Centre Wellington council rejects vote-by-mail option

Archived – Vol 50 Issue 12 : 2017-04-02

Voting by mail is off the table for next year’s municipal election – at least in Centre Wellington.

On March 21, councillors defeated a staff recommendation to implement vote by mail as an alternative voting method for the 2018 municipal election.

A report from clerk Kerri O’Kane to Centre Wellington’s committee of the whole noted changes to the Municipal Elections Act and stated May 1 is the deadline for a bylaw to be passed authorizing alternative voting methods.

Policies and procedures to implement alternative voting methods must be established before Dec. 31.

Centre Wellington has used the vote by mail system since 2003 with the following voter turnouts: 48% in 2003, 43% in 2006, 45% in 2010  and 45% in 2014.

In 2000, when the township experimented with telephone voting, the turnout was 41%.

O’Kane’s report stated the benefits of alternative voting methods include:

– providing an equal opportunity for those in the rural areas and the urban centres;

– eliminating the need for voting stations (less election personnel required and less administration);

– convenience (voters can participate when they want);

– eliminating weather as a possible deterrent to voting;

– saving money;

– eliminating accessibility issues; and

– eliminating the need for voter proxies or advance polls.

O’Kane said staff strongly believes alternative voting methods such as eVoting, using either the internet method or a combination of internet and telephone, will make voting more convenient for its citizens to participate in the democratic process.

However, they also feel that method is premature for the 2018 election until faster and more reliable internet services are available.

She added all the municipalities within the County of Wellington, with the exception of Puslinch Township, plan to use vote by mail with either tabulators or manual count.

O’Kane said after using the vote by mail system for the past four elections, Centre Wellington voters are very familiar and comfortable with the process.

Cottagers, students, snow birds, commuters and non-residents all enjoy the ability to vote early and conveniently, she opined.

Councillor Kirk McElwain advocated moving away from the vote by mail process, though he is not opposed to electronic voting terminals or eVoting.

He contended people vote when they receive their voting package – before they know about the candidates.

In the past municipal election, many residents had already voted by the time candidates were able to knock on doors, McElwain stated.

McElwain also believed mail-in votes can be overwhelmed with group-votes. He recommended eVoting on election day.

When informed not everyone has access to high speed internet, McElwain responded “you can vote using dial-up for heaven’s sake.”

O’Kane clarified that regardless of voting methods, there are advance polls.

“This is about the voter – not the candidate,” she said, adding the idea is to provide voters access and make it easy to vote.

She added there are always people who will vote right away.

“There is far too much work to be done on election night itself … if you want the results … there need to be advance polls,” she said.

She suggested that due to the shorter campaign period “candidates may need to get creative in the way they reach people.”

If votes are only collected on election day, O’Kane said she anticipates a decline in voter turnout.

Councillor Fred Morris said there is a much bigger issue than whether Centre Wellington has a vote by mail process.

“I think when you consider the very concept of democracy … the argument against the opportunities being presented through technology come down to one thing – the voter,” he said.

“The cornerstone of democracy is one person, one vote – casting a ballot based upon how that individual feels or thinks.”

Morris considered internet and electronic voting or vote by mail as eroding the cornerstone of democracy and the secret ballot.

“You take away that private moment in which the individual goes to a polling station and makes a choice.”

Other alternatives might generate higher voter turnouts, but Morris said that would need to be weighed with voters casting ballots based on information received, digested and coming to a rational decision.

“I think an informed vote is preferable to a numerical one. You can have lots of votes … but not necessarily informed voters.”

Councillor Mary Lloyd noted that both provincial and federal elections are conducted with the traditional ballot and polling station.

Lloyd said what is happening in the township now is 55% of voters throw their ballots into the garbage – an envelope the township has paid to send out.

Lloyd said she likes being able to walk into a polling station to vote “in my own private moment.”

She recognized the difficulty in staffing an election.

“But I prefer going in and placing my ‘X’ on the day of,” Lloyd said.

Councillor Stephen Kitras preferred either having traditional polls or moving to electronic polls.

He advocated “bringing the vote as close as possible to the actual date.”

Kitras also encouraged more people to run for office so that there are not acclamations to council positions.

Councillor Don Fisher said “there is a lot to be said in favour of alternative voting methods.”

He noted the previous election ran like a hybrid system, with numerous residents dropping off ballots at the township office on election day.

O’Kane agreed and said 1,500 people came through the doors on election day, “But we also had significant numbers in the overnight box.” She also pointed to extended hours at the municipal office to accommodate voters.

Fisher asked whether a hybrid of voting methods would allow traditional voting while providing accessibility.

He sees the benefits of voting by mail and understood the reluctance to move to electronic voting until the bugs are worked out.

O’Kane said mail-in votes do allow people to vote on election day.

“Right now we see the mail-in vote as perfect and the idea is to move ahead to eVoting, not moving back to traditional voting,” O’Kane said.

“The idea is not to put barriers in front of voters. In my opinion leaving the vote to one day is putting up a barrier to voters.”

Mayor Kelly Linton stated “the bottom line is that we have to make this as easy as possible for the most number of people.”

Councillor Steven VanLeeuwen believed the end goal should be the move to eVoting.

“I believe I can make a choice at my computer.”

Councillors subsequently turned down the staff recommendation to proceed with the mail-in vote.

Following that vote, council had considerable discussion on what to do next. Council asked staff to come back to explain options, including eVoting.

Regardless of what approach Centre Wellington takes, the municipality must establish a voting method by May 1.