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Guide to Councils

The election process

The conduct of council elections is regulated by the Local Government Act 1989 and the Local Government (Electoral) Regulations 2016. The day-to-day management of the election process is undertaken by the Victorian Electoral Commission.

When are council elections held?

All council elections are held every four years on the fourth Saturday in October. Victorian state and local government election dates are both fixed-term, but are scheduled to occur two years apart from each other.

Who runs council elections?

The Local Government Act the Victorian Electoral Commission the statutory provider for all council elections. The Returning Officer will be the Electoral Commissioner or his or her appointee.

Entitlement date

To be eligible to vote at a council election, people must be on the state or local council voters’ roll 57 days before election day. This is called the ‘entitlement date’.

Close of nominations

Candidates must submit their nominations in person to the Returning Officer before the close of nominations. Nominations close at 12 noon, 32 days before the election day.

Close of voting

There are two ways in which people can vote, depending on which system each council has chosen – postal elections and attendance elections. The close of voting differs.

  • In postal elections, ballot papers must be completed and posted to the returning officer no later than 6pm on the last working day before election day.
  • In attendance elections, voting closes at 6pm on election day. (Voting centres open at 8am on election day.)

Key election dates are publicised in the lead-up to an election, enabling people to participate fully in the process. The Returning Officer, who runs an election, is also able to provide more detail of the election timeline.

How votes are counted

Two methods of counting votes are used in council elections, depending on whether or not the election is for a single-member ward.

Preferential voting

The preferential voting system is used where a ward is electing a single councillor. This is similar to the system of vote counting used for single member electorates in the State Legislative Assembly and the Federal House of Representatives.

  • All valid first preference votes are counted and sorted to determine the number of first preferences for each candidate.
  • Where one candidate has an absolute majority (50% plus one of all valid votes) that candidate is declared elected.
  • If no candidate has an absolute majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are re-allocated according to their second preferences.
  • This process is repeated until one candidate obtains an absolute majority and is declared elected.

Proportional Representation

The Proportional Representation method is used for counting election results for unsubdivided councils and multi-member wards. Proportional representation is designed to elect candidates in proportion to their share of votes.

Proportional representation is used for Australian Senate elections and for the State Legislative Council. However, voting in council elections does not include above-the-line voting as it does in these federal and state systems (with the exception of Melbourne City Council – see below).

In a proportional representation system, a candidate does not require absolute majority of votes to be elected. Instead they must obtain a quota of votes, which is calculated in accordance with a statutory formula.

The quota is calculated by dividing the total number of formal votes by one more than the number of vacancies to be filled in the ward or district, and then increasing the result by one vote. For example, in an unsubdivided district where there are seven councillors to be elected and 80,000 formal votes have been cast, the quota would be calculated as (80,000 divided by (7+1) +1), which is equal to 10,001.

The vote counting process in a proportional representation system is undertaken as follows:

  • At any time during the count, when a candidate obtains a total number of votes that is equal to, or greater than, the quota, they are declared elected.
  • Unless all the vacancies have been filled, if a candidate has received more votes than the quota, the value of votes in excess of the quota is redistributed to the next available preference on each ballot paper. (This is done by redistributing all the elected candidates’ votes at a lower value, so that the sum of the values is equal to the number of votes in excess of the quota.)
  • If all the vacancies have not been filled after redistributing the excess votes of elected candidates, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is excluded and all their votes are redistributed to the next available preference on each ballot paper.
  • These procedures are repeated until all the vacancies have been filled.

The Victorian Electoral Commission has more information about the ways votes are counted.

Declaration of election results

The Returning Officer will publicly declare results after the votes have been counted and scrutineers have had time to examine the record of the count. The declaration of the election may be delayed if the Returning Officer decides to conduct a recount

Melbourne City Council and City of Greater Geelong

Melbourne City Council

Melbourne City Council elections are different. Separate provision for the capital city council's elections is laid down in the City of Melbourne Act 2001.

The Lord Mayor and Deputy Lord Mayor nominate as a team and are elected on a single ballot paper, using preferential voting.

Candidates for the other councillor positions may nominate to run in groups and the ballot paper used is similar to that of the Australian Senate and the Victorian Legislative Council. This includes provision for above-the-line voting for group tickets. These votes are counted using proportional representation.

City of Greater Geelong

Following the dismissal of the elected council in April 2016, a Geelong Citizens' Jury will recommend an electoral structure for its future council. This includes the positions of mayor and deputy mayor. During the Parliamentary debate of the legislation to dismiss the council, the government committed to consult the community before a new council is elected in October 2017. Administrators have been appointed to act as the council until a new council is elected.

