What's my electorate? Haven't they all changed?
This has never been easier. The five electorates are now highly logical and based around the town centres - although the names (in brackets) aren't as simple to remember: Tuggeranong (Brindabella), Woden-Weston (Murrumbidgee), the inner south and inner north (Kurrajong), Gungahlin (Yerrabi) and Belconnen (Ginninderra).
How many people am I voting for?
You elect five politicians in each of the five electorates. This means that if you want your vote to have its maximum impact you should do more than just put a "1" next to your favourite candidate. Once your candidate gets enough votes to be elected - or reaches a "quota" - any leftover votes go towards the counts of other candidates. In the ACT's voting system, you don't choose just which party you want to govern, but between the candidates of each party. If you don't like the sitting candidate, you can vote for the same party and just choose different candidates.
How many candidates are there?
A record field, 141 - 25 each from Labor and Liberal, 15 from the Greens and 17 from the Liberal Democrats. There are six other parties (Animal Justice, Like Canberra, the Sex Party, Sustainable Australia, Canberra Community Voters, and the Community Alliance), and 17 independents, most of them in Belconnen. The sheer numbers are partly because of the number of seats up for grabs - the Assembly is swelling from 17 to 25 members - and partly a reflection of disgruntlement in voter land.
How many numbers should I put on my ballot paper?
This is where it gets more complicated. Your vote is valid if you just put a "1" next to your favourite. But the ACT Electoral Commission advises you - because it is required to by law - to mark at least five preferences and then as many as you like after that. About 70 per cent of voters in Canberra number 1 to 5 and stop. Labor and Liberal are putting up five candidates in each seat so you can simply number 1 to 5 down one of those columns if you simply want a Labor or Liberal government. But given the complicated way the vote counting works in Hare-Clark, your vote is more likely to count to the very end if you keep on numbering. As candidates are elected the leftover votes in their basket are moved to the next person on your list. And as candidates are eliminated from the bottom of the count, the pool of unused votes in their basket is also re-apportioned. Given the likelihood of some very close counts for the final seat in some, if not all, of the electorates, if you want your vote to stay in the mix to the end, and help decide who gets those crucial last seats, keep numbering. There's no chance a seat will end up with five elected from your favoured party, so if you don't move to other columns you give up the chance to have a say in who takes those other two or three seats.
But what if I don't like Labor or Liberal?
In this case you need to get strategic. The five-member electorates will almost certainly return two Labor and two Liberal politicians each, with the final seat in each of the five electorates up for grabs. These are the seats that will decide the election and where the minor parties are pinning their hopes. The reality is their chances are slim; and other than possibly the Greens, none will get a quota - 17 per cent of the vote - in their own right. So to get elected, they must rely on preferences, and a significant flow of them. A voter wanting to elect independents and would do best to confine their vote to the independent columns - and not give preferences, even distant ones, to Labor, Liberal or the Greens.
To see how this works, imagine Independent A gets 300 first-preference votes, the lowest of any in the seat. That person is eliminated and all of their votes redistributed to the candidate those voters numbered 2 on their list. If No 2 is from Labor, the Liberals or the Greens, the vote will head into those columns and likely stay there as more of the low-polling independents are eliminated. Independent B is likely eliminated next, with his or her No 2 votes distributed. You can see that if your vote stays entirely with independents and minor parties, and if there are enough people doing the same thing, an independent can stay in the count long enough to start getting preferences from the lowest-polling major party candidates as they are eliminated. This is a strategy to maximise the chances of independents, although given the magnitude of the vote required – about 8000 votes - it is still a tough ask. Which is the grim reality for the about half the candidates standing, who are not part of Labor, Liberal or the Greens. As an aside, because of the number of voters who simply number 1 to 5 and stop, and because of the crucial need to stop preferences straying into the major party columns, one of the minor parties - the one led by Richard Farmer - is standing five candidates in Ginninderra.
But who wants a crazy crossbench?
