Why does Yellowknife hold an election by mail?
Some Yellowknife voters are confused and frustrated with the city’s decision to change the electoral process and hold the 2022 municipal election by mail.
“I honestly believe the city’s approach is a bit unforgivable,” says downtown resident Mike Westwick.
“A general rule is that when you change the way elections are done, you should try to expand the franchise and make voting as easy as possible… places where people can vote in person.”
The mail-in ballot election means that everyone named must receive a ballot paper to their address that they can either return, drop off at a town hall drop box, or go to a so-called “voter assistance location” at the Tree of Peace Friendship Center or the Multiplex on Election Day.
Voters who do not receive a ballot paper in the mail must go to the Tree of Peace Friendship Center or the Multiplex on Election Day and be sworn in to vote.
The different ways voters can cast their votes are listed on the city’s website.
However, some residents say that rather than making voting easier, the changes complicate a well-functioning voting system. And, they say, the city has not done enough to clarify and promote the new process.
Process must be ‘well understood’
“To vote, you shouldn’t have to go to a website to understand how to do that,” said Kieron Testart, a former MLA for Kam Lake and longtime Yellowknifer.
“It should be as simple as going to a polling station, getting a ballot and putting it in the box, like we’ve been doing for decades.”
Testart said he supports postal ballots and other voting options, but these choices must be “predictable, reliable and well-understood.”
“All these rule changes came out of nowhere and I think they are very confusing for a lot of Yellowknife citizens,” he said.
The decision to change the way municipal elections are held was taken by the city council after the city council passed its vote Election Ordinance last October.
That ordinance allows the returning officer (Town Clerk Debbie Gillard) to offer voters a voting option by mail. The city ran with that option and made it the main method of voting in the 2022 elections.
The city gives several reasons why it is doing this election differently: it would reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 in the event of a fall outbreak; it gives people more options where and when they can vote; and it is cheaper.
The city says it won’t have to pay 75 election workers to run seven polling stations, and new counting machines will shorten election workers’ day to three hours. On its website, the city says it has had problems hiring election staff for the last two elections.
‘The most important thing is that people are enumerated’
The changes will make this election “safer, more accessible, more cost-effective, more convenient and offer a bit of flexibility,” said Kerry Thistle, the city’s director of economic development and strategy and acting city manager.
“The most important thing is that people are counted,” she added. “If you are on the electoral roll and you confirm that your address is correct, your ballot will be delivered to your address.”
For those not yet on the electoral roll, the deadline to register to vote and receive a ballot in the mail is this Thursday.
But as Westwick pointed out, as of Wednesday, there were no paid ads encouraging this important date on the city’s Facebook page.
Now, Westwick said, he is concerned that many people will miss the counting deadline, leaving them with no choice but to vote at one of the two in-person polls on Oct. 17.
“I fear that could lead to a situation where you have massive lineups in these locations on Election Day,” he said.
“And what we know is that when there are huge lineups, people just give up voting and that’s definitely the last thing we want to happen.”
According to Westwick, the city should have launched a major public information campaign so that residents would clearly understand “how to vote, when to vote and the logistics of it all”.
Westwick and Testart both said the city could have made voting easier by adding polling stations or keeping them open longer rather than removing them.
although online voting was available in the 2019 Northwest Territories general election, the NWTs Local Authorities Election Actthat governs municipal elections does not give communities that opportunity.
This election is also the city’s first to use vote counting machines or ‘tabulators’.
The model DS300 scanners were leased from Election Systems & Software Canada, a city spokesperson said.
Ballots are only counted by hand when the machines are down, they said.
‘Maybe people will prefer this option’
Julian Morse, a Yellowknife councilor who is not up for re-election, said the city used a mail voting system for the election. 2021 referendum about borrowing money for Yellowknife’s new pool, and the returning officer reported that things were going well.
Of course, an election, with a campaign period and multiple choices voters have to make, is a different beast.
“I’m hesitant to call it an experiment, but I mean, it’s actually the first time we’re doing it this way,” Morse said.
“Maybe there will be hiccups, maybe lessons will be learned, maybe there will be long lines. I’m not sure. We’ll see how this plays out.”
But, he said, it’s just as possible to run smoothly.
“I really hope so,” he said, “and if so, maybe people will prefer this option.”
Disclosure: Reporter Sidney Cohen has known Mike Westwick for years.