Why is Yellowknife having a vote-by-mail election?

·5 min read
Centre Square Mall Polling Station in Yellowknife on Sept. 20, 2021 on federal Election Day in Canada. This year, Yellowknife opted to hold its municipal election by a vote-by-mail system. (Liny Lamberink/CBC - image credit)
Centre Square Mall Polling Station in Yellowknife on Sept. 20, 2021 on federal Election Day in Canada. This year, Yellowknife opted to hold its municipal election by a vote-by-mail system. (Liny Lamberink/CBC - image credit)

Some Yellowknife voters are confused and frustrated over the city's decision to change the electoral process and conduct the 2022 municipal election by mail-in ballot.

"I frankly believe the approach taken by the city is kind of inexcusable," said downtown resident Mike Westwick.

"A general rule is when you change how elections are done, you should be trying to expand the franchise and make it as easy to vote as possible … I applaud them for adding mail-in ballots, but alongside that has been a slashing of places where people can vote in person."

The mail-in ballot election means everyone enumerated should get a ballot sent to their address that they can either send back, drop in a drop-box at city hall, or bring to a so-called "voter assistance location" at the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre or the Multiplex on election day.

Voters who don't get a ballot kit in the mail can go to the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre or the Multiplex on election day and be sworn in to vote.

The various ways voters can cast their ballots are listed on the city's website.

Some residents say, though, that rather than making voting easier, the changes are complicating a voting system that worked just fine — and, they say, the city hasn't done enough to clarify and promote the new process.

Process should be 'well-understood'

"To vote, you shouldn't have to go to a website to understand how to do it," said Kieron Testart, a former MLA for Kam Lake and longtime Yellowknifer.

"It should be as simple as going to a polling place, getting a ballot and putting it in the box, like we've been doing for decades."

Testart said he supports mail-in balloting and other voting options, but these choices should be "predictable, reliable and well-understood."

"All these rule changes kind of came out of nowhere, and I think they're very confusing for a great deal of Yellowknife citizens," he said.

The decision to change the way the municipal election is held was made by city administration, after city council passed its elections bylaw last October.

That bylaw allows the returning officer (city clerk Debbie Gillard) to offer voters a mail-in ballot option. The city ran with that option, and made it the main method for voting in the 2022 election.

The city gives several reasons for why it's doing this election differently: it would reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 in the event of an autumn outbreak; it gives people more options for where and when they can vote; and it's cheaper.

The city says it won't need to pay 75 election workers to run seven polling stations, and new vote-counting machines will shorten election workers' day by up to three hours. On its website, the city says it's had trouble hiring election staff for the last two elections.

'The key part is for people to be enumerated'

The changes make this election "more safe, accessible, cost-effective, convenient, and provides a bit of flexibility," said Kerry Thistle, acting city manager and the city's director of economic development and strategy.

"The key part is for people to be enumerated," she added. "If you're on the voters list and you confirm your address is correct, you will get your mail-in ballot delivered to your address."

For those who aren't already on the voters list, the deadline to get a ballot in the mail is this Thursday. On Thursday afternoon the city said people could register to vote until Oct. 7.

But as Westwick pointed out, as of Wednesday, there were no paid advertisements boosting this key date on the city's Facebook page.

Now, Westwick said, he worries a lot of people will miss the enumeration deadline, leaving them with no option but to vote at one of the two in-person voting locations on Oct. 17.

"I fear that that could lead to a situation where you have massive lineups on election day at these locations," he said.

"And what we know is that when there are massive lineups, then people just give up on voting and that is the absolute last thing that we want to have happen."

In Westwick's view, the city should have undertaken a significant public education campaign so residents would clearly understand "how to vote, when to vote, and the logistics of all that."

Randall McKenzie/CBC
Randall McKenzie/CBC

Westwick and Testart both said the city could have made voting easier by adding polling places, or by keeping them open longer, rather than taking them away.

Though online voting was available in the 2019 Northwest Territories general election, the N.W.T.'s Local Authorities Elections Act, which governs municipal elections, doesn't provide communities with that option.

This election is also the first in which the city is using vote counting machines, or "tabulators."

The Model DS300 Scanner machines were rented from the Election Systems & Software Canada, said a city spokesperson.

Ballots will only be counted by hand if the machines don't work, they said.

'Maybe people will prefer this option'

Julian Morse, a Yellowknife city councillor who isn't seeking re-election, said the city used a mail-in voting system for the 2021 referendum on borrowing money for Yellowknife's new pool, and the returning officer reported that it went well.

Of course an election, with a campaign period and multiple choices for voters to make, is a different beast.

"I'm hesitant to call it an experiment, but I mean it kind of is — it's the first time we're doing it this way," said Morse, who later added he's not personally in favour of the change.

"Maybe there will be hiccups, maybe there's going to be some lessons learned, maybe there are going to be long lines, I'm not sure. We're going to see how this plays out."

But, he said, it's just as likely to go smoothly.

"I certainly hope it does," he said, "And if it does, maybe people will prefer this option."

Disclosure: Reporter Sidney Cohen has known Mike Westwick for years.