With no mail-in ballots, and two days of advance polling in a single location, Abbotsford voters had fewer opportunities to cast a ballot than counterparts in most other mid-sized B.C. cities, The News has found.
The number of voting-day polling stations in Abbotsford has also tumbled over the last two elections, a process Mayor Henry Braun admits seems to run “counterintuitive” to what the city should be doing to encourage residents to cast a ballot.
Braun, who says the goal should be to get turnout up to at least 50 per cent, told The News this week that he has asked the city manager for more information about voting processes.
Following October’s election, in which 35 per cent of eligible Abbotsford residents voted, The News surveyed a dozen different B.C. municipalities.
The News found large variations between how easy municipalities make it for people to vote before election day.
Of the 12 jurisdictions, only Abbotsford, Mission and Chilliwack combined a lack of absentee mail-in ballots with the fewest mandated advance polling opportunities.
At the other end of the spectrum, municipalities like Maple Ridge and Langley provided advance polls on more than a half-dozen days in as many different locations. Kelowna, Vancouver and Victoria provided a similar range of chances. And Kamloops, Prince George and Vernon each provided three or four days of advance voting, with multiple locations in the latter two communities.
Only Abbotsford, Mission, Chilliwack and Nanaimo gave voters the minimum number of advance opportunities allowable under the law. Three of those four municipalities were also among the five communities surveyed that don’t allow mail-in voting. (Langley and Vernon were the others.)
Abbotsford resident Randie Scott said he found out about the lack of mail ballots the hard way when he realized his vacation to Australia would conflict with the municipal election.
“I’ve voted at every opportunity since I’ve been able to vote, and I’m now 67,” Scott said.
He dashed off emails to local authorities and officials, and wasn’t happy with the response.
“I don’t think there is any argument for not facilitating it,” he said.
Scott hopes the city will take a new look at its voting rules before the next election in four years time.
And Braun says they will.
“It’s extremely important that our residents have an opportunity to vote in our elections,” he said. “As a mayor, I want to make it easier.”
Of the 12 jurisdictions, only in Abbotsford are voters told to cast a ballot at a specified polling place – a practice that differs from most other municipalities. (A voter would have still been allowed to cast a ballot if he or she had shown up at a non-designated spot.)
That system dates back 10 years, when council decided to create voting divisions within the city and sent notification cards to individual residents. The goal was to reduce the chance of any potential irregularities while making it easier to allocate staff and resources.
The new system, which followed a delegation by community activist Gerda Peachey, was expected to add $100,000 to the city’s cost to run each election.
A staff report in 2008, before that year’s election, predicted that the cards would serve as a reminder to voters and “will likely increase voter turnout.” But in the years since, turnout hasn’t budged much. Indeed, the 34 per cent turnout in 2008 – immediately after the voter identification cards were created – was identical to three years prior. Since then, turnout has fluctuated between 35 and 38 per cent.
Braun said he hasn’t heard any complaints about the system, and noted the consistent voting rate. But he added that a lack of complaints does not mean the city should avoid taking a second look at voting protocols.
The city has also cut polling stations significantly over the last two election cycles.
In 2011, Abbotsford residents could vote at 21 different locations. That number shrank to 19 in 2014 and was reduced again to 15 this year.
Advanced voting locations have also diminished. In 2011, the city had two polling locations opened for two advanced voting opportunities. Three years later, the city allowed advance voting on three days, in two locations.
Braun said the diminishing number of poll stations “seems to run counterintuitive to what we should be doing” and said he will inquire about the matter. He said he would also want to know whether the elimination of polling stations has created a burden on people in certain areas of the city.
Braun also suggested the city should look at allowing for earlier advance polling opportunities so a voter who takes a two-week vacation isn’t left unable to vote.
The News did not find a correlation between the availability of polls and turnout, although a range of other factors – including the tone of a campaign, whether there is a desire for change, and the perception of a close mayor’s race – make it difficult to say how turnout reacts to things like polling locations.
Four of the 12 communities – Chilliwack, Kamloops, Victoria and Prince George – also provide free transit on election day, while Vancouver’s public bike share service offered a free 24-hour pass that could be used for the month.
Braun said he is open to the idea, given the city’s desire to get more people taking transit, but that doing so would require co-operation with the District of Mission, which shares a bus system. He added that polling stations would also ideally be located near bus routes in the first place.
Documents obtained by The News through a Freedom of Information request show that officials did discuss the potential of free transit, but rejected the idea.
In an email to City of Abbotsford senior transportation manager Mike Kelly, a BC Transit rep said Mission would likely support the idea, but would need Abbotsford to also take part.
Kelly, though, wrote back that Abbotsford had declined to take part “for a variety of reasons.”