Victoria's top election official defends mail-in ballot process

A candidate in the Dec. 12 ­Victoria council byelection says the city is disenfranchising older voters by making it technologically difficult for them to obtain mail-in ballots.

But the city’s chief election officer says eligible voters have several ways to request mail-in ballots without having to use a computer or smartphone, and that every effort is being made to protect people’s voting rights.

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“Our objective is to make sure that anyone who’s eligible to vote is able to do that,” said Chris Coates, who is also the city clerk.

Stephen Andrew, one of 11 candidates vying for a vacant council seat, says he’s been ­hearing from people frustrated with the city’s online portal, which requires eligible voters to scan and upload up to two pieces of identification in order to receive a mail-in ballot.

“I think it’s wrong,” he said. “It’s disenfranchising seniors in this city who do not have computers, who do not have the technology skill that is required. They should have a low-barrier voting process for seniors.”

Andrew noted that many ­people don’t want to visit a polling station in person with COVID-19 cases on the rise. “So why should they have to deal with this laborious way of ­casting their ballot?”

Bruce Elkin, 77, considers himself computer savvy, but he found the city’s online ­application for a mail-in ballot overly complicated. His session timed out before he was finished, he said.

“My thought was that, if I had trouble with that form and another woman I knew had trouble with that form — much younger than me — there may be a lot of people like me trying to get a mail-in ballot, getting ­flummoxed by the complicated form and giving up,” he said.

Coates encouraged people to contact the city by phone or email if they require assistance, as there are a number of ways to obtain a mail-in ballot without having to upload ID. The city’s legislative services can be reached by phone at 250-361-0571 or by email at ­elections@victoria.ca.

If people are already on the voter’s list, for instance, they can call the city and answer a couple of security questions to verify that they’re the person on the list, he said. They will then be sent a mail-in ballot package to the address on the voter’s list.

People not on the voter’s list are required by law to provide two pieces of identification so that election officials can make sure they are eligible to vote.

If they’re unable to provide the information using the online portal, they can do so by email or in person. If that’s still an issue, they can receive a mail-in ballot package as a provisional voter, but will be required to include photocopies of their ID with the ballot when they return it.

“So there’s a number of different ways to do it and it doesn’t always require the use of ­technology at all,” Coates said.

Andrew said some voters are also raising privacy concerns about the security of personal information being uploaded.

Coates said everything is being done in accordance with B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The information is stored electronically for a short time in order to verify the eligibility of voters. “It is used only for that purpose, and only by designated election officials who are responsible to conduct themselves in accordance with that legislation, and then after that verification process has taken place, it’s destroyed.”

The byelection is being held to replace former councillor Laurel Collins, who resigned a year ago after winning the Victoria riding for the NDP in the 2019 federal election.

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