The chief election officers for Nelson and Grand Forks say mail-in ballots aren’t being offered to voters even as the option is being made available in most Kootenay municipalities.
Mail-in balloting in B.C. was previously limited to voters who would be absent for the election, or had an illness, injury or disability that prevented in-person voting.
During the COVID-19 pandemic the province required municipalities to make the option available to every voter, and in May 2021 the Local Government Act was amended to allow cities the choice of permanently expanding mail-in votes.
While mail-in voting has been adopted throughout the Kootenays in cities including Cranbrook, Fernie, Trail, Kimberley and Castlegar as well as the Central Kootenay, East Kootenay and Kootenay Boundary regional districts, there’s no option for it in Nelson, Salmo and Grand Forks.
Nelson’s chief election officer Sarah Winton said the March 2021 byelection was the first time the city offered mail-in ballots. Of the 186 residents who applied for the ballots, Winton said 155 returned theirs. The cost to the city was a week of staff time and an additional $5,000.
Winton said the city determined that number of voters was inflated by the pandemic, and that offering it for the Oct. 15 general election wasn’t viable. Including Winton, Nelson has three employees organizing the election. Collecting voter registration information and mailing out the packages, she said, required more resources than the city is currently equipped for.
“It is a lot of work and it is very time consuming and it is a lot of money for a small number of people that use mail-in voting,” said Winton. “So I know you’re probably hearing from several people, I’ve heard from several people, but when it comes right down to it and you offer it, like we did for the byelection, hardly anybody uses it.”
Grand Forks’ chief election officer Theresa Lenardon echoed Winton. The city council considered it, said Lenardon, but decided there wouldn’t be enough demand.
“I feel they felt given the low number that they have on record of non-residents, people who own property in the city but do not live there, they didn’t feel it would be worth the cost and of course the human resources.”
Castlegar also had its first look at mail-in voting during its 2021 byelection. Chief election officer Nicole Brown said Castlegar received 230 applications, which she added was high compared to other municipalities of comparable population size.
Brown agreed the process is expensive and time consuming to organize, but thinks it is worth doing.
“I know there’s been studies done by other municipalities to see if really the cost and the time is worth it compared to the number of voters or ballots that you get. But I would say during the byelection in 2021, it was definitely a great option to have available for people who were unable to come to come out, or that were unwell.”
Winton thinks the current system is ideal. If the provincial government were to mandate mail-in balloting, she said, some cities may struggle to implement it.
”Once it goes to the province it’s kind of a blanket decision. Decisions tend to be made based on what’s good for a larger municipality like in the Lower Mainland rather than what works for more rural, smaller places.”
Voters with mobility or health issues do have other options for casting their ballots.
Elections BC offers assisted telephone voting, but it is limited to people who have vision loss, a disability or health condition that prevents independent voting, or are self-isolating during the last week of the campaign and can’t vote by mail.
Municipalities are also required to offer curbside voting. Elections staff can visit residents at their cars outside polling stations if they have mobility issues and are able to mark a ballot if a voter has a disability or literacy needs.
Some cities are offering off-site voting. In Nelson, this is being held on election day at Lake View Village (9:30 to 11:30 a.m.), Kootenay Lake Hospital (12:30 to 1:30 p.m.), Nelson Jubilee Manor (2 to 2:30 p.m.) and Mountain Lake Seniors Community (3 to 4:30 p.m.).