The conduct of council elections is regulated by the Local Government Act 2020 and the Local Government (Electoral) Regulations 2020. The day-to-day management of the election process is undertaken by the Victorian Electoral Commission.
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.
The next general elections will be held on 24 October 2020 for 76 of Victoria’s 79 councils. South Gippsland Shire Council’s next general election will be held in October 2021. Casey and Whittlesea City Councils’ next general election will be held in October 2024.
Under the Local Government Act the Victorian Electoral Commission is the statutory provider for all council elections. The Commission appoints all election managers and election officials..
To be eligible to vote at a council election, people must be on the local council voters’ roll 57 days before election day.
Candidates must submit their nominations in person to the Election Manager before the close of nominations. Nominations close at 12 noon, 32 days before the election day.
General elections and by-elections are held by postal voting. Ballot papers must be completed and posted to the returning officer no later than 6pm on the last working day before election day.
Key election dates are publicised by the Victorian Electoral Commission in the lead-up to an election, enabling people to participate fully in the process. The Election Manager, who runs an election, is also able to provide more detail of the election timeline.
Two methods of counting votes are used in council elections, depending on whether or not the election is for a single-member ward.
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.
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.
The Election Manager 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 Election Manager decides to conduct a recount.
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. And the City of Melbourne (Electoral) Regulations 2012.
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.
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.
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.
A council must have in place an election period policy which prohibits the following types of council 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 commit expenditure exceeding 1% of the council’s income from general rates municipal charges, service rates and charges in the previous financial year
• decisions the council considers could reasonably deferred until the next council is in place
• decisions the council considers should not be made during the election period.
The council’s election period policy forms part of its Governance Rules and must be publicly available..
The Local Government Act prohibits a councillor or member of council staff from using council resources to:
• affect the result of an election, or
• intentionally or recklessly print, publish or 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..
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.
The vacancy is not filled if the Victorian Electoral Commission determines there is insufficient time to conduct a by-election or countback before the period of three months before the next general 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. 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.
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.
A benefit of the countback system is that it allows representation to continue to be proportional to the preferences expressed by voters in the general election.
The Victorian Electoral Commission website contains more information about by-elections and countbacks.