Nambucca Shire Council makes submission to Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters over flawed random selection process in vote counting

This might shock you, as it has indeed shocked our councillors.

There is every chance that if a recount of the last Nambucca council elections was to happen today, we might have a different council representing us tomorrow.

A hearing was staged in the NSW Parliament yesterday by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters to probe the random selection process of counting preferences in local government elections.

The matter came to the fore during the last set of elections on September 9.

The NSW Legislative Council and local government election system is proportional representation by single transfer, which is a kind of hybrid of the ‘first past the post’ and preferential voting systems— only a sample of ballot papers from winning candidates are then selected at random for second preference counting in order to establish the remaining winners.

“The problem with randomly selecting which ones are declared exhausted and which are transferred, is that you cannot duplicate the result. Because local government deals in relatively smaller numbers to state and federal it can mean a lot of people can be elected where if you re-ran the process and did another random selection they would be the ones who just missed out,” Mayor Rhonda Hoban said.

To be blunt, if they counted the Nambucca election again, we might have a different council.

At the last council meeting in Scotts Head, councillors expressed their surprise and disbelief at the revelation of the random selection process involved in state and local government elections.

“I was shocked to read that this is the way it’s being done, madame mayor,” Councillor John Ainsworth said.

“As it happens madame mayor, I’m very fond of preferential voting,” Councillor Brian Finlayson said.

“Some people put a lot of time into their preferences,” Councillor Janine Reed said.

The councillors moved unanimously to submit a submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters: “that; in support of a full democratic right of voters; the Act be changed in favour a full count until all preferential votes have been exhausted.”

“Council would therefore like to recommend either full preferential voting or optional preferential voting as alternative methods of ballot counting on the basis either would produce more accurate preference flows,” the submission letter said.

So why do we have this system?

According to the chief executive of Local Government NSW, Donna Rygate, the NSW electoral quirk is a throwback from the Neville Wran government of the 70s when it was thought too onerous to count all preference flows.

But the electoral commission has been using computers to imput voting data for the past 30 years which have the potential to count all preferences.

As election statistics guru Antony Green (who appeared at the parliament hearing yesterday) has said this is a “problem of law not keeping up with technology”.

While the NSW state election process is constitutional and would need a referendum to be altered, the local government election process is common law and can be amended through state parliament.

Members of the NSW Electoral Commission (who conduct most of the NSW local government elections) also made a representation at yesterday's Jubilee Room inquiry hearing.

The NSW Electoral Commissioner John Schmidt raised further concerns about the democratic process of the current system.

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A request for recount can be lodged in two ways: via a direct request to the electoral commissioner, or by paying for one.

Mr Schmidt told the committee that a recount is very rarely granted in the case of a close race unless specific proof of fraud is lodged, for the very reason that a recount in local government elections would likely render a different result and call into question the very nature of the democratic process.

On the other hand, should a candidate front the money for a recount, then it would be granted and would have a reasonable chance of winning, based on the laws of probability.

In other words, a candidate could buy a different election result.

Mr Schmidt said that at last year’s election 15 requests for recount were lodged with him but none were granted, while at the most recent elections in September, 11 were lodged and only two were granted (with one of those paid for).

Implementing electoral change (if passed through parliament) would be a six-month project involving software changes according to the executive director of information systems for the NSW Electoral Commission, John Cant. 

Asked if it was possible to have the new system in place before the 2020 election, Mr Cant said: “I see no problems so far, no.”