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Vote By Mail: Proposed Bylaw Change

Vote By Mail: Proposed Bylaw Change

Today in Committee of the Whole, the Committee discussed the report from the Ward 2 By-Election and changes to the Vote By Mail Bylaw, namely the decision whether or not to make it mandatory to register as a voter before each municipal election. You can read the full decision note here, and watch the recording from the meeting here

After some discussion, ultimately, the Committee voted to recommend that Council amend the by-law to make it mandatory to register as a voter each time there is an election. Council will discuss this once again in 2 weeks time at the Regular Meeting of Council, and at that point there will be a further opportunity for discussion about the proposed change. I think this move would be a mistake, and hope that we reconsider prior to the final vote. I’ll explain why below.

Background on Vote By Mail

The City of St. John’s has been running a Vote by Mail (VBM) system for 20 years, ever since the by-election in 2001 where Dorothy Wyatt passed away before she could take office, despite being voted in (talk about a popular politician!). The way it works is everyone in the system receives a VBM kit in the mail. If you’ve moved, or changed names, or what have you, you need to request a VBM kit. If you’ve been living in your home for 15 years and there have been no changes, you should get one automatically. If you don’t get a kit in time to mail it in for whatever reason, you can still go to the polling station on the day of the election and vote in person.

With this change, no one would automatically get a VBM kit (although the City would send out a note to remind you to register). Why recommend the change? There are compelling reasons that staff put forward as to why we should do things differently from now on. Some of the reasons in the Report and voiced during the meeting this morning include:

To Address Current Concerns:

  1. Voter fraud or ”ballot insecurity” as one Councillor phrased it today (a phrase I like!). Several Councillors discussed seeing piles of ballots left on the floor in front entrances of apartment buildings etc. I understand the concern about the security of ballots such as those. The argument is if you have to register to vote, these piles of ballots wouldn’t be there, someone would be waiting for the kit. There is an “increased risk of error” noted in the Report in a system that sends a VBM kit automatically, even when the list is “cleansed” (see below).
  2. Canada Post Community Mailboxes mean more people don’t check their mail in time to get the VBM kit. If you had to request a kit, then you’d be checking your mailbox.
  3. Integrity of the voter list: Currently the list needs to be “cleansed” each time we receive it from Elections NL due to the inevitable: deaths, address changes, and the like. This takes a significant amount of effort and many VBM kits get returned due to the recipient being deceased, for example. ATIP legislation, introduced in 2015, limits the amount of access to relevant databases that City Staff can use to “cleanse” the list.

To Improve Democratic Accessibility:

  1. There is still a choice in how to vote: the agency rests with the voter to decide whether or not they want to go to a polling station or request a VBM kit.

Administrative Efficiency:

  1. It takes a significant amount of staff time to do the “cleansing” and preparation of the VBM kits, and it costs a lot to send these kits out to 70K households.
  2. The Province is requiring people register for a VBM kit for the 2021 election, why wouldn’t we

The task before Council is to weigh those concerns against the ever-present need for increasing voter turnout. Some of my own points:

  1. We have a decent turnout rate: about 57% I believe. Why introduce a further barrier in needing to register every single election to vote? We still know that there are many groups that are not voting in high enough numbers, such as youth. We should learn from this: it’s not because youth are apathetic, it’s because it takes time to figure out how to #adult, and do things like request a ballot for the first time. The relative ease that this can be done is often still not practical for many young people, and we tend to vote in person on the day of until we are more established voters. (This is my anecdotal experience! Everyone experiences this differently). And what about the single mom of 4 who just does not have time to go on the City website and try to figure out when and how to register to vote, but who used to get the kit in the mail? Is she going to remember to register? (I wouldn’t!)
  2. People are used to the system we have, and we only have a few months before the election for 2021 begins. I would be cautious in making any changes now to the way we go about it, unless those changes go towards making it easier to vote (such as adding more polling stations, which is a recommendation in the Report today that I do support!)
  3. We just had an Electoral Reform Subcommittee, of which I was a member, and an Expert Panel comprised of several community members complete their work. They recommended that potential electoral systems changes around VBM be considered by an independent review. I welcome that review, but the decision in front of Council is not currently recommending that.
  4. Introducing barriers to VBM arguably favours incumbents.
  5. We are in a pandemic right now, and use of VBM is highly publicized due to the need to vote in a way that is safe according to Public Health Guidelines. I question whether or not many voters who actually rely on VBM would know far enough in advance to get their kit that they have to request it, instead they may assume one is coming. Why wouldn’t they?
  6. Administrative convenience should never be more important than increasing voter turnout. Without adequately analyzing the impacts this would have on various equity-seeking groups for example, we would be trying something that may or may not limit access to democratic decision making for many individuals.
  7. Cost-savings is not likely, in my opinion. The cost of adding additional polling stations will cancel out the efficiency of not mailing a VBM kit to every household.

In summary, I think VBM is a great part of the overall system that still encourages and facilitates in person voting. The social aspects of getting your friends together to go vote at a polling station will be with us once again when the pandemic is over, but we can take some of the positive lessons we’ve learned from VBM and enhance accessibility permanently in our voting methods. We should not, however, add any real or perceived barriers to accessing a ballot in the name of administrative convenience and the fear that voter fraud is occurring. I do not think the pros outweigh the cons in this situation and hope that Council reconsiders going down this path at this time.