Note: This article in The Gazette by Linda Gyulai should have us all concerned about why the province is dropping the ball to ensure that municipal elections allow for mail-in ballots. Failing that, perhaps they should be postponed to the spring of 2022. Will door to door campaigning be possible next fall? Will people even want to work at the polls? The way the vaccine rollout has started, I am not completely confident that everyone will be given the jab by next November.
HERE IS THE GAZETTE STORY
Elections in Quebec’s 1,100 municipalities are still 10 months away, but time is running out if the province plans to offer mail-in voting as an option for anyone who doesn’t feel safe voting in person.
The United States and British Columbia, which held elections in the fall, saw record numbers of voters cast their ballots by mail because of the pandemic. But those jurisdictions already had a system of mail-in balloting in place. Quebec legislation doesn’t currently allow residents to vote by mail in a local election in their municipality.
Voting by mail is crucial in a pandemic. Why is Quebec not ready?
“The deadline is starting to be tight,” Suzanne Roy, president of the Union des municipalités du Québec, told the Montreal Gazette after her association’s board decided in December to support mail-in voting among a host of measures to encourage turnout in the Nov. 7, 2021 municipal elections.
The UMQ, which represents 85 per cent of the population of Quebec through its member municipalities, passed a resolution that month formally calling on the provincial government to enact legislation that would permit voting by correspondence.
The UMQ resolution also calls for government support on six other measures to facilitate voting. They include studying the possibility of electronic voting from home, opening polling centres in seniors’ homes, adding more advance polling days and extending voting hours at polling centres. The resolution also appeals for any other safety measures that would eliminate lineups and make people feel more at ease, such as by offering more places to vote. And it calls on the government to allow municipalities to use a portion of the $100 million set aside for pandemic response in 2021 to help finance the voting measures proposed by the UMQ.
Roy, who is mayor of Ste-Julie, said public safety is one reason the association’s board, which includes the mayors of Montreal, Laval, Quebec City and Longueuil, supports mail-in voting and the other measures. But another consideration is pragmatic, she said: less than one out of every two eligible voters in Quebec, on average, casts a ballot in a municipal election, and the pandemic will likely only dampen enthusiasm.
“We don’t know what state we’ll be in with the pandemic, so we have to avoid people gathering when they vote,” Roy said.
At the same time, she said, “we have to make sure the vote is as accessible as possible. That’s why we’re suggesting that we promote voting by correspondence. Even if it’s expensive to set up, we think it could offer a solution for people who are afraid.”
The Quebec municipal elections law offers people who own property in a municipality but don’t reside there the chance to vote by mail. But the option is only available if the municipality opts in to allow out-of-towners a vote by post.
The city of Montreal tried mail-in voting for non-residents in the 2009 election, and abandoned it after only 1,215 voters out of 33,021 eligible non-resident voters sent in ballots.
In B.C., 662,000 votes were cast by mail in the provincial election in October — 100 times the 6,500 mail-in ballots that were cast in the province’s 2017 election. PHOTO BY DARRYL DYCK /THE CANADIAN PRESS
The UMQ’s suggestions require provincial approval. And Roy said her organization plans to follow up with the government.
For example, municipalities can’t unilaterally decide to extend advance polling by, say, a week or a month. A Quebec decree passed in October and applicable only to municipal elections during the pandemic allows for up to five days of advancing polling between Oct. 29 and Nov. 2. The decree also allows a municipality to add one additional election day, on Nov. 6. So a municipality must offer a minimum of two days to vote in 2021 — the Nov. 7 election and an advance polling day — and a maximum of seven voting days that include two election days and five advance polling days.
The government’s October decree opens the window slightly to voting by mail during the pandemic, but only for people in hospitals and nursing homes and those ordered into self-isolation, and only applying to byelections so far.
Mail-in balloting temporarily replaces bedside voting normally available in seniors’ residences and hospitals, according to a 41-page guide the municipal affairs department issued in the fall with recommended safe distancing measures for elections during the pandemic.
On Thursday, Quebec’s director general of elections announced byelections in two municipalities, in Saint-Calixte and Beauharnois, to be held on Feb. 21. Anyone qualified to vote by mail in those byelections must make the request to their local chief returning officer no later than Feb. 11.
However, even if the government allows the stopgap measure to be applied in the November general elections, Montreal city councillor Alan DeSousa said the impact of offering mail-in voting only to people in nursing homes and hospitals or in mandatory isolation “would be extremely limited.”
