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.
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 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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
The Victorian Electoral Commission has more information about the ways votes are counted.
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 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.
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.
By law, a council may not make the following types of decisions, either directly or by delegation, during an election period:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
The Victorian Electoral Commission website contains more information about by-elections and countbacks.
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: