I got my online ballot, then my registration was rejected — here's what went wrong
I thought they had taken away my vote. Turns out I had just confused the system.
Voting online may appear simple for users, but on the back end, Elections NWT's processes are anything but simple.
That's what I learned when it appeared my voter registration was rejected Monday evening.
I had already received my ballot to vote. Confused, I logged in to Simply Voting, the territory's online voting platform, to see if I could still cast it.
No problem there. So what was going wrong?
What I found was that a simple confusion on my end had generated an error — one which gave me the impression I would no longer be able to vote.
Two applications, one ballot
Followers of our election coverage may remember this segment, shown on Northbeat:
In the segment, I walk through the process of applying for an online ballot. For new voters, this begins with registering to vote — filling out a form with your personal information and giving proof of your identity and address.
I checked my registration status earlier in the day and found I was already registered. So I went straight on to applying for an absentee ballot. Remember, this is what you need to vote online.
That process requires filling out a form with your personal information and giving proof of your identity and address.
For the purposes of the segment, I used a dummy application — my health card and a printout of a fake utility bill.
I submitted the application, and a few days later, received this email from Elections NWT:
What I didn't know then was that the real, live person verifying my identity at Elections NWT was actually waiting for a response.
Instead of responding, I simply submitted another application. This time, I followed the instructions to the end and completed it.
That same day, I received another email.
Unlike the first, this one didn't have a name attached to it — it seemed to be automatically generated, and provided a link to request an online ballot from the Simply Voting platform.
I requested a ballot, and when nominations closed last Friday, I received an email from Simply Voting, with a code to use to cast my vote.
Then, Monday night, I received an email saying my registration was rejected.
I went online to check, and, to my surprise, the system still allowed to me to cast a ballot online.
I was confused, and worse, I thought I had somehow gamed the system and was being permitted to vote illegally. I had a email in one hand rejecting my voter registration, yet on the other hand, I was still able to cast a ballot.
It was at this point that I figured I had to get some answers. I fired off a snarky tweet to Elections NWT, and Tuesday morning, they fired back.
Welp. This is embarrassing <a href="https://twitter.com/johnwlast?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@johnwlast</a>. You made 2 applications-Aug. 19 and 26. First app had insufficient ID and our officer emailed you. You failed to reply. Your second app had appropriate ID and you were approved. Rejection was from the first app you did not follow up on.—@ElectionsNWT
What went wrong?
Tuesday morning, I spoke with Nicole Latour, the chief electoral officer of the N.W.T.
She said the problem came down to a combination of human error on my end, and confusion in the system.
Latour said Elections NWT expects that when voters have their application rejected, they would "continue to pursue that application."
That would mean responding to the returning officer's email — the first one that I received.
"We try to help everybody, walk them through," she said. "That's a human encounter."
Because, like a true millennial, I preferred filling out another form to actual human interaction, I never followed up to that very first email. It just sat "in the queue," she said.
Crucially, there's no system in place to recognize duplicate applications, even if they contain the same name, address, birth date, and ID.
Returning officers are dealing with hundreds of these applications, and "someone would have to recognize your name in the whole process of it," said Latour.
Then, after a couple weeks of no action, it's rejected.
That's when the system generates an automatic email — but one that says my "registration for the voter list" was rejected, not my absentee ballot.
Registration, or absentee ballot?
The online forms to register to vote and to apply for an absentee ballot request the same information, and Latour said they were "part and parcel of the same system."
That means even though it was my application for an absentee ballot that was being rejected, the system told me I was no longer registered to vote at all.
But because I really was registered, and really had successfully applied for an absentee ballot, I could still vote.
"The upshot is you only received one ballot," said Latour.
Indeed, even though there were concerns about the security of online voting, it's still more likely that I'm dissuaded from voting, than be able to vote twice.
Latour said they'll review the language used in the automatic rejection emails to make sure they're more clear, and prevent any confusion that could lead to someone thinking they're not able to vote.
But then again, maybe it was just me.
"You're the only one who's been confused," she told me.
- Here's how to register to vote (properly) in the territorial election
- Find our latest coverage of the campaign here | NWT VOTES
The flurry of emails reveals another element to all this — even if Elections NWT has done a lot to remove a visible human element to registering and voting, there are still real people on the other side of the screen, reviewing hundreds and hundreds of applications.
"We're doing the best we can," said Latour.
Online and advance voting is intended to make it easier to vote. But users like myself still have to meet Elections NWT halfway — and that may mean calling a human being to resolve a problem, and not just hoping a computer can sort things out.
And maybe we should lay off the snarky tweets.