016 to 435,548 in 2020.

This was largely attributable to amendments to the Local Government Act in 2020, which required non-resident ratepayers not enrolled with council at the last election to apply directly to the council to enrol.

This trend is set to continue with transitional arrangements under the Act ending before the next general election, when all non-resident ratepayers will be required to apply directly to the council to enrol for the 2024 general election.

“Recommendation 8 in the election report calls for government to amend legislation, which would require councils to contact all eligible council-enrolled voters and notify them of their enrolment eligibility,” Victorian Electoral Commissioner Warwick Gately said.

The VEC’s other recommendations include that the state government note “the increasing role of political parties in local government elections and the community’s desire for transparency in respect to candidate-party affiliations, that “the candidate questionnaire is not fit for purpose”, and that experiencing homelessness should be added to the prescribed list of excuses for failing to vote.

Mr Gately also pointed to the unique challenges of conducting an election during a global pandemic, which set 2020 apart from other statewide electoral events.

“Despite the prevailing restrictions, disruptions, changes and community anxieties, the VEC delivered an election program that was compliant, accurate and – above all – safe, allowing every Victorian to elect their local council representative,” he said.