Get politics out of election hiring, P.E.I. chief electoral officer recommends

A new report from P.E.I. Chief Electoral Officer Tim Garrity proposes a number of changes in how the province carries out elections, including absentee ballots and the way returning officers are appointed.

In his report on the 2019 provincial election, Tim Garrity noted the "extreme frustration" expressed by some voters who tried to vote by mail-in ballot.

He said a short election campaign combined with the timing of voting day — just after the Easter weekend — left only six mailing days for ballots to be sent back, making it "almost inconceivable" for Islanders overseas to get their ballots returned on time without paying for a courier, which he said was undemocratic.

Garrity said security for online voting systems is rapidly improving, and noted they are used regularly in some large municipalities. 

"The secrecy of the ballot is always of utmost importance to us," said Garrity.

Online voting

P.E.I.'s 2016 plebiscite on electoral reform was conducted using online and telephone voting. Afterward, Garrity's predecessor concluded it would be too risky to use online voting during a provincial election.

But Garrity said online ballot security continues to improve, and he would like to see a pilot project for absentee ballots or a byelection, which might engage voters online, who are away during the voting period. 

Staying on top of technological changes is important, he said.

"We need to engage the younger voters," Garrity said.

"That seems to be the demographic of the people that don't necessarily turn out to vote and we want to be sure that we give them the opportunities to do that."

He also recommended shifting election timelines, providing more time for ballots to be mailed by reducing the length of the nomination period for candidates.

De-politicize hiring process

The chief electoral officer also asked — not for the first time — to be put in charge of a competitive process to hire district returning officers, who are currently appointed by cabinet. With that change, he said, "the concern of political partisanship would be eliminated." Thus, he suggested the prohibition preventing district returning officers from voting could be lifted.

He also recommended rescinding the legislative requirements that the two parties that received the most votes in the previous election provide names of nominees of deputy returning officers and poll clerks.

Challenge of minority legislature

Elections P.E.I. needs to be ready to go at the drop of the writ, and that can be a challenge, Garrity said.

Nicole Williams/CBC

While no one is expecting an election soon, with a minority government in the legislature it is possible at any time.

"We need to have offices open tomorrow, returning officers start. Everything needs to happen immediately," Garrity said.

In particular this year, the agency was not able to hire enough enumerators to confirm the voters list. He said Newfoundland and Labrador is the only other province that has a mandatory confirmation process for the voters list. He would like to see that process be more targeted.

He noted it is possible to register as a voter right at the polling booth, and 5,000 people did that this year.

More opportunities to vote

Garrity recommended the chief electoral officer have the discretion to set up additional polling stations in places like university and college campuses. 

He also recommended P.E.I. follow the lead of other provinces including Nova Scotia, Ontario and Manitoba by allowing ballot boxes to be carried out to electors with mobility issues who are able to make it to a polling station but aren't able to get inside.

In addition, Garrity said a policy implemented by Elections P.E.I. during the 2019 election that required voters to provide identification should be written into legislation.

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