The mail-in ballot plus two-voting station system being used for the Oct. 17 municipal election is a new effort by the city to offer residents more options to cast a ballot, Mayor Rebecca Alty says.

With nominations closing on Sept. 19, Alty’s bid for a second term in office will go unchallenged.

However, there will be 16 candidates vying for eight council positions.

Alty said in a recent interview that the decision for this year’s voting setup is granted to returning officer Debbie Gillard through council’s approval of the Local Election Authorities Act.

“The decision was made, in part, due to Covid and making sure that in case any restrictions return this fall that the election could run smoothly,” the mayor explained. “The difference with mail-in ballot versus previous elections is that the city is automatically sending a ballot to all eligible voters.

“In the past, voters would have to request paperwork for a mail-in ballot, then complete it and send it back. Then the city would send them a ballot and the voter would have to send it back.

“We’ve removed a lot of steps from the process to make it easier.”

Beyond mailing in a ballot or dropping it off at city hall ahead of voting day, there will also be options to cast a ballot at what the city calls “voter assistance locations” at the Tree of Peace and the Multiplex gym on election day between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.

These are different from polling stations where residents would be assigned to visit to cast a ballot in previous elections, she said.

Alty said she feels the new process is positive and will offer more voting options for residents compared to the federal election in 2021, when people had to request a mail-in ballot from the federal government if they wanted to exercise their democratic duty ahead of voting day.

“I like it because it increases the opportunity,” the mayor said. “With the federal election last year, if you didn’t request the mail-in ballot and didn’t send the paperwork in to get the feds to send (the ballot) to you, a lot of people who ended up sick on election day couldn’t vote.”

Saving money

Beyond being Covid-safe, the city stated in an email this week that the mail-in ballot process allows more accessibility to vote for residents as they can cast a ballot through their mailboxes or by drop it off at city hall at any hour of the day.

The process is also cheaper and easier to manage.

“The cost of mail-out ballots comes in slightly less than costs for a ‘regular’ election given the city is not hiring 75 election staff or operating seven voting stations,” city communications officer Richard McIntosh stated in an email on Sept. 20. “Fewer staff are needed (and) hiring election staff has been a challenge over the past two elections (not including the referendum).

Mail-in ballots are expected to be in residents’ mailboxes the first week of October.

All ballots have to be received by the city by Oct. 17 at 7 p.m.

Beyond mailing in a ballot or dropping off at city hall ahead of voting day, there will also be options to cast a ballot at what the city calls “voter assistance locations” on election night at the Tree of Peace and the Multiplex Gym between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.

These are different from polling stations where residents would be assigned to visit to cast a ballot in previous elections, she said.

Mixed reaction

Some council candidates over the last week expressed mixed reaction to the new voting arrangement.

Incumbent councillor Steve Payne, who is running for a third term, said he isn’t entirely against the idea of the new system because it could be beneficial for people who are immunocompromised or who don’t feel comfortable casting a ballot in public.

He said he’s also willing to give the new method a chance, but he’s concerned it could result in fewer people participating.

“I think we will have reduced numbers in voting, personally,” Payne said. “I know there will be a couple of sites to go to vote and I think they (volunteers at the voting station) will be busy.”

Payne said he doesn’t buy that there should be concern about Covid-19, either.

“Covid is done. So I think the longer we keep (the idea of) it around, I think the organizations use it as an excuse now,” he said. “We don’t have any state of emergency or heath emergency, so in my mind we should continue and live a normal life.”

If there were a state of emergency, it would make sense that precautions be implemented, he added.

He added that he doesn’t plan on taking special health precautions when canvassing and expects to be engaging with the public as per normal over the coming weeks.

New candidate Rob Foote said that he favours the traditional routine of people heading to polling stations to vote but added that he understands the city’s logic in introducing the new process in advance of any possible Covid-19 disruptions.

“To some degree this model has been used already, as early or proxy voters have have used mail in the past,” he said. “If anything it might improve voter turnout because of convenience to those who have community mail boxes, but might limit responses from those living in multi-family dwellings who would still need to post their ballot at a drop box.”

Foote said he’s concerned that the new process doesn’t address voter registration so that people can actually get a ballot.

“Many people I have talked to erroneously assume that they are registered already through their most recent tax return,” he said.

‘Added a barrier’

Council candidate Devon Hodder said with the 2018 Yellowknife election having a 56 per cent voter turnout, the city should do everything it can make it easier to vote.

“While I don’t see anything inherently wrong with offering mail-in ballots as an option, by reducing the number of voter assistance locations, the city has added a barrier to participating in the democratic process,” he said. “Ideally, I would like to see more modern solutions put in place, such as online voting. This would need to have strong controls in place to protect the integrity of the election, of course.”

Candidate Rob Warburton said that he also supports any effort to make the voting process simpler, more transparent and accessible, though there could be some more clarity on the use of terms for polling stations.

“This election will have two voter assistance stations and the focus appears to be having folks to do mail-in ballots,” he said in an email on Sept. 13. “I believe in expanding the voting options, so seeing the city include mail-in ballots is a great start. I do think though it is confusing to refer to these as voter assistance stations instead of simply as polling stations.

“It really is functioning as a polling station and changing this standard election language is confusing.”

Voters are urged to ensure they are on the voters list with the correct address by Sept. 22.

Whether voting in-person or by mail, all ballots have to be received by the city by Oct. 17 at 7 p.m.

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