On Saturday December 4, 124 of New South Wales’s local governments will be holding elections to appoint new councils. Voting is compulsory – meaning if you're eligible, on the roll and don’t vote you could receive a $55 fine. And because the electoral roll is informed by third party government agencies, if you're eligible and have ever used Medicare (for example) you will likely find yourself on the list.

In efforts to remain as Covid-safe as possible, the NSW Electoral Commission has – for the first time – opened in-person pre-polling to all eligible voters (from November 22).

Electoral materials (like how-to-vote flyers) have also been restricted, and cake stalls and sausage sizzles are under threat. Here’s everything you need to know.

Sounds important, what exactly is this about?
It’s an election for eligible voters of 124 of 128 local governments in NSW to elect their city councillors. Thirty-five of those councils will also be appointing their mayors, who will either be voted for by the public or elected internally by councillors, depending on the local policy. The cities of Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong and Orange, as well as Byron, Ballina and Mosman, are among those councils appointing mayors.

Seventy-six-year-old City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has held the keys to the city for 17 years. This year her reign will be challenged by an all-female field – another first.

Some councils will also be holding constitutional referendums and/or polls.

Good to know. What do I do now?
You should probably start by checking you’re enrolled to vote. If you’re listed on the electoral roll and you don’t, that fine might be coming your way.

You can check your eligibility to use ivote, postal vote or assisted voting on the site, too. If you’re out of town you should be able to register and cast your vote online in under 10 minutes – we tested it and it works.

If you don’t know which electorate you're in you can check that here. That’s important because there will be no absentee voting this election, meaning you will need to vote in your own electorate or ward.

Can we vote early?
Yes, the commission is encouraging voters to hit the polls before December 4 to avoid crowds forming and says that standard Covid-safe plans, including mask wearing, social distancing and checking in, will be in place at all polling centres. If possible, they’d also like you to bring your own pen.

There are also some new rules around electoral posters and how-to-vote cards. Those handy, though worryingly wasteful, electoral materials have been banned statewide within 100 metres of all polling stations during the voting period, including early polling.

This means you’ll need to hit up the commission for information on parties and candidates in your LGA.

Hang on, what do councils do again?
Local Government NSW – an independent organisation that supports and advocates for councils – says: “As the third tier of government, local government is responsible for ensuring local communities run as smoothly and efficiently as possible, with citizens able to access the services and programs they need to live safe and healthy lives.”

Councils are elected to develop policies and manage lots of things that shape daily life in our communities, arguably even more so than state and federal governments. Pools, libraries, parks and playgrounds are all taken care of by local councils. Local roads, waste management and recycling, planning approvals, public health amenities like children’s health checks and immunisations, mental health support, arts and business grants and even public Christmas decorations, are all the business and responsibility of the folks that will be elected on December 4.

LGNSW points out it would be “virtually impossible” for state and federal governments to manage the diverse day-to-day needs of communities across the states and territories, so it might pay to keep an equal eye on what your council is up to and who’s in the top spots.

This still involves sausage sizzles and cake stalls, right?
Well probably not if you vote early, and possibly not even on polling day. As usual, Covid has spoiled the party and the time-honoured food fundraisers at the polls are being discouraged – though not banned.

“The ‘democracy sausage’ has become an iconic feature of election days in Australia, but the Covid-19 pandemic has created risks that must still be managed,” a commission spokesperson said.

The commission only regulates the polling stations, not the premises or grounds they’ve been erected on, so it can’t officially suppress the snags but urges anyone considering selling food to “take an extra cautious approach this time. Please avoid creating health risks for voters, election workers and your own communities.”

For more information on the Saturday December 4 election process, and what to expect, see this handy video.