Local elections in Queensland this weekend will be a little different to usual as Australia grapples with the coronavirus outbreak. Pre-polling numbers are already breaking records.
Queensland’s local government elections and two state by-elections are setting new records and breaking with long-standing traditions as voters rush to lodge their ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic, ahead of the official polling day this Saturday.
People are being urged to bring their own pens and the usual democracy sausage sizzles and 'how to vote' cards are nowhere in sight, as voters are being urged to cast their ballots and quickly leave booths.
At the current rate, the majority of people are expected to have voted in 77 council elections and two by-elections ahead of Saturday.
Despite some calls for the elections to be cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19, Queensland's chief health officer Dr Jeanette Young has moved to reassured citizens.
“Everyone, absolutely go and vote, vote early this week, vote on Saturday, it’s perfectly safe,” she said.
“Don’t hang around. Normally our voting process is a very social event, we have sausage sizzles and fetes. They’re not happening this time.
“So people just go straight in and vote and straight out, and the risk of doing that is absolutely minimal.”
Voters have already done so in record numbers, with the Queensland Electoral Commission (QEC) reporting of the 3.3 million enrolled, more than 650,000 have gone to polling stations and another 560,000 have put in postal votes.
Due to the need for hygiene, large bottles of hand sanitiser are available at the entry and exit of polling stations and pens and booths are being regularly wiped down.
“We’ve put in a whole lot of measures to make it as quick and safe as possible, in voting centres we’ve spaced things out as much as we can,” electoral commissioner Pat Vidgen told ABC Radio.
“We’ve got some data from last week and this week, we estimate once you get into a polling centre, particularly if you bring your voter information card, you are in and out of that centre in three minutes.”
Social distancing of 1.5 meters is being reinforced by almost 10,000 workers employed for the election, who will be monitoring queues.
Contact with candidates and their teams campaigning is also being kept to a minimum.
“Political parties and their representatives, candidates and volunteers must display voting material statically at all polling booths and may not distribute or hand out voting material,” Dr Young said.
For Saturday, the chief health officer has urged Queenslanders to give priority to the over-60s at polling booths, who are considered especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
A record 14,000 people have registered for telephone voting, including those with an impairment, aged-care centre residents and people in self-quarantine, and thousands of Queenslanders who have returned from overseas.
About 8,000 votes have been cast over the phone by those who cannot go in person.
“It’s not for the general community, people are ringing our line and all they’re doing is stopping legitimate people getting through, we usually do 450 visits to nursing homes and we want them to use telephone voting,” Mr Vidgen said.
“In 2016 we only had about 500 people across the state use telephone voting.”
Local government minister Stirling Hinchliffe also urged people to vote early.
“At the moment, you can go shopping, duck into the chemist, drop the kids off at school, get a haircut and pick-up a takeaway meal, as long as you take precautions. And you can vote,” he said.
“If you can ... vote early, it will mean fewer people and shorter queues on Saturday.”
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and the Queensland Labor government could secure a historic win at the weekend, as two by-elections are being held alongside the council elections in the Gold Coast seat of Currumbin and Ipswich seat of Bundamba.
Opinion polls show Labor level with the LNP in the traditionally blue-ribbon seat of Currumbin and a win for Ms Palaszczuk would be the first time in decades an incumbent government has plucked a seat from the opposition.
Bundamba is a traditional Labor seat, its third safest, and despite a substantial drop in support for the government and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation polling strongly in second place, it is expected to be easily retained.
But Queenslanders will have to wait longer than usual to find out who the winners and losers are.
“The ECQ is revising its standard approach to the counting of votes to accommodate the increased number of postal and early ballots, and apply recommended health measures around the size of indoor gatherings,” it said.
“As a result of these operational adjustments, it is likely that it will take longer for results to be declared.”
If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.
If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.