Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Hobart City Council Tanya Denison Recount

Jan 28: Recount today, once I have seen the results and the scrutiny sheet I will update this article.

Result: COATS WINS.  Coats defeats Bloomfield by 1.77 votes


In something of an upset result (unless you are Simon Behrakis who was the only one who suggested to me that Coats might win!) Will Coats, the youngest of the several Liberal candidates running has been elected.  He has defeated Louise Bloomfield by the precarious margin of 1.77 votes, the closest margin in a Hobart election to my knowledge (which goes back to the mid-1980s).

The recount started with Coats in 4th place on 12.0% behind Mallett (14.7%), Bloomfield (13.7%) and Alexander (12.8%).  I have never seen a candidate win a recount from 4th place.  Merridew was on 5.6%, suggesting that without the bug he would have started fairly close to the leaders.  Christie was on 2.8% and definitely wouldn't have won anyway, and Andy Taylor (5.5%, also disadvantaged by the bug but not as much as the others) also wouldn't have won.

As the recount progressed Coats gained on the leaders on the exclusion of minor candidates (so these are basically random votes 1 for some minor non-Liberal 2 Denison or the other way around, for example).  He passed Alexander for third on the preferences of Brian Corr and passed Mallett for second on the preferences of Andy Taylor.  Taylor was excluded ninth with Fiona Irwin eighth.

Merridew was excluded in seventh, at which point he was over 100 votes behind Alexander.  This gap suggests to me that without the impact of the recount bug Merridew would probably have finished fifth just behind Alexander.  However I cannot be sure about this; what is clear is that the bug has turned what looks like it would have been a slim chance into no chance.

Female candidates Bec Taylor (Greens) and Cat Schofield (Ind) had polled reasonably well in the recount off gender voting and were excluded sixth and fifth, and as they were cut out Bloomfield's lead grew to 108.48 votes (also gender voting) with only Bloomfield, Coats, Mallett and Alexander left.  However now Bloomfield was the only female candidate remaining.  Coats gained 21.7 votes off Alexander leaving Bloomfield 86.78 votes ahead with 415.6 Mallett votes to throw.

44.14 Mallett votes exhausted, so Coats needed 61.7% of the non-exhausting Mallett votes to win (bear in mind these could be Mallett votes that went to Denison in the original count or Denison votes that could have gone to Mallett).  However Coats actually got 61.9% and won by 1.77 votes.

Effectively, the gender advantages to each of Bloomfield and Coats at various stages of the preference flow cancelled out and Bloomfield's biggest problem was not quite having a large enough share of Denison's vote at the start.   That said I would not have expected Coats to be the one to catch up!

As a result, if someone voted, say, 1 Denison 2 Mallett 3 Coats 4 Bloomfield, then that individual voter's decision to put Coats ahead of Bloomfield made the difference - but this could also apply to many other voters deciding who to put way down the list.

Of course, positions being decided by a single voter's decision is a mockery when 2021 ballot papers were ruled informal in the original count, most of them because of clerical errors by the voter that should not have prevented their vote being counted.  This very close result further underlines the critical need for informal voting rules to be reformed before the next election.

Close Result

It's important to bear in mind that this recount is not a fresh count of the ballot papers; it is just a computer calculation of ballots that were already all entered in 2018.  The original ballot process involves two data entry operators independently using computer keyboard to key in what they see on each ballot paper.  If the two operators get exactly the same result, then that is accepted as the correct vote.  If they differ then a supervisor is called to check the vote; the same happens if the data entry indicates that the vote is informal.

It is possible (but rare) for a vote to be entered wrongly twice by two different operators.  In a 2014 report that I did for the TEC I noted that a trial of the system had found seven incorrectly double-entered ballots out of 12,000.  My report notes that actions were taken to make the errors that had happened less likely, but not what they were.

If errors occurred at such a rate in this count they would have mostly affected ballot papers that had no impact on the margin, or impacted them at a point that didn't matter, but it's always possible that there could be a wrong ballot that would have made all the difference.  In the case of a very close election, further data entry of at least some ballot papers might be considered to ensure the result was correct, but this didn't occur (for example) with the very close 2014 Tanya Denison result.  This recount is also an unusual case in that the original count was not super-close but the recount years later was.

