City staff encouraging residents to make sure they’re eligible to vote
Mauaren Harvey, the City of St. John’s election co-ordinator, is encouraging all residents to get out and vote in an attempt to improve upon the 52 per cent voter turnout in the 2009 municipal election. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram
From cab drivers to candidates, they all have an opinion around election time, but as one taxi driver so eloquently stated recently, “If you don’t vote you lose your right to complain.”
“It drives me nuts,” he said candidly. “I vote all the time, whether it’s federal, provincial or local and I don’t know why people don’t take advantage of their democratic right.”
Election staff at St. John’s City Hall are of the same mind and say while they would like to improve the 52 per cent voter turnout from the 2009 election, they can’t force people to cast their ballots.
“You can’t make people vote. You can’t conjure up interest,” said Elaine Henley, the city’s manager of communications and office services.
“But we’re all about making it easy, convenient and encouraging people to vote,” she said, referring to the city’s mail-in ballot and awareness campaign.
The system was introduced in St. John’s in 2001. The capital city is the only municipality in the province using the mail-in ballot. During three elections and one byelection, the turnout has hovered between 42 and 59 per cent.
At a cost of $358,000 — which includes contracts, salaries and advertising — for this fall’s election, more than 70,000 kits will be sent to eligible voters in the capital city. The kits — containing secret ballots, declaration forms and prepaid postage envelopes — will be mailed out Sept. 6. They have to be sent back to city hall before election day on Sept. 24. However, kits should be mailed no later than Sept. 20. In cases of unforeseen circumstances there will be drop boxes in each of the five wards on election day, and one outside city hall.
Maureen Harvey, the city’s election co-ordinator, has conducted elections in the past, but this is her first time using the mail-in system.
“I think it’s a great idea. Using traditional polling, if the weather is bad, the numbers go down, and you can’t cater to the elderly or people with disabilities,” she said.
“It also gives voters time to make up their minds and to do it in the convenience of their own homes,” said Harvey, a former employee with the Town of Conception Bay South.
But encouraging people to vote and making sure they’re on the list are two different things.
The biggest challenge, Henley and Harvey agree, is nailing down the voter list.
Henley said the starting point is Elections Newfoundland and Labrador.
Adrienne Luther, communications and training officer with the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer, said each municipality receives a copy of the provincial voting list around election time and it is up to each one to break down the data.
“They go through the data and then, as part of our exchange agreement, after the elections they return it to us with any updates, new swear-ins or new houses that we haven’t captured before,” she said.
Luther said Elections Newfoundland and Labrador updates its list annually.
“Every April 1 we do an updated list with the information we collect from Elections Canada and Vital Statistics. Vital Statistics will send us a list of any deaths in the province and we remove them from the voters list, but it’s up to the municipalities to go through the data,” she said.
According to Harvey and Henley, weaving through that information is no easy task.
“We do our best. We diligently advertise, encouraging people to make sure they are on the list, but at the end of the day it is the responsibility of people to ensure they are on it,” said Henley, who conducted the last three elections for the City of St. John’s.
“We advertise heavily. We make it readily available online for people to check themselves. We use every tool available to us to verify the people on it — house sales information, Canada 411, our tax roll — but it is impossible to verify every single person on the list despite our best efforts to do so,” she said.
Harvey says finding people who have moved from their previous addresses, people who have since become residents of long-term-care facilities and transient voters such as students is the toughest part.
Each voter’s kit is personalized and can only be given to a voter by using a name and date of birth, so when it comes to finding people in condos, apartment buildings and long-term care facilities, elections staff have to follow the legislation and be careful not to breach the Privacy Act.
Henley said they are working with the management of these facilities by asking them to encourage their tenants to let the city know if they’re on the list and to make sure the information the city has is correct.
“So we’re not trying to do anything against the legislation. We’re trying to reach them by placing posters throughout the city and asking people to contact us. People make an assumption that because they live in the city and pay their taxes we should have no problem finding them, but that’s not always the case,” she said.
Last year officials discovered a computer program, used by the agency Datafix to peruse the voter list and compile the kits, had a glitch that caused it to misdirect ballots to residents in two wards.
Henley said that glitch was corrected and security checks and testing were conducted to ensure it doesn’t happen again. “For the number of kits that were sent out, the number was negligible. We don’t foresee any problems with this election.”
For voter information, go to www.stjohns.ca or call 311 to check the voters list.