Thursday, October 25, 2018

Ways To Improve Tasmanian Council Elections

On Tuesday I voted in the Hobart City Council elections.  (By the way, if you haven't voted yet, you might want to take your vote direct to your local council centre.) After following this election for months, including researching the candidates and writing a guide to the election it still took me 70 minutes to fill out my ballot papers, albeit with a little live tweeting of my thought processes on the way.  I'm not even convinced I did all that good a job of it, and suspect it would have taken me 3-4 hours to come up with a vote that was the best I could possibly do.  If it wasn't for the fact that there are always people who need putting near the bottom, I would have been wondering why I even bothered.

Ahead of a radio appearance in the morning, I thought I'd put up a list of some things that I think need fixing in Tasmania's local council elections system.    In general, they need fixing through legislation - it is the laws put in place by the State Government that dictate most aspects of how the Tasmanian Electoral Commission runs elections.  After voting, I put out a call for a joint parliamentary inquiry into local council election rules to get these issues fixed.  However I later found out that the state government does have a full-scale review process for the Local Government Act underway - slowly - the draft terms of reference of which include:

Local government electoral provisions, including options for enhancing both voter and candidate participation in local government elections;

That sounds promising, but it badly needs to be an in-depth nuts-and-bolts review of the electoral legislation, and not just a superficial argument about whether or not to introduce compulsory voting (which I oppose).  Many of the problems with the current rules are not the current government's fault, having been caused by its predecessor (which, for instance, ignored warnings about increased informal voting), but it is past high time that they were fixed.

Inflexible formality rules

The formality rules for voting on the councillor ballot paper are ridiculous.  A voter should not have their vote disallowed because they can only find 11 candidates they can bear to put a number next to, or (for a council with 12 candidates) because they mistakenly write 12 a second time when they go to write 13.

These rules were copied from the House of Assembly system, where a voter must vote from 1 to 5 without error.  That requirement causes enough unintended informal votes by itself, but expanding it to a larger number of vacancies (as was done in 2014) greatly increases the error rate caused by voter mistakes - as was predicted before this was done.  In 2014, 1418 Hobart ballot papers (7.5%) were informal, mostly unintentionally.  The high rate of unintended informality caused by inflexible rules is a joke given that one seat was decided by 3.6 votes and the loser of the contest was an ethnic community candidate, whose voters may have been more likely to make mistakes.

The net result of keeping these rules while increasing the number of vacancies in 2014 was that while the percentage of electors returning their envelopes increased slightly compared to 2011 (from 54.28% to 54.58%) the percentage of electors casting a formal Councillor vote declined from 52.2% to 50.51%.

Even without having to number so many places, the logic behind copying the state system is faulty.  The House of Assembly has a party-based system where parties can be severely disadvantaged if voters for their more popular candidates only vote for a single candidate.  Also, the knowledge that voters have to vote for five candidates helps encourage robust competition between candidates of the same party, which is a great feature of that system.  But Councils really don't have a party system.  Although parties (especially the Greens) often run endorsed candidates, the party system is weak in terms of seats won, preference flow, party solidarity, and tendency of councillors to stay with their parties once elected.  (Councillors first elected as Greens frequently end up as "independents".)

No principle of proportional representation will be harmed in any way if voters can number as few or as many boxes as they like.  One suggestion by Clarence councillor and keen electoral observer James Walker is to completely liberalise preferencing (link may be paywalled).  This could be a good solution provided it is spelled out very clearly to voters that they should number as many boxes as possible to make their vote more powerful.    If not that solution, then there should be a large move in that direction, both by allowing for savings provisions and by reducing the number of numbers required.  Harsh formality rules disenfranchise electors who struggle with basic number skills.  Those who have good number skills often just don't understand how hard it is for the others.

A completely optional (or more optional) preferencing system could be improved by the ACT method of handling surpluses in which where a candidate has more votes than they need, those votes that have no preferences for anyone else are exhausted in preference to those that continue.  This helps keep more votes in the count at closer to full value.

Too many candidates for big councils (and it could be worse)

The Hobart City Council ballot has 36 candidates, with 11 each for Lord Mayor and Deputy Lord Mayor.  I think it's just too many.  Of these, about a third are making very little visible effort, are low profile, and are highly unlikely to win or even to advance issues that they are standing for (the nature of which is often elusive, or where it can be gleaned, confused.)  The sheer size of the ballot is daunting for many voters. Voters especially feel frustrated about not being able to find information about some candidates (even with the assistance of the often self-servingly bland candidate statements and web links) and don't seem to spring readily to the obvious solution - if someone hasn't told you enough about themselves, put them near the bottom.

I think one reason there are so many candidates is that running for council is free.  Yet candidates are running for paid jobs, and every extra candidate creates increased costs in data entry labour.  Extra candidates for leadership positions slow down the count.  One might think a large increase in candidate numbers in 2014 (because of the switch to an all-in-all-out system) would have increased turnout by a lot because more voters would have known at least one candidate.  However, this wasn't the case, and I suspect the length of the ballots could have been a factor.

Not only is it unusual to allow candidates to run for free (compared to state or federal elections where deposits are required and then refunded if a certain vote share is reached), it is also asking for trouble.  A large group of people could easily disrupt an election by running en masse in order to flood the ballot for whatever reason.  Think 11 candidates for Lord Mayor is a lot?  Imagine if there were 111.