The result has now been formally declared and the only recourse against it would be a court challenge to attempt to obtain a recount.  Courts are reluctant to overturn initial results or order recounts without evidence of errors in the original count.


A Hare-Clark recount (that's the official name, though "countback" would be better) is coming up on Hobart City Council for the seat being vacated by Tanya Denison.  Denison, a past federal Liberal candidate for the unwinnable seat then also called Denison (now called Clark), was in her second term on the Council.  She was first elected in 2014 after surviving exclusion at one point by 3.6 votes, and then re-elected comfortably in 2018, the seventh winner out of 12 elected.

This post explains the recount and considers the prospects of the possible candidates.  The recount consists solely of the votes that Tanya Denison had when she was elected.  The fact that Ron Christie missed out being re-elected to Council by 20 votes does not make him a big chance for the recount (in fact it harms his chances, for a reason to be explained below.)  All these votes go initially to the highest placed candidate on that vote who is contesting the recount (who may have been numbered above or below Denison on that ballot paper) at the value they had after Denison was elected and her total brought down to quota.  In this recount, no-one will have anything like 50% of the total, so then candidates are excluded bottom-up, like in a single-seat election, until someone wins.  All the ballot papers are already digitally stored so on the day of the recount this will all be calculated by the computer very quickly.  The main delay before the recount is held will be allowing time for candidate consents to contest the recount to be received.

Denison's quota is 1616 votes.  This consists of:

* Denison's primary votes: 879 votes (54.4% of recount)
* Votes received by Denison on surpluses from elected candidates Reynolds, Burnet, Thomas, Harvey, Briscoe and Behrakis: 55.02 votes (3.4%)
* Votes received by Denison from one of 22 candidates excluded before her election: 681.98 votes (42.2%)

The distribution of preferences can be seen at the TEC site (PDF).  We can see, for instance, that the candidate from whom the most votes flowed to Denison was Andy "Tubes" Taylor (168).  However, because these votes put Denison over the line, they are reduced in value to 39.72 votes in the recount.  Also, because Taylor was excluded late in the count and almost 42% of his primary votes came from other candidates, it's likely that a lot of the votes passing from him to Denison actually came from other unelected candidates and will revert to them in the recount, at least initially.

The candidates who passed the most votes to Denison that will still count at their existing values were Darren Alexander (113) and Robert Mallett (100.48).  However they were also excluded late, so the above point about votes passing back to other candidates applies to them as well to some degree.

Candidates in this recount have an advantage if the following are true:

1. They were endorsed by the Liberal Party: The Liberal Party endorsed Tanya Denison (elected), Simon Behrakis (elected),  Robert Mallett, Louise Bloomfield, Chris Merridew, Will Coats, Stefan Vogel and Martin Waldhoff, all Liberal members at least at the time, in a how-to-vote post circulated on Facebook and probably elsewhere.  (Thanks to Brad Stansfield for the link.) The endorsement was in no particular order.

2. They have broadly similar views on development issues, especially the cable car, to Denison:  The proposed kunanyi/Mt Wellington cable car was a significant issue affecting preference flows at the election.  Candidates with broadly "pro-development" views who were open to supporting, or in-principle supportive of, the cable car, may have been more likely to receive Denison's preferences.

3. They are female: Gender has a large impact on preference flows in Council elections.

4. They have a high profile: Profile in the community is always important in preference-getting in Council elections.

5. They were fully excluded before Denison was elected in the original election:  Hare-Clark recounts are affected by a bug in which candidates who are excluded after a candidate was elected are disadvantaged compared to those excluded before.  This is discussed in definitive detail in my recent technical Wonk Central piece.

The candidates disadvantaged by the recount bug are Merridew, Christie and (to a slightly lesser extent) Andy Taylor.  Merridew and Christie have no immediate access to the 42.2% of votes from other excluded candidates (assuming all other excluded candidates contest).  The recount bug probably isn't as big a deal in this case as in others, because of the large number of possible candidates and the spread of votes, but if one of these candidates does OK off Denison's primaries and manages to make the final, say, five, they will be competing at that point with candidates who have a bit of a leg-up.  Not an insurmountable one (maybe 50-70 votes in some cases) but it could still make the difference.

