Annapolis County opts for ease and safety of electronic vote
ANNAPOLIS ROYAL, NS – Annapolis County has opted for electronic voting in municipal elections in October, doing away with paper ballots in favour of pandemic-safe home phones, smartphones, and computers.
If you want to go to a polling station, there will be one set up in each of the 11 districts on election day, but you’ll be clicking a button with a computer mouse, not marking an X with a pencil.
Returning officer Doug Patterson has been preparing for the Oct. 17 vote for several months, but on July 21 was mandated by council to ramp up for electronic voting only, and that’s fine with him for several reasons – including the safety of voters and poll workers during a pandemic.
“I’m extremely excited and happy to be here to help,” said Patterson. “Electronic voting services were a big win to start with just because of the ease and convenience we could offer. Then in 2020 we had the immense and truly frightening challenge of Covid-19.”
He and staff were wondering how to provide a voting service when they knew that many voters would not be comfortable going to an in-person poll.
“Now that we can offer a stay-at-home tool via electronic voting it just felt incredible to have a solution that we knew would matter so much to a great number of people,” he said.
At a special meeting July 23, council selected Intelivote Systems Inc. to provide the electronic voting service that Patterson believes Annapolis County voters will find convenient and easy to use. While it may be new for local residents, Patterson sees electronic voting not as the wave of the future but the reality of today.
“Electronic voting is already ‘the norm’ and well trusted in Nova Scotia,” he explained. “In 2016 a total of 23 municipalities offered electronic voting. By population this means that 65 per cent of eligible voters in Nova Scotia were offered electronic voting. This is definitely already tested, tried, and true.”
But Patterson does understand the anxiety some people may feel about changing the way they cast their ballots and voters will be able to tap into all sorts of help as the process unfolds.
“We’ll be providing all the answers people need including giving each voter their own mailed voter letter with all the instructions,” he said. “Voters will also be able to call staff if they need assistance during business hours while the electronic voting tool is operating.”
PLENTY OF OPPORTUNITY
The public will have a huge window of time to access the Intelivote system that will be open from the morning of Oct. 5 until the close of the election at 7 p.m. on Oct. 17.
“In sum we’ll make sure voters have all the facts and opportunity to access voting,” he said. “We want to be sure everyone is confident that this will be fast and easy for them.”
Patterson said there are misconceptions surrounding electronic voting, chief among them is the idea that you must be online. That’s not the case.
“This service will work just as well for a person using a touch tone phone as it will for a person who uses an internet-enabled smart phone or computer,” he said. “There is also a misconception that people who have regularly voted in person in the past (including segments of the population such as seniors) won’t like the change. The reverse is actually true.”
He said data on voting provided by statistics Canada after the 2019 federal election showed that the key reasons why motivated voters end up not voting is due to a lack of ease when personal time and travel are required. “This is made even harder by the relatively small window of time that in-person voting can be offered for,” he said.
When municipal clerk Carolyn Young thinks about electronic balloting, she thinks about its potential.
“We were approached in 2004 to run a hybrid ballot -- paper/internet. The council of the day declined – and they were right,” she said. “Today we are involved in so many converging circumstances, that when faced with the decision to go to an electronic ballot, this forward-thinking council chose that route, considering the safety, ease, and simplicity of this new process, with a company that now has a proven track record in delivering this form of ballot, not just in Nova Scotia but throughout Canada.”
Young has pulled double duty as clerk and returning officer in the past and is helping out again in 2020 as county staff fine tune their approach through Zoom meetings, research, and attention to the smallest details.
“These are exciting times, and there is such potential for both the voter experience and the candidate experience,” she said. “Since 1996, the highest voter turnout I have seen is 38 per cent. There is such potential to double that.”
“An increase in voter turn-out is the common and expected result seen in municipal elections across Canada once electronic voting is offered,” he said. “And it’s a logical result. When you can offer a period of two weeks of opportunity to vote from home, or anywhere, in just a few minutes vs the challenges of having to make a special trip during smaller time periods of advance polls or on one main polling day for in-person voting more people can find the time to exercise their right to vote.”
Patterson and municipal staff have also been working on identifying locations for polling stations in each district.
“Since we know that some people will want an in-person option we are working to plan and provide in-person voting at a number of locations,” Patterson said. “We will offer in-person voting at advance polls at our Annapolis Royal and Lawrencetown offices on Oct 10 and 13. We’re working now on planning the sites for in-person voting for Oct. 17. We’re looking at factors like location for easy travel. We need to have sites well distributed and ensure coverage of each of our 11 districts. All in-person, on-site voting will be via electronic kiosks with computers for voters to use. Poll staff will be on hand to assist all voters.”
And if you can’t make it to the polling station in your district on Oct. 17? Patterson said voters can cast their electronic ballot at any polling station in any district.
All Nova Scotia municipalities will be receiving provincial health guidance on how to operate in-person voting locations, Patterson said.
“We expect to be managing for social distancing at all in-person voting locations,” he said. “Surfaces touched and tools used by voters will receive frequent disinfecting. Number of people in any location at any time will be kept within the guidelines at that time.”
If county residents want to stay informed or are seeking answers, there are plenty of avenues available.
“Voters who need help can call an election help number that will be set up by the municipality,” Patterson said. “The number will be answered during business hours while voting is available.”
He said that phone number will be on the municipal internet site and on the personal voter letters each voter will receive.
“Our purpose in providing phone support is to answer questions and provide any help an electronic voter needs,” he said. “Then the voter can complete their vote using the electronic system without any need for travel or public interaction.”
Voters will be able to enroll to receive election updates via email or text by going to https://annapoliscounty.ca/government/subscribe-to-news.
“Voters can expect to see ongoing news and updates to our municipal web page as well,” he said. “Voters will receive their voter letter with all instructions in the mail just ahead of the voting period.”
To start with, all information supporting the election will be posted to the municipal web site including rules for voter eligibility, instructions on how to use and access the electronic voting tool by computer or phone, and how to phone staff for help, location and times of in-person voting services.
EASY TO DO
In the end, electronic voting is easy to do.
Patterson said in electronic voting each person on the final voter list is mailed a voter letter which includes a pin code.
“The pin code must be keyed in in order to vote. The voter also enters their date of birth which does not appear on the voter letter,” he said. “Regardless of the system -- paper or electronic -- any attempt by one person to usurp materials or attempt to take another person’s vote are criminal actions.”
Young said the role of the returning officer is to deliver a safe process for all to exercise their democratic right. “In this time, this year, this method offers that,” she said.
Municipality of the County of Annapolis
Telephone: (902) 955-0704
Fax: (902) 532-2096