By Shane Scanlan
There is doubt over Melbourne’s recent lord mayoral by-election as up to 8313 enrolled voters were potentially denied a vote due to a known electoral flaw.
With Lord Mayor Sally Capp beating candidate Jennifer Yang by just 4666 votes in May, there is every possibility that the wrong woman is wearing the robes and chain.
The flaw results from the City of Melbourne’s practice of nominating to the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) the address of third-party agencies rather than the actual address of non-resident ratepayers.
At the recent by-election some 6889 ballots were posted “care of” real estate agencies and further 1424 were sent “care of” law firms. In the case of overseas non-resident owners, both the agents and VEC agree that there is not enough time allowed for these ballots to be returned.
The VEC admits the flaw, but says Victorian legislation dictates the timing of the postal voting.
Spokesperson Sue Lang told CBD News: “The timing is legislated and we have advised the Minister and Parliament (through submissions and reports) that mail delivery times are not adequate given the changes to the Australia Post delivery model, even within the Victorian context.”
Ms Lang said it was likely that Australian-based non-resident owners did have enough time to return their ballots.
The way the electoral roll is compiled, there is no way of knowing which non-resident ratepayers live in Australia and how many live overseas. But, with the vast majority being Chinese or of Chinese descent, it is likely they would have voted for losing candidate Jennifer Yang.
A further problem with the voting system is that there is no audit of what actually happened to the 8313 “care of” votes that were posted or delivered to real estate agencies and law firms.
Because there is no record of the signatures for this category of voter, it is possible for the agents to fill out and return the ballots.
CBD News asked the VEC if it was willing to check how many of the “care of” votes were actually counted among the 76,492 formal votes received. But Ms Lang said, again, legislation prevented the commission checking for this type of electoral fraud.
“I’ve checked and it is now too late to conduct this exercise as all ballot material has been sealed as required by law,” she said.
However, this response appears to be inconsistent with an earlier comment from Ms Lang that the VEC intended to generate a “non-voters” list “in couple of months” time.
To audit for fraud, the VEC could count how many ballots from overseas owners had been returned and included in the count. Given that it was not possible for overseas voters to participate because there was not enough time allocated, it would be easy for the VEC see how many had been illegally returned by locally-based third parties.
One of the many real estate agents that CBD News spoke to actually innocently admitted to filling out 59 ballots in good faith on behalf of overseas owners.
The agent said, because there was no possibility of the ballots being returned in time, he emailed owners seeking their voting instructions.
Asked whether any took up the offer, he said: “Yes they did. We only had four non-takers.”
Ms Lang said: “Only the voter nominated/to whom the ballot pack is addressed may complete the ballot paper, sign the declaration envelope and return to the VEC.”
Without a formal audit of this large cohort of votes (5.75 per cent of the total enrolment), the system is open to abuse.
Among the larger allocations of ballots sent to third parties were: MICM – 1700; Apex – 304; Ironfish – 258; Melcorp – 199; Ausin – 196 and Dingle – 145.
Some 14 ballots were simply addressed c/- “building manager” at a street address and a further four were addressed c/- “managers office”.
Just why so many ballots were not sent directly to non-resident voters remains a mystery, with different explanations offered by the VEC and the City of Melbourne.
Ms Lang told CBD News: “You should also keep in mind that the voter has nominated the third parties to deal with their mail on their behalf.”
But the City of Melbourne, which compiles this section of the electoral roll, admits it mostly has the residential addresses of non-resident owners on its rates database, but only uses it when an owner has more than one property.
“With regards to absentee owners, where they own one investment property we forward all correspondence to the real estate agent, but record their residential address if it is provided on the system for reference purposes only,” a spokespersons said.
“The reason we send all correspondence via the agent is because we have found that the owner does not advise council when they move from their residential address. The agent, on the other hand, does advise council when they no longer manage a property.”
The agents themselves would prefer not to be involved, not just because of the postage cost burden it imposes but also because of the responsibility it foists on them for such an important civil function.
NPM managing director Sam Nathan summed up the response of many agents when he told CBD News: “It’s a fundamentally flawed system. The pure inefficiency is staggering.
But, what’s worse, is the responsibility it puts on a third party. If someone wanted to, they could fill them all in and send them back.”
“There’s two lots of snail mail involved, not to mention relying on someone in the middle doing the right thing,” Mr Nathan said.
“I think someone has screwed up,” he said. “The council would know the address of the ratepayer. Why send it to us?”