Which candidates have the most advantages?

None of the candidates tick all five of the boxes as the ideal winner of this recount.  Two tick four: Robert Mallett ticks all the boxes bar "female" and Louise Bloomfield ticks all the boxes bar "high profile".

Mallett polled 483 primaries to Bloomfield's 246.  However, by the time she was excluded, Bloomfield had received 109.14 votes in preferences compared to 62.95 for Mallett.  The main reason for this was that Bloomfield got more than three times as many preferences from female candidates.  By the time Bloomfield was excluded, all bar 3 of the 19 other candidates remaining in the count were male.

Despite his high profile as a previous Liberal candidate, Mallett didn't campaign very actively compared to others and that might account for his fairly weak preference flows in the main count.  The question is whether his business involvements would make him a particularly appealing candidate in competition with other similar candidates for Denison's votes.

Candidates who tick three boxes include Darren Alexander and Chris Merridew, provided that we treat them as high-profile, which is a little bit debatable.  Alexander isn't a Liberal, but could well appeal to Liberal voters, and did provide quite a lot of votes to Denison (though it's unclear how many of those votes were his).  Merridew was endorsed on the Liberal ticket and is disadvantaged by the recount bug but did perform better than Mallett both on primary votes (531-483) and preferences (184.31-118.62), and might still be able to overcome the bug (given that this seems not to be an especially bad case of it).

Will Coats, Martin Waldhoff and Stefan Vogel were all endorsed on the Liberal ticket, but the latter two didn't poll much.  Coats did a little better with 235 votes but isn't as prominent as some of the other male candidates.  A theory has been suggested to me that Coats might have been a good down the line choice for younger voters who might have voted 1-2 for Denison and Behrakis; that's plausible, but there are relatively few young voters in council elections which is part of the reason Coats did not poll better in the first place.

The female candidates other than Bloomfield aren't as good a fit politically and are generally low profile.  Even if one of them beats Bloomfield in the cutup, which might be possible, it's hard to see them actually winning.

There has been considerable punter interest in the chances of Andy Taylor.  Taylor is high-profile and overtook both Mallett and Alexander in the cutup but isn't an obvious choice for Liberal supporters and is disadvantaged by the recount bug.

I should also mention the former stand-in Lord Mayor Ron Christie, who lost his seat as a councillor at the election.  Christie's preference-getting performance in the cutup was poor and he seems unlikely to win despite having been a high-profile candidate. Christie started 8th on primaries in the original count but was overtaken by five candidates during the cutup, all of them gaining hundreds of votes on him (in Zelinda Sherlock's case over 500) in the process.  The fact that he still finished 13th is not directly relevant (contrary to the impression given in this Mercury article) because that was mainly a result of a relatively high primary vote.

While the five candidates who overtook Christie were all elected and are no longer a problem for him, he was also outperformed by Merridew on preferences (by over 100) and while outperforming the other non-elected candidates on preferences by the time they were excluded, received very poor preference shares from Liberal candidates (eg 1.1% from Bloomfield, 1.5% from Coats, 3.4% from Mallett).  A difference that could help Christie is that Denison was, unlike these, a sitting councillor, and voters for sitting councillors preference other sitting councillors to some degree.  However, Christie is also disadvantaged by the recount bug.

Impact on the cable car

I suspect the recount will do little to alter the balance on Council (and it is very balanced) as concerns the cable car proposal.  The candidates most likely to win have broadly similar positions to Denison.  (Denison was open to the cable car and generally believed to be supportive, but was scrupulous about avoiding pre-committing statements about it.)  Christie winning could decisively change the balance, but appears to be an unlikely outcome.

This is quite an open recount and it will be interesting to see how it all comes out when the button is pressed.   At some stage I will note which candidates appear to be running, if known.

Candidates contesting

Bloomfield, Merridew and Brian Corr (who doesn't seem to have a realistic chance) are known to be contesting.  Christie is considering doing so.

 Once I have seen the cutup I will update this article.

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