Some voters in Yellowknife are confused and frustrated by the city’s decision to change the election process and conduct the 2022 municipal election by ballot.
“I believe unequivocally that the approach taken by the city is inexcusable,” said city resident Mike Westwick.
“The general rule is that when you change the way elections are conducted, you should be trying to expand rights and make it as easy to vote as possible…. I applaud them for adding walk-in ballots, but also reducing the number of places where people can vote in person.” Full disclosure, the reporter has known Westwick for years.
A vote-by-mail election means that every person counted must mail a ballot to an address they cannot return, drop it in a mailbox at city hall, or bring it to a place called a “voter assistance center” at the Tree of Peace Friendship Center or Multiplex on election day.
Voters who do not receive a ballot set by mail should go to the Tree of Peace Friendship Center or Multiplex on election day and be sworn in to vote.
The various ways voters can vote are listed city website.
Some residents say that, instead of making voting easier, the changes make the voting system more efficient. And, they say, the city hasn’t done enough to explain and promote the new process.
The process must be ‘well understood’
“To vote, you don’t have to go to a website to understand how to do it,” said Kieron Testart, a former Kam Lake MP and longtime Yellowknifer.
“It should be as easy as going to the polling place, getting a ballot, and putting it in the box, just like we’ve been doing for decades.”
Testart said he supports email voting and other voting options, but these options must be “predictable, reliable and well understood.”
“All these rule changes just came out of nowhere, and I think they’re confusing the citizens of Yellowknife,” he said.
The decision to change the way municipal elections are held was made by city officials, after the city council passed its own Election by-law last October.
That bylaw allows the returning officer (town clerk Debbie Gillard) to offer voters the opportunity to vote by mail. The city ran with that option, and made it the primary way to vote in the 2022 election.
The city offers several reasons why it made this choice differently: it would reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 in the event of a fall outbreak; gives people more choices about where and when to vote; and it’s cheap.
The city says it won’t need to pay 75 election workers to run seven polling stations, and the new vote-counting machines will cut the election worker’s day by three hours. On its website, the city says it has had trouble recruiting election staff for the past two elections.
‘The important part is that people are counted’
The changes make the election “safer, more accessible, less expensive, easier, and provide less flexibility,” said Kerry Thistle, the city’s director of Economic Development and Strategy and acting city manager.
“The important part is that people are counted,” he added. “If you are on the electoral roll and make sure your address is correct, you will get your mail-in ballot delivered to your address.”
For those who are not on the voters list, the deadline to register to vote and receive a vote by mail is this Thursday.
But as Westwick said, as of Wednesday, there were no paid ads promoting the important day on the city’s Facebook page.
Now, Westwick said, he’s worried more people will miss the counting deadline, leaving them with no choice but to vote at one of two in-person polling places on Oct. 17.
“I am afraid that this may lead to a situation where you have a lot of groups marching on election day in these areas,” he said.
“And what we know is that if there are too many parties, people just stop voting and that’s the last thing we want to happen.”
In Westwick’s opinion, the city should have conducted a significant public education campaign so that residents clearly understand “voting, when to vote, and the process of all that.”
Westwick and Testart both said the city could have made voting easier by adding polling places, or keeping them open longer, rather than taking them away.
However online voting was available for the 2019 Northwest Territories general election, NWT Local Authority Elections Actin charge of municipal elections, it does not give communities that option.
This election is also the first in which the city uses vote counting machines, or “tabulators.”
The Model DS300 Scanner equipment was rented from Election Systems & Software Canada, said a city spokesperson.
Votes will be counted manually only if the machines are not working, they said.
‘Maybe people will prefer this option’
Julian Morse, a Yellowknife city councilor who is not seeking re-election, said the city uses a mail-in voting system. 2021 referendum on loan for Yellowknife’s new pool, and the returning officer reported that it went well.
Of course an election, with its campaign season and multiple choices for voters to make, is a different animal.
“I hesitate to call it an experiment, but I mean it’s the first time we’ve done it this way,” said Morse.
“Maybe there will be hiccups, maybe there will be studies, maybe there will be long lines, I’m not sure, we’ll see how it goes.”
But, he said, it might have gone well.
“I really hope it happens,” he said, “And if it does, maybe people will choose this option.”