Some small councils have the opposite problem - they struggle to get enough candidates, which may be a sign that these councils are in fact too small and should be amalgamated.  But for city councils, I think there should be a deposit, refunded to candidates who poll, say, 2% of primaries on councillor ballots or 10% for Mayor or Deputy.

General Manager Rolls

General manager rolls (including both non-citizens and property/business voters living outside a council) continue to attract controversy, and this needs to be sorted.  I'm not sure whether voting needs to be limited to citizens, since encouraging long-term residents to take a role in shaping their community's governance is probably healthy for the community as a whole.  However, rules (whatever they are) need to be clear, uniform and should be administered by the Electoral Commission rather than by local councils.

Online rules

Section 278 (3) of the Local Government Act states that:

"(3)  A person, within the relevant period, must not print, publish or distribute any electoral advertising that contains the name, photograph or a likeness of a candidate or intending candidate at an election without the written consent of the candidate or intending candidate.
Penalty:  Fine not exceeding 50 penalty units."

"Electoral advertising" is "defined" (or not) as

electoral advertising means any advertising, by any of the following means, that is directly or indirectly in respect of a campaign for election by a candidate or intending candidate:
(a) any notice, sign or poster;
(b) any pamphlet or handbill;
(c) any "how-to-vote" card;
(d) any print medium;
(e) any broadcast by radio or television;
(f) on the internet;

When it comes to newspapers, radio or printed items it's generally completely clear which bits are the ads and which bits are content.  The ads are the bits people pay for.  In the case of material on the internet, where the user generates material for free and directly, how on earth do you know what is "advertising" and what isn't?  What tweets by a candidate or non-candidate naming a candidate are "advertising" and what are commentary comparable to an op ed?  Even in its application to all the other forms of advertising listed, this law (again lifted from the state act) is a pointlessly illiberal restriction on free speech, but worse than that, when it comes to the internet it's not even clear what it pointlessly illiberally restricts and what it doesn't.  Vague rules that might be repressive (forcing someone to potentially choose between taking a legal risk and placing their ideas at a political disadvantage) are even worse than repressive rules that are clear and the same for everybody.

Voter Understanding

I'm somewhat concerned about the level of voter understanding of the system at this election.  Perhaps the fact that it is now four years between elections means that voters are losing familiarity with voting at them.  I am finding that too many voters think:

1. that you have to number every box (the instruction at the bottom of the ballot makes it clear that you don't, but plenty of people still think that you do), or

2. that it is a bad idea to number every box because you might help someone you don't like beat someone you like.  (This one is a common furphy in these kinds of elections.  If you put candidate A ahead of candidate B, then your vote cannot help candidate B beat candidate A in any way, because no part of its value can ever reach candidate B in the preference process unless candidate A has already been elected or eliminated.)

More voter education would be helpful on both these points.  If absurdly strict formality provisions (or anything like them) are going to continue, voters also should be told that they need to be careful not to make errors, especially within the minimum number of squares for a valid vote.

Why Not Compulsory Voting?

Compulsory voting* is being widely promoted as a kneejerk response to supposedly low turnouts.  This ignores that Tasmania's turnout is much higher than other states where voting is voluntary, and not much lower than some places where it's "compulsory".  Indeed it looks like turnout this year might yet be up a bit on 2014.

I'm totally against compulsory voting for local government elections.  I don't really like it much for state or federal elections either, but that's a lost battle so I do not bother fighting it.  For those who say that it is compulsory in state and federal elections so why not Council, I would point out that it is not compulsory in the world's major democracies, so why by the same argument should it be compulsory at any level here?

The compulsory voting argument represents the worst impulse of government (not any particular government, but an approach loved by government in general): if people aren't doing what you want them to, just force them to do it.  I prefer the opposite approach: respect the voter's choice to not vote, unless there is an overwhelming reason not to (which there isn't.)

It's quite possible that forcing low-information voters who have no idea what goes on in councils and little reason to care will only have the effect of increasing party involvement, with obscure party candidates running simply to harvest the votes of those who can't relate to the system in any other way.  It also increases costs, all for nothing other than to allow people to claim that we enhanced the system by forcing people who didn't want to vote and had no idea what they were doing to take part in it.  There's no evidence from elsewhere that it increases interest in local politics or improves the quality of it - it is just another thing you have to do to avoid getting fined.

(* Or if you prefer, compulsory booth attendance or return of voting materials.)

Many Positives

Many things are good about our Council voting system.  We have high engagement - especially in voting for the smaller councils - whereas other states with voluntary voting struggle to get a third of voters to turn out.  We have preferential voting for Mayors and Deputies and Hare-Clark for councillors whereas other states have first-past-the-post, Group Ticket Voting and other primitive or unsound systems.  We have democratic countbacks to fill vacancies, whereas NSW often has expensive and distorting by-elections.  We have candidate statements to at least give all candidates the option to speak directly to the voters, and so on.

But I think there's a lot that can be done to make it better, and to make getting involved and having a say less daunting and more effective for those who are struggling to make sense of it all.  I also think we should see what we can do to help people participate well, rather than force them to participate badly.

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