Making it easier to vote in the next municipal election will cost some money, but can be done without too much trouble, Abbotsford city staff told council Monday.
Staff laid out a range of ways voting could be easier in 2022, from offering more polling stations and advance voting opportunities, to returning to a “vote anywhere” model that wouldn’t require residents to go to a designated polling place. The suggestions were made at a committee of the whole meeting where council makes no significant decisions but can discuss issues in greater depth.
The suggested improvements follow a News article in December that revealed that Abbotsford residents had fewer and more-restrictive voting opportunities than those in most other mid-sized B.C. cities – although Abbotsford didn’t have markedly worse voter turnout than those other municipalities.
At the time, Mayor Henry Braun said the city should look at its voting provisions, saying that a diminishing number of poll stations over recent elections seemed “counter-intuitive” to the goal of increasing turnout.
Monday’s staff report shows that the number of voting places dropped from 22 to 16 between 2008 and 2018.
“These reductions were made largely to create efficiencies,” staff wrote. As technology allowed more staff to help more voters, small voter locations nearby one another were merged, staff wrote.
Staff noted that the city could boost the number of voting locations in the future. Staff floated the idea of a new voting place at the University of the Fraser Valley to encourage more young people to cast a ballot. Another west Abbotsford voting location was also suggested, as was the possibility of a location in a mall or storefront “in an attempt to make voting easily accessible to where the people are.”
Staffing and operating an average-sized voting place costs about $9,000.
The city has also provided just two advance voting opportunities, the minimum number allowed under provincial law. That’s despite an increasing number of people voting early. Staff say providing more advance voting chances in four years will cost about $12,000 for each location.
Unlike most other municipalities, Abbotsford has also used a system whereby voters are directed to designated polling stations on election day. The system has been in place since 2008, and was implemented, in part, to decrease the risk that some voters could cast a ballot at multiple polling stations.
Now that the city is using an electronic system that crosses voters off a single, centralized list, staff now say that the city could return to a “vote anywhere” system without risk. Doing so, staff say, “will help make voting easier for voters; and will avoid difficult situations election workers can be placed in when people arrive at their voting place who have been assigned to a different voting place.”
Two other options meant to make voting easier wouldn’t cost the city much, staff say.
Allowing mail-in voting would cost $2,000, along with some staff time, while offering free transit services would probably see the city miss out on around $2,800 in revenue.
Staff also proposed nearly doubling the election awareness campaign to around $12,000 to inform more people about the upcoming vote.
They also suggest hiring a full-time, six-month staffer to provide support in the lead-up to the election. That would cost about $35,000.
The proposals will resurface at a future meeting, at which point mayor and council can tell staff how, exactly, they should proceed.