Prince Albert votes to expand democratic options next election

Prince Albert City Hall/Daily Herald File Photo

Democratic options have expanded in the City of Prince Albert. In a special meeting of City Council on Monday, August 10 third reading was given to a bylaw to expand eligibility options because of the COVID-19 pandemic including expanded options for mail-in ballots, changes to polling stations and other ways to deal with the unique challenges on Election Day.

After the bylaw changes received the first two readings at the July 27 regular council meeting it was passed during a short special meeting Monday.

According to Gordon Barnhart, President Municipalities of Saskatchewan, the organization sees increasing ways to participate in the electoral process as a positive.

“I would say that we are very much in favour of trying to find ways of encouraging people to vote. In many communities for the municipal elections it is certainly at 40 per cent turnout and we would very much like to see more of that,” Barnhart said.

In July, Council received an update 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 November in a report by corporate legislative manager Terri Mercier.

The changes to voting were developed after consultations with various municipalities including Regina and Saskatoon and these consultations are ongoing. As well, the Saskatchewan Association of City Clerk’s has reached out to the 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.

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.

In July, 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 suggested 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 bylaw changes include broadening the range of approved witnesses to sign the Voter’s Registration Form and Declaration of Person Requesting Mail-in Ballot and to check the voter’s identification

Barnhart explained that in the past the mail-in ballot was difficult and dependent on the choices of the municipality. This required taking identity forms to the Returning Officer and making clear your identification.

“The emphasis is on trying to have it in a non-contact way if people are afraid to go in. The legislation has now been changed as I understand it, that you can photocopy your ID and send it in along with a form that is witnessed by someone who will say this indeed is ( your name) and they are valid to cast a ballot and the mail in ballot will then be sent out,” Barnhart said.

Barnhart explained that a concern may have been fraud.

“And well I guess there but there is a chance of fraud even with voting at the polling station if people want to maybe be devious. I think that the system is as best as it can be in terms of trying to prevent fraud and because you are having to send in your ID and having a witness to that sort of thing. We are certainly saying that let’s do that and make sure that people get out to vote,” Barnhart said.

The bylaw changes include broadening the range of approved witnesses to sign the Voter’s Registration Form and Declaration of Person Requesting Mail-in Ballot and to check the voter’s identity.

Another change will 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 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 report explains. 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 would be because of an illness, a compromised immune system or increased risk factors that could lead to becoming severely ill if exposed to a communicable disease. The old bylaw only provided this option because of a physical disability or limited mobility.

Another change allows for mail-in ballots to be inserted into a voting machine for those ballots on 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 would delay the reporting of results on election night.

Another way to expand democratic choices is electronic voting but Barnhart sees this addition as a step in the right direction.

“The world is ready to start doing electronic voting as well but there is still some glitches in that in terms of fear that the electronic system will be hacked so we certainly don’t want to have that as a chance of fraud but certainly this mail in ballot to me seems to be a good step forward,” he said.

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. To 7:00 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. Over the last number of Elections, a Drive Thru Voting process was established by The City of Regina as an additional means of voting in the Advance Polls. It was well received and has been another way to encourage voters to vote within the election,” the report states.

Special Polls will have the opportunity to take part in the mail-in ballot process, mobile poll application or in-person, and each facility will be contacted to make the necessary arrangements.

The Bylaw amendment will now be consolidated and 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 this month and next month.

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.

“Well in terms of cost I guess it is the cost of a stamp on an envelope to send the ballot. It might be argued that there is going to be staffing costs but you are going to have staffing costs anyway there would be costs in terms of the poll and coming to the poll to vote. I think it is just important to have people vote, it is an important right, a privilege and an honour to be able to vote and helping people do that is important,” Barnhart said..

The report stated 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.”