Return to sender -Council rejects postal voting

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By Angus Smith

The City of Port Phillip has the lowest voter participation in the state, according to a recent report by the council.

The report was prepared by the council’s governance coordinator Murray Chick, and recommended the council adopt postal voting, as data indicated this would increase voter participation by over 10%.

Despite the recommendation, in February this year the council voted to retain attendance voting, which requires voters to attend voting booths in person to cast their vote.

The Chick Report revealed that in 2012, only 49% of voters attended the council elections. By comparison, the adjoining City of Bayside had a 72% voter turnout in the same year.

The council’s report also showed that adopting postal voting would save the City of Port Philip around $150,000 per election.

Bernadene Voss, the Mayor of the City of Port Philip, voted in favour of retaining attendance voting at the 9February 2016 council meeting.

She said she voted against changing the voting system to “maintain the status quo” and believes making such a change would be confusing to voters, because of a large amount of changes already under way.

“We are going from 7 councillors to 9 councillors and there will be fewer wards, so we have currently got 7 wards and it will be going to 3 wards,” she said.

Mayor Voss believes that attendance voting means candidates have the opportunity to meet with voters, which enhances democratic values.

“Voting day is a community day and is actually an Australian tradition that I think helps create a sense of democracy”.

But according to fellow Councillor Andrew Bond, this type of argument is deliberately misleading.

“You have four years to communicate with your constituents; if you haven’t been communicating with them up until that election day I don’t think spending a couple of hours on a polling booth is going to change things much,” Bond said.

“Each councillor is required to man 5 or 6 booths for each ward, so a councillor can only be at one ward, at one booth at a time, so the overwhelming majority of people at booths, are not going to have any sort of interaction with their ward councillor.”

Councillor Bond labelled the community engagement argument for attendance voting a “red herring”.

He believes the current system advantages candidates endorsed by the two main community political parties in the district; the Community Alliance of Port Philip (CAPP) and unChain.

“I’m the only independent in council. Out of the other six, three belong to CAPP and three belong to unChain… and they’re the parties that have a tremendous advantage by having an attendance election,” said Bond.

Both the current and former mayor are CAPP endorsed councillors.

But according to Mayor Voss fewer people voting could in fact be more democratic and a sign that Council is doing a good job.

“The more controversial issues you have, the greater the participation, so I think that says quite lot,” she said.

“People are very comfortable and happy, a lot of the time, with how council is run and managed,” Voss continues.

According to Mayor Voss, while younger people, older people and renters are less likely to vote under the current system, postal voting is also an imperfect system because of security issues and democratic flaws.

“There are issues with postal voting as well. Postal voting increases security concerns such as people voting on behalf of others, ballot packs could be lost or stolen or treated like junk mail,” Voss said.

“You don’t have to engage with the community if it was postal voting … so you could actually get elected with basically 150 words and your photo and I don’t think that is particularly democratic,” Voss continues.

She added that dummy voters and dummy candidates were a big concern.

“Attendance voting really reduces the likelihood of dummy candidates,” she said.

In contrast, Cr Bond believes that increased voter participation is actually a better indicator of a healthy democracy and would also put candidates on a more even footing.

“The more people that participate, the better the outcome and the less likely you are to get poor quality candidates,” Bond said.

“One of the reasons I am against attendance voting is that it makes it harder for independents to run,” Bond continues.

He said the workload required to run a campaign was significant.

“You have to man a pre-poll booth for two weeks, you’ve got to man 6 booths on the day. You need 30, 40 or 50 people, including scrutineers, to run a campaign,” he said.

“I think these community political parties have implemented this system to advantage themselves, because they know they have the people to run these campaigns and it pretty much ensures the status quo will be elected again.”

Cr Bond pointed to a number of tight counts, as another reason to switch to postal votes.

“That’s why the system used can certainly deliver a different outcome. Under postal we are much more likely to get independent councillors,” said Bond.

In the 2012 council elections, former Mayor Amanda Stevens won by 86 votes while Mayor Bernadene Voss and Councillor Andrew Bond won by just 29 and 28 votes, respectively.

Port Phillip has had attendance voting since the council’s foundation in 1996.

The next Council election will be held on Saturday 22 October 2016.

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