At the previous elections, in 2012, the Mayor of Greater Geelong City Council was directly elected by all voters in the municipal district and twelve councillors were elected to represent 12 single member Wards.

Caretaker arrangements

Similar to the practice with federal and state government elections, Victorian councils observe special arrangements during the period leading up to a general council election. These are commonly referred to as ‘caretaker arrangements’ and they apply during the ‘election period’.

The special caretaker arrangements that apply to Victorian councils broadly aim to avoid the use of public resources in a way that may unduly affect the election result. They also minimise councils making certain types of decisions that may unduly limit the decision-making ability of the incoming council.

Election period

The ‘election period’ is defined in the Local Government Act as the period between the last day of nominations and the election day. This is a 32-day period in Victorian local government elections.

By law, a council may not make the following types of decisions, either directly or by delegation, during an election period:

  • decisions relating to the employment or remuneration of a permanent chief executive officer of the council
  • decisions to enter into contracts that are valued at more than $150,000 (for purchase of goods or services) or $200,000 (for carrying out of works) or 1% of the council's revenue from rates (whichever is the greater)
  • decisions to enter into entrepreneurial ventures that are valued at more than $100,000 or 1% of the council’s revenue from rates and charges levied (whichever is the greater).
An exception can apply if the council seeks and obtains an exemption from the Minister for Local Government.

Councils may voluntarily place additional limits on their decision making during an election period to ensure they are not unduly committing an incoming council. These limits are often described in the council’s election period policy.The election period policy must be made available on the council's website and available in hardcopy for public inspection. All councils must ensure that copies are given to each councillor.

Publication of electoral matter

The Local Government Act prohibits a council from printing, publishing and distributing material that is electoral matter during an election period. Electoral matter is broadly defined as ‘matter that is intended or likely to affect voting in an election’. This limitation does not apply to electoral material that is only about the election process.

The Chief Executive Officer must certify all council publications during the election period to ensure they don’t contain electoral matter. Some councils describe, in a detailed policy, the way in which they apply this principle in practice.

Documents published before the election period commences (but still available after commencement, for example on the Council’s website) do not require certification and are not caught by the prohibition. Statutory documents permitted under legislation (such as rate notices, food premises registrations and parking fines) may continue to be disseminated by councils during the election period without limitation.  

Replacement of a councillor

Occasionally, a position on council becomes vacant between general elections. This can occur if a councillor dies or resigns, or if a councillor ceases to be eligible to hold office.

Such vacancies are either filled by a by-election or by a countback, depending on how the departing councillor was elected.

By-election 

A by-election is called if a vacancy occurs in a single-member ward where votes were counted using the simple preferential system.

A by-election must be held within 100 days of the vacancy occurring, but is not required if the vacancy occurs in the last six months before a general election is scheduled. When it’s necessary to avoid a clash with the Christmas/New Year holiday period, a by-election may be held up to 150 days after the vacancy occurs.

In a by-election, a complete election is conducted for the ward. This involves a new nomination process and voters casting votes in the same way as in a general election.

Countback 

A countback is a method for filling vacancies in multiple-member constituencies where votes were counted using proportional representation.

The countback process involves re-using the ballot papers that were used to elect the councillor whose position has become vacant. A new preferential count is conducted using these votes. The candidate who obtains a majority of the votes after the distribution of preferences, is invited to take the vacated position on council.

In effect, this process works out which candidate the majority of voters that originally voted for the vacating councillor expressed as their next available preference.

The countback has three important benefits:

  • It allows representation to continue to be proportional to the preferences expressed by voters in the general election.
  • It allows the vacancy on council to be filled in a shorter period of time, so that representation is optimised.
  • It avoids the high costs of a by-election that would occur in a large, multi-member ward or district. (In cases where a vacancy cannot be filled by a countback, a by-election is conducted.)

The Victorian Electoral Commission website contains more information about by-elections and countbacks.

Electoral representation

Electoral structures and boundaries for councils need to be regularly reviewed to ensure that representation continues to be democratic and appropriate. This is particularly important in rapidly developing regions.

The Local Government Act 1989 requires every council to undergo an electoral representation review at least every 12 years. This means that the council will be reviewed before every third general election. The Victorian Electoral Commission is required to conduct the reviews.

Following each review, the Victorian Electoral Commission submits a final report to the Minister for Local Government that recommends:

  • number of councillors to be elected
  • appropriate electoral structure (for example, single-member wards, multi-member wards (or a combination of both) or unsubdivided)
  • location of ward boundaries, if wards are recommended.