Good point, especially for those with long memories who shudder at the chaos of the early days of self-government when three sitting politicians were elected under a party called No Self-Government in a kind of political non-sequitur, one for the Abolish Self Government Party and four were members of the Residents Rally, which came to a quick and inglorious end. There's also the danger of a fixated crossbencher holding the government to ransom on a pet project. However, an authority as cautious and apolitical as Assembly Clerk Tom Duncan said recently that a big crossbench meant a more active committee system and more inquiries, which can only be good for getting to the bottom of issues and for democracy. With the only Green a part of the Labor Cabinet in the past four years, the ACT parliament has effectively had no crossbench. The other useful thing about a decent crossbench is that the government must negotiate its legislation, which means first up that it must disclose and discuss its plans publicly and subject itself to the messy and more democratic process of public scrutiny and argument.
But I like the major parties. I don't want to dump them, I just want to deliver a message to some of their candidates.
The system seeks to put maximum power in the hands of voters to choose their candidates. One of the uncomfortable things for the major parties is they can't run lead candidates or effective how-to-vote cards because the order of candidates on the voting paper is quite comprehensively randomised. The order parties and groupings appear on the ballot paper is chosen by roll of the dice, and then the order candidates appear in each line is mixed up. So for each electorate, the five Labor candidates will appear in 60 different orders. Which means if you number 1 to 5 down the list you will be allocating your preferences differently to the person beside you doing precisely the same thing. It also means that Andrew Barr appears in Labor's No 1 position on the Kurrajong ballot papers and Jeremy Hanson in the top spot on the Murrumbidgee ballot papers only about one in five times. And the result of this is that candidates can't rely on the donkey vote or the support of their party to get elected. Effectively, Labor candidates are competing against each other for the two (or maximum three) seats that Labor will win in each electorate. Same for the Liberals and the others. It's a voting system that maximises voter choice. On the downside, it is rather utopian, requiring a level of interest in the election and knowledge of individual candidates that most voters simply don't have.
Which seats are likely to determine the result?
You don't need a pollster to tell you Labor and Liberal almost certainly have 10 seats each in the bag. The Liberals in Tasmania, which shares our lesser-known voting system, did win four out of five seats in one Tasmanian electorate recently, but that was a first and is concerned highly unlikely, Even when Labor's vote in Canberra dropped to a historically low 28 per cent under Wayne Berry's leadership in 1998, Labor won two seats in each five-member electorate. So if each electorate returns two Labor and two Liberal politicians, as is likely, it is the final seat in each electorate that will decide the election. Both major parties are privately giving the final Tuggeranong seat to the Liberals, which brings the Liberals' tally to 11. Both major parties are also confident the Greens will keep the fifth seat in the central electorate (Shane Rattenbury's seat), bringing Labor's effective tally to 11.
The Woden-Weston seat is considered a contest between the Greens and the Liberals. The Greens are standing former Assembly member Caroline Le Couteur in the seat in the hope her name recognition and her voter appeal - insiders think her age will appeal to the older demographic - will pull enough votes for the Greens to win the seat. Others point out that Labor has no sitting politicians in the seat after dDeputy Labor Leader Simon Corbell resigned. And the Liberals have their leader Jeremy Hanson and personable sitting member Giulia Jones. One source suggested a healthy 1.4 quotas to Hanson and another 0.6 of a quota to Jones, leaving the Liberals in a healthy position to take get third seat. If the Greens win Murrumbidgee, Labor will almost certainly win government. If the Liberals win Murrumbidgee, the tally is Liberals 12, Labor (with Rattenbury) 11.
Which leaves Belconnen and Gungahlin. Belconnen is considered a Labor stronghold and the historic vote confirms that. Labor has strong candidates in Yvette Berry and Gordon Ramsay. But it is also where the independents and minor parties are concentrated, with Farmer's five candidates there, along with nine independents. Belconnen is unpredictable, but if it goes to Labor, the tally is 12:12. In which case the election is decided in Gungahlin. Over to you.
Where do I vote, and can I get a sausage sandwich there?
You can pre-poll - and at the pre-poll centres you can even vote electronically. The six pre-poll centres open on September 27 and are basically open Monday to Friday except for the public holiday. Also open on Saturday October 8. There's two in the city and others in Belconnen, Gungahlin, Tuggeranong, Woden. On the day, October 15, there are 81 polling places. No one is allowed to electioneer within 100 metres of a polling place, which means you don't need to run a gauntlet of last-minute desperate pleas from candidates and you don't enter the polling booth armed with how to vote cards. They're really aren't any.