Cape Breton region to hold in-person elections, and you keep the pencil
Municipality going with paper ballots only, despite province's strong recommendation to use electronic voting
Richmond County voters will be visiting a polling station and putting pencil to paper in this fall's general elections, despite the COVID-19 pandemic and a strong recommendation from the Nova Scotia government urging municipalities to consider electronic voting.
Clair Rankin, a former Richmond councillor and now the municipality's returning officer, said using paper ballots only will be a challenge, but all of the public health guidelines will be followed.
He said the pandemic means renting more venues for polling stations to ensure physical distancing, hiring a third more election staff and spending more on cleaning.
"We're full speed ahead on a normal election day, with added security for voters," Rankin said.
Richmond will also be buying 5,000 short pencils with no erasers, like those used at the golf course or bowling alleys, which voters will get to keep, he said.
"Everybody gets a free gift from the county this election," Rankin said. "You get to take the pencil home. You're only allowed to use it once, so you get a souvenir of the election in 2020."
According to Department of Municipal Affairs guidelines developed for municipalities, the province does not recommend paper ballots as the only voting method.
Instead, it suggests councils use telephone or internet-based voting because of the pandemic, a move urged by Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter.
"With the appropriate staff, venue and equipment, it is possible to safely conduct an election while adhering to public health orders," the guidelines say.
"[But] in-person public election events could pose a greater risk of transmission of COVID-19 opposed to alternative voting methods. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that municipalities consider implementing electronic voting ... to protect the health and safety of election staff and voters.
"To ensure community members are not improperly exposed to the coronavirus, municipalities should consider providing only electronic voting to minimize the risk of transmission."
Neither the province nor the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities keeps a record of which methods municipalities are choosing.
However, NSFM president and Town of Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood said the federation is aware of eight of 49 municipalities that will be using paper ballots.
It's not clear, though, whether that is the number using only paper ballots or whether it includes municipalities using a combination of paper and electronic voting, she said.
Rankin said while Richmond County is going with a traditional method, voters will notice some differences.
"The traditional way of voting in the community hall is different, because it used to be you'd meet at the door, your neighbours and friends," he said.
"There'd be a big lineup at some time during the day, but now it's going to be like in the grocery store, six feet apart outside while you're waiting and then so many people in the hall."
Rankin said he doesn't yet know what the cost will be, but it will be higher than previous elections.
He said the physical turnout at the polls might be lower than usual because of voter concerns about the pandemic, but he is also expecting more people will take advantage of proxy voting.
According to Municipal Affairs, anyone wishing to use a proxy voter must file a form with the returning officer by Oct. 9.
Rankin said he has some trepidation about the October elections, but he is following provincial guidelines.
"I have concerns, but still we're going to make it as safe as we can for everybody in Richmond County," he said.
Richmond County council did not amend its voting bylaw this year, so it cannot take advantage of electronic voting.
Warden Brian Marchand was unavailable for comment on Thursday.
Deputy Warden Alvin Martell, who is not running again, said he could not recall any council discussion on the merits of alternative voting.
However, he said, the pandemic is going to affect the election this year.
"People are very leery about being out in public and I feel this election will be a little bit different, or a lot different ... from the previous elections," Martell said.
'It will be safe'
There are still area residents, especially older folks, who get someone to go to the store for groceries on their behalf, he said, even though most people are wearing masks or staying two metres apart.
Some will also be reluctant to have someone knock at their door, which Martell said will not hurt older, incumbent councillors, but will not be good for rookies.
He said he will go to the polls himself, though.
"I've been out and about and I think if the health protocols are followed ... it will be safe for people to go vote," Martell said.
However, he said, Richmond voters should have the option of voting electronically.
"As long as it's done in a safe and proper manner, that everybody gets a fair shake at voting, I think it would be the way to go."
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