Pairing school board vote with other elections 'not an option' for Elections P.E.I.

The head of Elections P.E.I. says running new school board trustee elections online could increase turnout and save money compared with running a paper ballot election.

'It's just not feasible for us to be able to run the two at the same time'

Ballot box elections PEI
Elections P.E.I. says it is looking at online voting when it comes to electing the school board. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

The head of Elections P.E.I. says running new trustee elections online could increase turnout and save money compared with running a paper ballot election.

Tim Garrity also says Elections P.E.I. doesn't currently have the capacity to run two elections at the same time, putting to rest — at least temporarily — the idea of pairing trustee elections with either a provincial or municipal election to increase turnout.

The PCs promised to re-introduce elected trustees to manage P.E.I.'s education system after previous Liberal governments did away with trustee elections, and eventually the last remaining English school board in the province.

MLAs on the province's standing committee on education and economic growth were recently briefed by the Public Schools Branch on efforts to re-introduce elected trustees.

Education officials told MLAs it was "not an option" to piggyback trustee elections with another vote because Elections P.E.I. doesn't have "the human resource or the system capacity."

Chief Electoral Officer Tim Garrity says that the current software being used is unable to handle the two separate elections at the same time. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Garrity said because Elections P.E.I. has never run a trustee election using its current database system, a new database would have to be created, similar to those that exist for provincial and municipal elections.

Complicating the issue, he said, is the fact that trustee elections will likely end up using a different boundary system from the other elections.

"So we're currently working with our vendor on that right now to see what the possibilities and the costs around that are," Garrity said. "But right now it's just not feasible for us to be able to run the two at the same time."

'Seamless switchover'

The recommendation to piggyback trustee elections onto either a municipal or provincial vote was put forward by P.E.I.'s Education Governance Commission as a means to increase voter turnout.

But there has never been another election for English trustees since the government-commissioned report was delivered in 2012.

Garrity has suggested running an online election for trustees could be easier, more cost-effective and lead to increased turnout. Under the old trustee elections, voter turnout maxed out at just under four per cent.

"There are several companies that do the online portion and they have worked with our vendor in other jurisdictions in the past and it's basically a seamless switchover," Garrity said. 

"They can kind of turn on an online portal and there's almost a, you know, an off-the-shelf solution that they will customize to our needs."

Ernie Hudson
Ernie Hudson, minister of social development and housing, says he's hoping to see the two votes held together if possible. (Ken Linton/CBC)

But P.E.I.'s Minister of Social Development and Housing Ernie Hudson, one of the MLAs on the education committee who received the briefing on elected trustees, thinks government should continue to work with Elections P.E.I. to see if trustee elections can in fact be held in conjunction with a provincial election.

"I wouldn't want to shut the door on either" option, said Hudson. But "P.E.I. has had one of the highest turnouts for general elections of any province across the country," he said, suggesting that could present "the opportunity to increase the number of ballots, the number of votes" cast in trustee elections.

The Department of Education will ultimately decide how trustee elections will be held. Public consultations around the return to elected trustees are to take place this winter, with the next elections to come in May of 2022. 

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With files from Kerry Campbell