The ACT Electoral Commission (ACTEC) is still planning to hold the Territory election on 17 October despite the challenges posed by COVID-19.
Lockdown measures and social distancing restrictions have been eased recently, but there is still no possibility of large-scale gatherings for the foreseeable future, according to Chief Minister Andrew Barr.
Electoral Commissioner Damian Cantwell says the commission is working on four broad courses of action in light of the pandemic persisting until the election in October.
While two of the actions – an unamended election, and a complete postponement – are unlikely, alternative plans are being developed by an election contingency planning team which is monitoring the health and security situation in liaison with ACT Health and the Attorney-General’s office.
“The Electoral Commission is increasingly alert to the potential impact upon the election, both in terms of its preparation and its conduct as a result of the pandemic,” Mr Cantwell told Region Media.
“[One option] is no change to the date but to change the format or the way the election is delivered. That might involve a couple of options such as varying or increasing the number of polling locations within the three-week early voting period and spread the voter load.
“[Another] option might be to extend the election. That would increase or extend the electoral period.”
While ACTEC has flagged postponing the election, Mr Barr says he would not want to alter the state of the territory’s democracy and is still planning to hold the election on the set date.
“I do not propose to change [the date] at all. I think it is entirely inappropriate for me to seek to extend my term in office if an election could be held,” he said.
“The only time an election could not be held would be on the advice of the electoral commissioner [saying] that it would not be safe to do so, and that would be informed by public health advice, and only public health advice.”
The sole power to postpone the poll rests with the government.
While Mr Cantwell said the ACTEC is well resourced and has enough funding to execute the 2020 election as planned, Mr Barr said the ACT Government would cover additional election costs related to COVID-19.
“Certainly from an ACT Government perspective, we will provide the necessary financial resources to the electoral commission to be able to safely conduct the election, but our election should go ahead unless there is some extraordinary public health emergency,” he said.
ACTEC will deliver a report and recommendations about the logistical operation of the 2020 election by mid-May. Changes that might require a change to the electoral act will have to be debated in the Legislative Assembly, so the Government and opposition must be given enough time to legislate any recommendations, Mr Cantwell said.
An election campaign during a pandemic would require alterations; however, it would not be unprecedented, even in Australia.
Queensland held its local council elections in March although NSW cancelled its local government elections in late March.
“Some obvious safety measures will be put in place like physical distancing at polling places, and presumably additional polling places so there were no large crowds,” Mr Barr said.
A two-decade-old law means that voters cannot be canvassed by campaigners handing out how-to-vote cards as they must stay at least 100-metres away from polling stations, reducing the chance of passing on the virus.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the state’s election – scheduled for 31 October – may be held entirely by postal vote, another prospect offered to the ACT.
The same measure could be put in place in the ACT as no measures are off the table, Mr Cantwell told Region Media. The territory received 17,000 postal votes during the 2016 election, and Mr Cantwell is continuing to liaise with Australia Post about the capacity to handle en masse delivery of ballots in October.
Logistics around the processing of an influx of postal votes – or possibility of a territory-wide postal vote – are also being discussed, he said.
Mr Barr flagged that the continual sitting of the ACT Legislative Assembly, albeit altered, proved that democracy during a pandemic can still function.
“We have been sitting throughout this period, unlike most other parliaments around the country,” he said.
“Clearly parliamentary democracy during a pandemic is very strong in the ACT when compared with other parts of Australia and indeed other parliaments around the world.”
To keep up to date with the latest election news, visit www.elections.act.gov.au.