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Voting by mail in B.C. election likely to continue past pandemic: UBC professor

November 09, 2020 - 6:00 AM

A UBC professor says British Columbians could be drawn to mailing in their ballot in the future, adopting new voter behaviours past the pandemic.

Elections B.C. has received an estimated 497,900 returned vote-by-mail packages as of Oct. 23. This represents approximately 69 per cent of packages issued to date with 724,279 registered voters having been issued a vote-by-mail package. That's a huge rise from 2017’s provincial election, when 6,500 mail-in ballots were cast of the overall 200,000 absentee votes.

READ MORE: Despite thousands of mail-in ballots, Elections BC says final count on schedule

“To some extent, the pandemic has changed behaviour at all kinds of levels and we’re going to be watching to see as we get past this how much of that becomes permanent... and I (think) voting by mail will be one of those things that people expect and want. It seems to have worked well and it’s convenient and it doesn’t seem to generate a problem here in Canada,” said UBC political science professor Max Cameron.

The past election seems to have changed voting expectations and the challenges that America faces with mailing votes is not the same in Canada, he said.

“There are problems that are (unique) in the United States that we don’t face here frankly, and I hope it will be here to stay and there’s reason to expect that it will be.”

Cameron said the mail-in system seems to be working well, but not without problems, like ensuring ballots are cast privately.

“There’s something about the literal secrecy of the ballot box. You go into a polling station with a cardboard shield and you cast your ballot in absolute secrecy,” he said, adding that votes cast in a household could be influenced by those living within the house.

“The assumption that we’re making is that people are autonomous, that they are able to exercise their citizenship rights freely (at home.) We don’t actually know that for a fact, but we have to balance that in this case with the pandemic and people not wanting to line up at a polling station,” Cameron said.

Making it more convenient to vote typically means a higher voter turnout, he said, but added that this wasn’t the case in this election, despite the surge in mail-in ballots. Turnout in this election was recorded at 52.4 per cent, the lowest turnout since records began in 1928, according to Elections B.C. Voter turnout in most of the Thompson Okanagan regions was also terrible, sitting well below the provincial average.

Turnout for the Kamloops North riding sat at 5.7 per cent below the provincial average, while the Vernon-Monashee sat at a 4.8 per cent drop below the average. The other markedly lower turnout was in Kamloops South. It was 6.3  per cent below the provincial average.

All three Kelowna ridings sat below the B.C. average as well, Kelowna West recorded a 46.2 per cent turnout, a 46.1 per cent turnout was reported for the Kelowna Lake Country riding and 49.6 per cent was reported for the Kelowna-Mission.

READ MORE: Voter turnout in Thompson, Okanagan ridings well below the provincial average

“Whatever convenience that may have come from the postal ballot may have been offset by the ho-hum attitude of the election,” Cameron said.

Electronic voting has also been long-discussed for convenience, but tampering or doxing electronic systems in the middle of an election also poses a problem, he said.

That may change in the future. Cameron said the UBC Alma Mater Society student association collects votes electronically by walking around buildings collecting votes with a tablet and requiring student IDs.

“So you’re actually pushing the vote,” he said. “Imagine if you could go door to door with a tablet, you could raise the total level of voter participation, but then you’ve got these security issues, so we’re not there yet.”

Currently, absentee and mail-in ballots envelopes have been sorted by electoral district and sent for screening, where some that don't meet certification standards may be set aside before the final count begins, according to Elections B.C.

Certification envelopes will only be opened during the final count and officials say that's when envelopes that are empty or contain more than one ballot will be rejected.

The final count begins Friday, Nov. 6 and is expected to last three days. The Kelowna-Lake Country riding had the greatest number of vote-by-mail packages issued, sitting at 10,194.

One of the challenges during this year's election was scaling the process to manufacture enough packages to send out to voters, said Andrew Watson, director of communications with Elections B.C.

"It was something we started looking at earlier this year, at the time we didn’t know there would be an unscheduled election this fall in B.C. but we were looking at the fact that the pandemic would likely be a factor whenever the next election was held,” Watson said, adding in other jurisdictions, vote by mail had increased significantly.

“Whether or not that trend continues is hard to say at this point but it is something that we will look at in our post-election review to see where we could make improvements and if the demand for vote-by-mail continues we have the infrastructure in place to meet that demand,” he said.

With remote voting opportunities, Elections B.C. can recommend making changes to policies on voting and may do so after this election has wrapped up, but Watson said he hasn't heard any concerns about privacy during this election.

“When policymakers are thinking about how vote-by-mail works and the legislative framework around that, I have heard that consideration brought up,” he said.

But British Columbians are well-familiarized with vote-my-mail procedures and have referendums conducted by mail, and it’s been an option for voters since the early 1990s, he said.

“I think the security of the process is well established and procedures are proven at this point given the number of elections and referendums we’ve used to vote by mail in,” Watson said.

One of the things that Elections B.C. will be looking at for the next election is using electronic vote tabulators to count paper ballots to report results faster and get results on election night.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Carli Berry or call 250-864-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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