“It doesn’t help senior citizens at large,” he said. “Clearly, it doesn’t deal with the concerns of seniors living in the broader community and people with pre-existing medical conditions.”
Moreover, the decree doesn’t amend the municipal elections law, DeSousa noted. So once the emergency health crisis ends and the decree is no longer in effect, Quebec municipalities will go back to holding elections on a single voting day plus one or two advance polling days. Mail-in voting will once again only be available to non-residents, and only in municipalities that opt in, he added.
DeSousa said the popularity of mail-in ballots in the U.S. and B.C. elections ought to convince the authorities in Quebec to make it available to all municipal voters this November and beyond.
An unprecedented number of Americans voted by mail in the U.S. elections and contributed to one of the country’s highest election turnouts since 1900.
In B.C., 662,000 votes were cast by mail in the provincial election in October — 100 times the 6,500 mail-in ballots that were cast in the province’s 2017 election.
By DeSousa’s reckoning, time is running out. Municipal chief returning officers need time to organize, recruit staff and inform voters about the process, he said. Canada Post also needs time to prepare to deliver masses of ballots, he said. The city of Montreal alone has 1.1 million eligible voters.
“We have no guarantee we won’t be in a red zone next November,” says Montreal city councillor Alan DeSousa. “But you need to do the planning ahead.”
The COVID-19 vaccine rollout may well move smoothly between now and September, DeSousa said. But Quebec can’t afford to wait and see before it decides whether to allow mail-in voting, he said. As well, it might be a long time before people feel safe to line up in a polling station again, he said.
“We have no guarantee we won’t be in a red zone next November,” DeSousa said. “But you need to do the planning ahead.”
The province might want to consider moving the deadlines for candidates to file their nomination papers and for voter list revisions to be made, he suggested. Currently, nominations close a month before the election, but the city then needs time to print ballots with the candidates’ names, mail them to voters and allow voters some time to mark their choices and mail back the ballots, he said.
DeSousa began phoning and writing to Montreal officials and the UMQ early last autumn to urge them to support mail-in voting and an extended voting period for the 2021 elections. He also got a resolution passed by city council in October that calls for the city to ask Quebec to introduce whatever legislative changes are needed for alternative methods to vote in the next election. The resolution also calls on the city’s election office to prepare for voting by correspondence, even if it’s not currently authorized.
DeSousa’s resolution followed after another opposition councillor, Marvin Rotrand, got city council to agree to examine mail-in voting for the 2021 election this summer.
However, the council speaker’s committee, which includes representatives of Montreal’s different political parties, dismissed the proposal in August, calling mail-in ballots “interesting” but complicated to implement. The panel concluded that mail-in ballots likely wouldn’t get the people who are the most vulnerable in the pandemic to vote. The committee recommended instead that Montreal “continue the reflection” as part of a provincial committee that includes representatives of the government, Quebec’s director general of elections and the UMQ, and that is working to identify alternatives to traditional voting.
Coincidentally, the director general of elections says it’s studying the possibility of expanding the use of mail-in ballots at the provincial level – permanently – starting in the 2022 general election. Spokesperson Julie St-Arnaud Drolet said the measure would require a legislative amendment. Currently, mail-in voting in provincial elections is available to Quebecers who reside temporarily or permanently in certain remote regions of the province, people who have lived outside of Quebec for less than two years but intend to return, and people in provincial and federal detention centres and youth centres.
Setting up a mail-in ballot system is no small task, the office of Montreal city clerk Yves Saindon, who is also the city’s chief returning officer, says. Saindon’s office gave an exhaustive presentation to the council speaker’s committee in August to show what a pandemic election and a vote by mail would entail.
The city clerk’s office, which said it’s open to mail-in voting if council supports it, worries the pandemic will keep seniors from voting in 2021 but also about its ability to staff the election, the presentation said. Seniors make up a large proportion of the personnel who work on any city election, it said. About one out of seven people who filled 13,000 temporary positions in the 2017 Montreal election was over 70 years old. And if mail-in ballots are added in 2021, Montreal will need to recruit at least another 500 temporary election workers, the presentation said.
The Montreal election would also cost more than the usual $14 million to hold a pandemic election, it said, notably to acquire personal protective equipment for all election personnel. The city’s 2021 operating budget, tabled in November, only specified an additional $450,000 to set up a “student voting office.”
If anything, the city clerk’s presentation shows that Montreal is ill-prepared to hold a pandemic election, DeSousa said.
“Clearly, in these circumstances, more needs to be done,” he said. “It’s important for democracy that these elections be held.”