The conduct of council elections is regulated by the Local Government Act 1989 and the Local Government (Electoral) Regulations 2005. The day to day management of the election process is undertaken by a Returning Officer, who is generally appointed by an electoral commission.
When are council elections held?
All council elections are held every four years, and from 2012 onwards, councils will go to election 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.
Postal and attendance voting
The council decides whether voting in a council election will be entirely by postal voting or primarily by attendance voting.
- In an all-postal election, voting papers are posted to voters by the Returning Officer and voters vote by completing their ballot papers and returning them to the Returning Officer in the reply-paid envelope provided.
- In an attendance election, most voting is conducted at voting centres on election day, although voters may vote at early voting centres or by pre-poll postal votes.
For more detail on voting processes see Participating as a voter.
Who runs council elections?
The Local Government Act allows councils to contract an electoral commission to run a council election on its behalf. In recent years the Victorian Electoral Commission has been contracted by all individual councils to run their elections.
This means that the Returning Officer for each council election is a person appointed to the task by the Electoral Commissioner.
What is the timeline for a council election?
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".
Close of nominations
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.
Close of voting
- In postal elections ballot papers must be received by 6pm on the last working day before election day
- In attendance elections, voting closes at 6pm on election day. (Voting centres open at 8am on election day)
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.
How votes are counted
Two methods of counting votes are used in council elections, depending on whether or not the election is for a single member ward.
A 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.
- All valid first preference votes are counted and sorted to determine the number of first preferences for each candidate
- If no candidate has an absolute majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are re-allocated according to their second preferences
- Where one candidate has an absolute majority (50% plus 1 of all valid votes) that candidate is declared elected
- This process is repeated until one candidate obtains an absolute majority and is declared elected
The Proportional Representation (PR) 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.
PR is used for Australian Senate elections and for the State Legislative Council. However, voting in council elections does not include above-the-line voting like 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 by the Returning Officer 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. 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 PR system is undertaken as follows:
- At any time during the count, when a candidate obtains a total number of votes that is equal to, or greater than, the quota they are declared elected
- Unless all the vacancies have been filled, if a candidate has received more votes than the quota, the value of votes in excess of the quota is redistributed to the next available preference on each ballot paper (this is done by redistributing all the elected candidate’s votes at a lower value, so that the sum of the values is equal to the number of votes in excess of the quota)
- If all the vacancies have not been filled after redistributing the excess votes of elected candidates, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is excluded and all their votes are redistributed to the next available preference on each ballot paper
- These procedures are repeated until all the vacancies have been filled
The Victorian Electoral Commission has more information about the ways votes are counted.
Declaration of election results
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. This is usually within a day or two of the close of voting. The declaration of the election may be delayed if the returning officer decides to conduct a recount.
Melbourne City Council
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.
Councillors may nominate to run in groups and a ballot paper similar to the type used for the Australian Senate and the Victorian Legislative Council is used. This includes provision for above-the-line voting for group tickets. These votes are counted using proportional representation.