Voter Help?

The problem with the voter assistance “kiosk” established in Eskasoni First Nation is not that it exists — the CBRM’s Alternative Voting By-law gives Returning Officer Deborah Campbell Ryan the power to establish as many polling locations as she likes (provided she has “at least one”) and to determine where they’re situated and what their hours of operation will be.

The problem (and I mean “problem” in the narrowly defined, “what do the rules say?” sense of the term) seems to be that its existence wasn’t announced properly.

I’ve been searching through the weeds of the Municipal Elections Act, the Alternative Voting By-law and the the “Procedures and Forms for the 2020 Municipal and CSAP Elections” established by Campbell-Ryan on 17 August 2020, trying to figure out how this should have been handled and the one thing that jumps out at me is that the by-law states clearly, under “Notification and Attendance at Polling Location”:

7D. (1) The Returning Officer shall provide each candidate with at least forty-eight (48) hours’ notice of a polling location.

Candidates are to be notified so they — or their official agents — “may appoint one or more agents to represent the candidate at each polling station.”

If the Eskasoni kiosk opened on October 7 — which it was supposed to do, according to this October 6 post from the Eskasoni First Nation Facebook page — then District 3 candidates weren’t officially notified by the returning officer until 48 hours after it began operations:

District 3 candidate Cyril MacDonald, who discovered the existence of the kiosk on Friday, October 9, told the Post he contacted Campbell-Ryan about it and was told that candidates would be notified when “it was up and running” (which clearly would not be in keeping with the by-law).

That same day, she wrote to District 3 candidates saying the kiosk would be open on Tuesday, October 13, without clarifying whether it had, in fact, been open since October 7.

MacDonald, however, in a press release issued on Saturday, stated unequivocally the kiosk had been operating since the 7th. (The question of whether the kiosk was open for voting on Thanksgiving Day is just another wrinkle — the Eskasoni FN Facebook post said it was, the returning officer said it wasn’t — but it’s the kind of wrinkle that confuses voters.)


Return to sender

A press release dated October 13 has popped up on the CBRM website explaining why Campbell-Ryan chose to establish the voting kiosk in Eskasoni in response to “voter access challenges raised by Chief Leroy Denny”:

“Several factors were considered in my decision to open a voting kiosk in Eskasoni,” said Returning Officer Deborah Campbell Ryan. “Eskasoni is a remote community with a large number of residents who experience language barriers. There are approximately 2,380 residents of Eskasoni eligible to vote but more than 500 of the voter PIN letters were returned to our office by Canada Post as incomplete address.”

This explanation has been evolving since news of the voter kiosk become public. In that October 9 letter to District 3 candidates, Campbell-Ryan cited Eskasoni’s “remoteness” and “large population” as factors in her decision, but did not mention language barriers or returned PIN numbers (although over 500 returned PINs in a single district represents a pretty serious glitch in the voting system).

The bottom line, again, is that it’s perfectly reasonable to establish such a kiosk in Eskasoni, but the CBRM’s own by-law says the returning officer should have given candidates 48 hours’ notice of its existence.


Too remote to vote?

A group of unhappy candidates attempted to meet with Campbell-Ryan to discuss the matter on Tuesday, but were turned away from the Civic Centre. According to the CBC’s Tom Ayers, they say the special polling location in Eskasoni is “not a bad idea, but gives the incumbent an advantage and it’s not fair to voters in other communities.”

For the record, the District 3 incumbent, Esmund “Blue” Marshall, received 642 of 665 votes cast in Eskasoni in 2016.

But I think the candidates have a point — if “population” and “remoteness” (from the polling station at the Civic Centre, presumably) are arguments for a special polling location in Eskasoni (and I think they are — although 500 returned PINs are an even more convincing one) then surely they are also arguments for special polling locations, with the same operating hours, in other parts of the CBRM.


Added bonus

I thought it might be helpful to answer some other election-related questions, beginning with:

Why are we holding elections during a pandemic?

Although the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities (NSFM) requested this fall’s elections (which are mandated under the Nova Scotia Municipal Elections Act) be postponed in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Minister of Municipal Affairs Chuck Porter decided they should go ahead.

Why is the CBRM voting electronically — by telephone or internet — only?

CBRM adopted an Alternative Voting By-law in 2012 permitting electronic voting via the internet or telephone. E-voting took place in addition to in-person voting during the 2012 and 2016 municipal elections and during the 2014 District 10 special election.

During its 9 June 2020 meeting, council adopted amendments to its Alternative Voting By-law that allowed it to decide, by motion, that voting by telephone or a personal computing device would be the only means of voting in a particular election — meaning, no paper ballots.

During that same meeting, council decided, by motion, that telephones and personal computing devices would be the only two means of voting in the Municipal and Conseil Scolaire Acadien Provincial (CSAP) elections in 2020.

How was the voting period determined?

During its 14 July 2020 meeting, CBRM council authorized voting by telephone and personal computing device to begin at 8:00 am on 7 October 2020 and terminate at 7:00 pm on 17 October 2020.

How are the polling stations for alternative voting chosen?

The Alternative Voting By-law was adopted under the authority of Section 146A (“Vote by mail or other voting method”) of the Municipal Elections Act.

Section 146A lists a number of items that “shall” be included in any municipal alternative voting by-law and a number of items that “may” be included and “places where voting can occur” is one of the items that “may” be included.

As it happens, the by-law adopted by the CBRM says the returning officer must establish “at least one polling station” but “may establish one or more polling locations,” which may be “at such places and during such times as may be determined by the Returning Officer.”


Added added bonus:

As of October 13, CBRM voter participation looked like this:

CBRM voter participation as of 2020.10.13

As you can see, participation in District 3 — which includes Eskasoni – is the lowest of all districts, at 26.8%.

Overall participation, after six days of voting, is only 35.4%.

Those are the kind of number political junkies like myself can never comprehend.