Thursday, October 11, 2018

Council Voting - Please Be Careful!

I've already made this point in my Hobart guide but I thought I should make it prominently in a separate post to cover all councils.  Please feel very free to share and spread widely.

A scourge of Tasmanian council elections is the high rate of informal voting.  Informal votes are votes that are returned but cannot be counted as they are not valid votes.  The main reason the informal voting rate is high is that voters make mistakes and the rules concerning this are stupid.  The reason the rules are stupid is that governments have failed to fix them.  The previous Labor/Greens government ignored warnings that bringing in all-in all-out elections would cause a high informal voting rate under the current system. The current Liberal government has so far done nothing to fix it.  The Local Government Act needs to be reformed to provide savings provisions for voters who make honest mistakes.

When you get your ballot papers in the mail, the ballot paper for Councillors will have an instruction at the top saying "Number the boxes from 1 to [some number] in order of your choice".  At the bottom it says "Number at least [some other number] boxes to make your vote count".  The first number is the number of candidates, the second is the number to be elected.

What the instructions don't tell you is that if you make a mistake before you get to that second (minimum) number, your vote won't be counted - at all!

So for instance, Hobart is electing 12 councillors.  You can number up to 36 boxes but for your vote to count you need to at least number the boxes 1 to 12 once and once only.  If you include any of those numbers more than once, your vote is invalid and will not count at all.  If you skip any of those numbers, your vote is invalid and will not count at all.  So for instance, if you put two number 8s but no number 9 on a Hobart councillor paper, that's it, your vote will not be valid.  Even had you made just one of these two mistakes, your vote would not count.  I personally saw huge piles of ballot papers rejected for these sorts of reasons in 2014.  Especially, do not think "oh I really can't find 12 candidates, I'll just pick 11, surely that's good enough?"  It isn't. It's the same as posting in a blank ballot.

If you make a mistake involving doubling or omitting numbers after the minimum number, that's not such a big deal.  Don't let that put you off numbering as many boxes as you want to.  A mistake after the minimum number just means that if your vote gets to the point where you made the mistake (which depending on your preference ordering might not happen anyway) then at that point your vote will exhaust from the system.  It may be that much of your vote's value has been used up helping people get elected by that stage anyway.

It's especially easy to omit or double numbers if you like voting from the bottom up, which lots of us do.

One way to avoid these sorts of errors is to practice voting on a separate sheet of paper (or spreadsheet) first.  Once you have an order you can check it by listing the numbers from 1 to the number of candidates on another piece of paper, and going through your practice vote from the top, crossing off each number as it appears.  If you go to cross off a number and find you've already crossed it off, that probably means you've doubled up somewhere.  If a number doesn't get crossed off, look for that number and see if you've missed it.

If you make a mistake on your actual ballot paper, and you're using a pen, you can correct it by crossing the incorrect number out and writing the correct one.  (Pencil is much easier, since you can just erase it, and there's no reason not to use pencil.) But if you do this make sure it is very clear what your actual voting order is.

As to the question of numbering all of the boxes vs only some of them - assuming you have time to consider it -  I almost always number all of the boxes.  The important thing to remember if there are several candidates you don't like, is that how you rank the candidates at the bottom of the list will never help any of them beat candidates who you ranked higher - but it may help the candidate you see as the lesser evil defeat one you really can't stand.  If you have ranked a candidate 30th out of 36, your vote cannot reach them or help them until everyone you ranked 1 to 29 has been elected or eliminated.  However, it might then help them beat those you have ranked 31 to 36.

Under no circumstances can numbering extra boxes EVER assist a candidate you dislike to beat a candidate who you have ranked above them.  It is quite staggering that one candidate, who is a professional scientist, has managed to get this wrong when free advice is at hand!


  1. Hi Kevin, as I was completing my ballot paper for Hobart City Council I struggled to differentiate certain groups of candidates. Ie. there were candidates that I would happy to be on council and candidates that I really didn’t want to be. I was thinking that being able to place a mark next to those that I would be happy to be on council and each of these receive an equal vote would much better represent my views (I guess something like a multi member first past the post format). Have you ever seen or heard of a system like this elsewhere, and would it have any merit?

  2. That sort of system is often used for electing corporate or community association boards. It was also used, inadvisedly, in the Australian Senate from 1919-1948. Some implementations limit the number of candidates the voter can approve of (block or slate voting) and others allow the voter to approve of as many as they like (approval voting.) In either case it works well in cases where the aim is to elect a bunch of people who will work well together, and tends not to work well in cases where the aim is proportional representation of different views. The reason for this is that if there is high block support for a faction of like-minded candidates, that faction can end up scooping all the available positions, eg if the electorate is divided 55-45 between two teams of 12, the team with 55% support fills the top 12 positions and wins the lot. That is the main reason why such systems are not used in this sort of context.

    I do think a problem with single transferrable vote (the system we have) is it places too much priority on a voter's first vote (or effective first vote at any given point of time). It doesn't include any measure of whether the voter is much happier with one candidate than another or more or less indifferent between two candidates. As a result a candidate who is nobody's favourite but who most voters are mildly positive about can easily get eliminated early on. It's not easy to find a way around this that doesn't create other problems.

  3. Thank you, I really appreciate your response and your work in general.

  4. Hi Kevin,

    Thank you for your candidate guide. Without it my voting would have been quite a bit more arbitrary.

    Inspired by your guide, I set out to number all of the councillor candidates from 1 to 36. I started both from the top down and the bottom up, but it became tricky trying to keep all the candidates and where I wanted to place them in mind. I would see a candidate I hadn't numbered yet and wish I had put them higher or lower than candidates I had already numbered, and I didn't have the patience to shift all of the other numbers down or up (and plus, recklessly, I was using a pen). When I had finished, I wasn't satisfied that my numbering reflected my preferences accurately.

    I wanted to shuffle the candidates around easily, so I made this:

    With it you can move candidates up and down (they start in alphabetical order), add notes, and tick them off to remind yourself that you've placed them.

    I've only tested it in Chrome and Firefox.

    I hope it is useful, and feedback is welcome.

    1. Excellent! Thanks for sharing.

    2. Thanks Kevin!

      I've added two new things.

      First, thanks to a suggestion via email, there are now lists of Lord Mayor and Deputy Lord Mayor candidates at the bottom of the Councillors page which are automatically sorted into the same order as the Councillors.

      Second, it's now possible to create your own list.

      The URL for creating a list has a question mark at the end:

      I plan to move this page to the main URL (without a question mark) once the election is over.

      An example list for Launceston City Council is here.

      You may want to use a URL shortener for sharing the generated links, for example:

      Candidate lists for Tasmanian elections can be found here:

      Thanks to the people who have sent feedback via email!