Victoria’s 79 municipalities, with about 3.5 million voters, will all hold elections tomorrow, in an unprecedented state-wide operation. Local elections had previously been staggered over a three- or (more recently) four-year cycle; from now on they will all be held together, every four years, exactly midway between state elections.

For any government, this sort of simultaneous election is a risk; voters may well treat it as a giant by-election, and use it to express negative views of the state government, rather than try to assess the merits of their local unknowns. That’s a particular risk this time, since federal incumbency coupled with the global financial crisis seems to have hurt Labor at state level over recent months.

In NSW, which also held statewide local elections in September, Labor was seen to have suffered serious losses. Victoria’s government is clearly not on the nose as much as its NSW cousins, but the last Newspoll shows it only narrowly ahead, with a 3.5% swing since the last election. Some of that dissatisfaction is liable to rub off tomorrow.

Labor also has a problem in the expectations game, because its main opponents, the Liberals, don’t endorse candidates for local government (although in certain suburbs, many candidates have obvious Liberal Party links). That means the opposition can make political capital out of any Labor losses, without having any downside risk for itself. (Poll Bludger has commentary on some of the interesting races.)

However, it would not be quite right to say that Victorians go to the polls tomorrow. In 70 of the 79 councils, voting is entirely by post, closing at midday today; tomorrow just marks the day the ballot papers are opened. Only nine councils, all in the suburbs (see the list here), expect people to show up to polling booths in the old-fashioned way.

Council bureaucrats like postal voting because its cheaper and it makes councils look more like non-political service organisations than like messy representative democracies. (Disclosure here: I’m a partner in a firm that runs attendance elections, although not for local government.)

But the problem with compulsory postal voting is not just that something of the collective democratic experience has been lost. There’s also a very serious concern about voting secrecy.

Paradoxically, the strength of the traditional secret ballot is its public nature: no-one can see how you vote, but you vote in a public place, so that secrecy is itself visible. But when all votes are postal, there’s nothing to stop the local party boss (or employer, or landlord, or whoever) turning up at your door one evening and helpfully saying “Just thought I’d come and check that you’re not having any trouble filling out your ballot paper.”

Once upon a time, the secret ballot was widely known as the “Victorian ballot”. Sad to see that state leading the way in giving up one of its biggest advantages.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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