Council to mull options to expand voter options in light of pandemic

Prince Albert City Hall/Daily Herald File Photo

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, municipalities, including the City of Prince Albert, are looking into expanded voting options. At the regular council meeting on Monday, July 27 council will hear about options to add ways to vote because of the pandemic, including expanded mail-in voting, changes to polling stations and other ways to deal with the unique challenges come Election Day.

The municipal election is set for November.

Council will receive an update Monday regarding election processes that are being implemented and required amendments to the election bylaw to provide voters additional ways to exercise their right to vote in a report by corporate legislative manager Terri Mercier.

The report states that “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the Election, the Returning Officer has been working closely with Elections Saskatchewan and other municipalities across Saskatchewan to find ways to adapt the election processes to protect the health and safety of election workers and provide more opportunity for voters to participate safely, as some voters may feel uncomfortable or unsafe attending a polling place in person.”

The changes to voting were developed  after ongoing consultations with various municipalities including Regina and Saskatoon. As well, the Saskatchewan Association of City Clerk’s has reached out to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Government Relations, Policy & Program Services, who provided suggestions and options for municipalities to be able to accommodate voters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This election year will be unlike any other in the past. Therefore, we will continue to collaborate with other municipalities to collectively improve election processes and address the challenges relating to the current pandemic,” the report stated.

The financial impact of these protocols could see the cost of the election exceed that of the current budget of $212,340. The situation remains fluid, according to the report to council, but the returning officer is taking all necessary steps to minimize the impact.

One option being addressed is Mail-In Ballots, which would allow voters to avoid some personal contact by submitting a ballot by mail or even electronically to avoid a polling location where there are a number of people.

This month the Rural Municipality of Buckland rejected a plan for mail-in ballots due to costs while in June the RM of Prince Albert expanded their options to include mail-in ballots.
City Administration is suggesting some bylaw changes to make mail-in ballots more flexible. Normally, the Election Bylaw requires voters to apply in person at the Election Office in City Hall to complete the application which requires some personal contact for witnessing the signature of the registration form.

The proposed changes include  broadening the range of approved witnesses and methods used to check the voter’s identity.

Another change would allow the voter to send the required forms and copies of identification by mail, fax or other electronic means to avoid personal contact.  “The election official would review the signatures on the identification against the mail-in ballot forms to ensure that the signatures match. Where there is any discrepancy or the forms are illegible or incomplete, the voter would be required to apply in person at the Election Office,” the report said.

The report explains that collaboration between Saskatchewan cities has been undertaken regarding this process and most Cities are proposing to use similar approaches to what has been outlined in terms of the witnesses and identification requirements.  

Another change would expand the use of the mail-in ballot to any voter who is unable to attend a polling location during the advance poll or on election day. 
“This would allow voters to use this option if they are unable to vote in person for any reason, including COVID-19. Currently, the mail-in ballot bylaw option is limited to those voters who anticipate not being able to vote at either the advance polls or on Election Day,” the city wrote.

Further changes would expand the ability of election officials to go to a residence to accept a mail-in application and check identity when the voter is not able to apply in person. This could be because of an illness, a compromised immune system or increased risk factors that would lead to becoming severely ill if exposed to a communicable disease. The current bylaw only provides this option because of a physical disability or limited mobility.

Another change would allow for the mail-in ballots to be inserted into a voting machine the next business day after the close of the advance polls. This option would only be done if 100 or more mail-in ballots were received prior to the close of advance polls. Otherwise, the mail-in ballots are inserted into the machine after the close of polls on election day. “Candidates and candidate’s agents would be made aware in advance so that they had the ability to scrutinize the election process,” the report states.

The rationale is that they anticipate there may be a significant increase in mail-in ballots and it could delay the reporting of results on election night.

For regular polls, the report explains that these will encourage proper social distancing measures in accordance with the suggested safety protocols provided by the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA). New items such as floor markers and directional arrows will be placed in each polling location to assist with social distancing and guide voters through the polls.

 As well, single use pens will be provided for every voter to mark their ballot. And to ensure the safety of workers at each poll, all election workers will be provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitization products.

Another change suggested is that advance polls be conducted by drive-thru voting at the Prince Albert Exhibition Grounds. The suggested dates for this are Wednesday, October 28 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Friday, October 30 from 3:00 p.m. to7:00 p.m.,  Saturday, October 31 from 9:00 a.m. to  3:00 p.m.,  Monday, November 2 from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.,  Wednesday, November 4 from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. and  on Thursday, November 5 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

“Drive-thru voting provides voters the opportunity to participate safely without contact with other voters and limited contact with election workers,” the report said.

The City of Regina used drive-thru voting over the last number of election and it was well-received.

 If any of the changes are approved, the bylaw will be placed  on the City’s website and the Returning Officer will continue to administer the legislative requirements to conduct the General Election. More voter information regarding how and where to vote will be posted in August and September.