New emergency powers available to ban candidate posters and handing out how-to-vote cards at polling booth gates

The polling booth at Burraneer Bay Public School at the 2016 council election. Picture: John Veage
The polling booth at Burraneer Bay Public School at the 2016 council election. Picture: John Veage

Imagine an election without candidate posters covering polling booth fences and the party faithful meeting you at the gate, trying to shove a how-to-vote card into your hands.

Well, that could be the case at the December 4 council elections where the NSW Electoral Commission has been given the power to ban these time honoured practices within 100 metres of polling booths.

The commission says whether it takes the action will "depend on the nature and severity of any further COVID-19 developments and public health orders prior to an election".

Regulations state the commission "may direct there be no posters displayed and/or no electoral material handed out, either in or on a polling place or pre-poll office, or relevant premises within 100 metres of a polling place or pre-poll office".

The commission can also limit the number of scrutineers permitted to observe particular election processes, encourage electors to access candidate information online and livestream certain processes, such as the opening of postal vote envelopes.

A spokesman for Local Government Minister Shelley Hancock said the government was "working with the NSW Electoral Commissioner to ensure council elections are conducted under as normal conditions as possible and sincerely hopes to see candidates and campaign workers able to canvass outside of polling places".

"However, COVID-19 has made it difficult to undertake activities that we would normally associate with elections," he said.

"The Local Government (General) Regulation 2021 confers on election managers the power to restrict canvassing activities and posters within 100 metres of polling places.

"Election managers are only permitted to make a direction restricting canvassing activities and posters where they are satisfied it is necessary to comply with a current public health order or to reduce the risk of infection from COVID-19.

"The decision whether to restrict canvassing activities or posters outside of polling places is one that will ultimately rest with the NSW Electoral Commissioner and other election managers.

"The government is confident that election managers will be sensitive to the needs of candidates and electors when making any direction."

The legislation also introduces other COVID-safe practices, including social distancing, checking-in and mask wearing.

Mrs Hancock said in a statement the legislation provided emergency powers to address COVID-19 risks as they arise.

"We are constantly adapting to the current environment caused by COVID-19, and the government is leaving nothing to chance to ensure COVID-safe local government elections occur on December 4," Mrs Hancock said.

"The legislation, which will only apply to the 2021 local government elections, will be used as a fail-safe to protect the health and safety of voters, candidates and election staff in accordance with advice from the NSW Electoral Commissioner.

"It is time our communities were given the opportunity to choose their community leaders after the September 2020 council elections were postponed twice due to safety concerns caused by the pandemic.

"The NSW Government has worked closely with the NSW Electoral Commission and NSW Health to implement a comprehensive plan to allow voters to cast their ballot safely," Mrs Hancock said.

Mrs Hancock said other measures already introduced will reduce the number of electors attending polling booths on election day to assist with social distancing.

"NSW Election officials have also been empowered to enforce COVID-safe measures including social distancing at polling booths and counting venues to protect voters, candidates, scrutineers and NSW Electoral Commission workers."

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