Some candidates running for office in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality gathered Tuesday in Sydney to protest a new centre in Eskasoni meant to help residents navigate the voting system.
CBRM said in a news release Eskasoni voters face unique challenges because of their remote community and language barriers.
But candidates who protested at the Sydney civic centre said the kiosk is not authorized by law, it's not fair to the rest of the municipality and it could give the District 3 incumbent, who lives in Eskasoni, an advantage.
"Other districts have remote areas, like Gabarus, Port Morien, Donkin," said Jeff McNeil, the District 11 candidate who organized the protest. "They, too, should have the same opportunity."
The candidates said they do not object to voters getting help with phone or internet ballots, but argued the opportunity should be extended throughout CBRM.
At least two candidates for District 3 — Cyril MacDonald and Glen Murrant — said they are filing complaints.
MacDonald was the first to raise the issue on Friday when he found out about the Eskasoni help centre. The kiosk will be open every day until Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Elders Centre at 19 Medicine Trail Rd.
"It's not about Eskasoni," he said. "It's about fair and equal access to the entire municipality."
Voting in CBRM is entirely electronic this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Voters can cast a ballot by telephone or internet only.
During advance polling, voters with questions can make an appointment to get help at the civic centre in Sydney. They can also use a phone or a computer at the centre.
The civic centre will be closed on the last day of polling Saturday, but help centres will be set up at Centre 200 in Sydney, the Glace Bay Miners' Forum and the North Sydney Firemen's Club from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
In a news release announcing the opening of the voter help kiosk, returning officer Deborah Campbell Ryan said Eskasoni voters face unique challenges, including remoteness and language barriers.
In addition, she said, Canada Post returned about 21 per cent of voter cards in the community due to incomplete addresses.
McNeil said it's not fair to provide help to Eskasoni voters for five days when other voters may need help, but won't have the same opportunity to get to a help centre in a distant community.
"Those residents that have those issues in disabilities and are on fixed income, that don't have access to a phone or internet, can't make it to those locations to exercise their right to vote," he said.
"Some people can't afford the taxis to go from New Waterford to Glace Bay or Sydney because it's either pay bills, eat or vote, and fall behind to pay transportation to vote."
District 3 candidates speak out
Murrant said the help centre doesn't just affect council candidates, it also affects the race for mayor.
According to Section 146(A) of the Municipal Elections Act, council has to approve polling stations at least 60 days before the vote and in this case, that wasn't done, he said.
"It's very clear," Murrant said. "I mean anybody that can read can understand that this just goes against the Municipal Elections Act."
Campbell Ryan was not available for an interview Tuesday. In an email, however, she said Section 146(A) of the elections act "has nothing to do with establishing voter help kiosks."
Another District 3 candidate, John Whalley, said the Eskasoni help kiosk could be viewed as giving the incumbent an advantage.
"A better way to look at it hopefully is that it's a change to assist people to vote and so that's a good thing," he said.
The incumbent, Esmond (Blue) Marshall, said the new help centre won't give him an edge. He said many older people are afraid of using new technology and others are afraid of going into a polling station during the pandemic.
However, he agreed other remote communities should also have access to help.
"If other people want it, it's not too late to have it now."
About 20 people showed up to the protest Tuesday. A handful of candidates tried to get in to see the returning officer, but they were denied access without an appointment.
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