Real estate agents warned after Melbourne election investigation

Warnings after alleged improper submission of ballot papers during the 2020 Melbourne City Council election.

Tuesday, 22 February 2022 at 4:15 am

Twenty real estate agents have been warned after a Local Government Inspectorate investigation into alleged improper submission of ballot papers during the 2020 Melbourne City Council election. 

The investigation looked at 216 ballot papers completed by representatives from 21 real estate agencies.  

The ballot papers under investigation were detected by Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) processes and excluded from the ballot count, meaning they did not affect the outcome of an election in which more than 91,000 votes were cast. 

Real estate agencies are authorised to manage properties for their owners; however, property owners cannot authorise agents to vote for them under Victorian electoral laws. 

Under the Local Government Act, it is an offence to: 

  • vote in the name of another person 
  • vote more than once 
  • interfere with material being sent to a voter by the VEC at an election. 

During our investigation, 20 agents from 18 of the agencies admitted completing the ballot papers on behalf of landlords whose properties they manage.  

The agencies reported that the property owners generally lived overseas, usually permanently and most commonly in China; had limited English; were not interested in the election and communicated with their agents in Chinese through WeChat. Some owners had authorised their agent verbally or in writing to vote on their behalf.  

The agents were unaware that voters absent from Victoria during the 15 days prior to the close of voting are excused from voting. 

We could not determine who completed the ballot papers sent to two agencies and a further real estate agent could not be located. 

Our 2021 investigation follows our previous investigation of 43 ballot papers submitted by eight real estate agencies in the Melbourne Lord Mayor by-election in 2018 which resulted in five people being given formal warnings.  

Chief Municipal Inspector Michael Stefanovic AM said: “Prior to the 2020 elections, the Inspectorate worked with Melbourne City Council to contact real estate agencies and inform them that they could not vote on behalf of an owner.” 

“Our investigation did not uncover any systemic or intentional ballot fraud. The issues mainly arose due to these real estate agents not understanding our electoral laws and communication issues with owners that were exacerbated by pandemic restrictions.” 

While a prima facie breach of the electoral provisions of the Act was substantiated for 20 individuals, we opted not to pursue prosecution but issued formal warnings. 

“The Inspectorate will continue to work with the VEC to communicate to real estate agents about how Victoria’s electoral laws impact them and their clients,” Mr Stefanovic said.