So, it will be another week before Elections B.C. staff even start counting those 600,000 mail-in and absentee ballots, and it will take several days after that to get the final results of last weekend’s provincial election.
This campaign, held during the COVID-19 pandemic with an unprecedented number of voters opting to vote by mail, has proven why British Columbia needs to modernize its century-old electoral system, which still uses paper ballots and manual counting.
Technological changes — ballot-counting machines and electronic voters lists — were approved last year by the provincial government, and would eliminate this two-week-plus waiting period for final results. But when Premier John Horgan called a snap election, the updated procedures were not in place yet.
And now Elections B.C. must consider whether those plans need to be rejigged to accommodate the massive interest in voting by mail — which increased more than 7,000 per cent compared to the 2017 provincial election.
“I think that’s one of the things that we need to look at coming out of this election,” B.C.’s Chief Electoral Officer Anton Boegman told Postmedia. “Do we need to make any recommendations for future change, to allow to better incorporate the type of unprecedented vote by mail that we’ve seen in this election?”
Talk of altering the traditional paper-ballot-and-box system elicits strong responses from many people: some only trust pencil-to-paper, counted by human beings; others are OK with machine counters, as long as there is a paper-trail for double-checking afterwards; others argue that if we bank online we should be able to vote online, although that is not being contemplated in B.C. right now because of security concerns.
Even the seemingly innocuous idea of putting your vote in the mail, especially during a pandemic, has become controversial in the United States, where President Donald Trump has complained, without evidence, that there are “big problems and discrepancies with mail-in ballots all over the USA.”
In response to a Trump Tweet on Monday suggesting no mail-in ballots should be counted after election day on Nov. 3, Twitter put a warning that the content of the post is “disputed” and offered a link to how vote-by-mail is safe.
Big problems and discrepancies with Mail In Ballots all over the USA. Must have final total on November 3rd.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 26, 2020
Boegman said the issue has, unfortunately, became “a political question” south of the border, something that he doesn’t anticipate would ever happen in B.C. But he will be watching Tuesday’s U.S. election, and how the large country will handle the high number of mail-in votes — both in states like Washington and Oregon that only have voting by mail, as well as the majority of states that still have polling stations.
“I have a number of colleagues who administer elections down in the States, and, certainly, I’ll be watching how they’re doing and how they’re able to process the scale, again, of some of the vote by mail ballots,” he said.
“In some of the other States where it’s not a common occurrence to have so many votes by mail, there’s a bit of a fear of the unknown. Certainly in British Columbia, my sense from comments we’ve received from voters is they found the process to request and to receive a vote by mail package quite straightforward, and they’re very comfortable in using them.”
Whether the intense interest in vote by mail will be repeated in a non-pandemic election isn’t clear. However, Elections B.C. statistics show other types of alternative voting have risen in popularity: in 2005, just 15 per cent of voters cast advance or absentee ballots, while that rose to 39 per cent in 2017.
New technology to rejuvenate the current system could encourage more people to vote, an important consideration given turnout in Saturday’s provincial election was the lowest on record for B.C.
Federal elections are still reliant on hand-counting paper ballots, but there have been technological advances elsewhere in the country. New Brunswick has used electronic ballot counters and voters’ lists for provincial elections since 2010, and Ontario used them for the first time in 2018 . They are also frequently used for municipal elections across Canada, including in B.C.
Vancouver City Hall has used electronic tools for two decades and has not experienced any privacy or security problems.
“We’ve never had an issue with any of them at all,” said Vancouver’s Acting City Clerk Rosemary Hagiwara.
Online voting is also available in some municipal elections in a handful of provinces, with Markham, Ontario being the first to do so in 2003; a recent academic review says Markham voters like the option for its convenience . By the 2018 municipal elections, more than one-third of Ontario’s cities and towns offered online voting, but there were glitches in 51 districts that forced them to extend voting hours. Online voting was also offered in some Nova Scotia communities during this month’s municipal elections there.
But Hagiwara said voting from your home computer is not coming any time soon to Vancouver, and Simon Fraser University political scientist Stewart Prest does not think internet voting offers enough checks and balances.
“Personally I am quite leery of the purely electronic voting mechanisms, like without a paper trail of some kind,” Prest said.
In addition to vote-counting machines to give more speedy results, there are other options being tried around the world to get people more interested in campaigns again, he said. “Doing experiments with drive-thru voting, curbside voting, and just enhancing the capacity to handle the mail-in voting which has proven to be such a smashing success (in B.C.).”
But any planned electoral changes, Prest added, should be clearly explained to residents, to avoid a response similar to some Americans who seem confused about the reliability of their system.
“If we’re not absolutely sure about the changes that are being introduced, it creates a tremendous uncertainty, potentially undermining trust in the elections,” Prest said.
Boegman, in a lengthy interview with Postmedia, explained the exact changes that are coming for B.C. The next time you vote for your local MLA, which is expected to be in October 2024, here are some of the differences you will see, and not see.
Electronic voters list
In May 2018, Elections B.C. presented a report to government recommending changes, after examining the last 20 years of elections in this province and what was happening elsewhere.
“It was really just a recognition, from an administrative perspective, that there were better, more efficient ways to do this, using … prudent technologies that have been used in other electoral districts,” said Boegman, who was the Deputy Chief Electoral Officer when the report was written but took over the top job in June 2018.
Among the recommendations is replacing those thick binders containing pages and pages of printed names and home addresses, with an electronic list of voters that elections staff can access on a laptop.
This will not only make it easier for staff to find your name in the system, but it will identify you as having now voted — or it will flag you as someone who already submitted an absentee ballot or mail-in ballot.
This is crucial because it means there will no longer be a mandatory 13-day wait — a period the province is in right now — to start counting mail-in ballots, a process that has delayed finding out the victors in at least four ridings. Right now, the fate of those seats is up in the air until officials begin to count those half million ballots on Nov. 6.
That’s because when the 525,000 mail-in ballots arrived in Victoria during this election, they each needed to be mailed back to the voter’s home riding, and then checked against the voters’ list there to ensure the person had not voted twice. It was a similar process for the 75,000 absentee ballots.
These steps will be eliminated in the future by striking the voter off the electronic voting list once an absentee ballot has been cast, or when a mail-in ballot has been received. If anyone who mails in a ballot is shown in the system to have already voted in-person, then the mail-in ballot would not be counted.
Just like “bank tellers”
Under the current model, when you walk into a polling station you are required to vote at a desk run by two people who have your household information. That means some desks could have lineups, while other sit empty.
With the electronic voters list, residents will wait for the first available desk to get served, which will be manned by just one person and has been dubbed the “bank teller” model.
“When you go into a bank, you’re in a queue,” Boegman said. “And you just go to the first available station that’s available.”
This will make voting more efficient and speedy, he said. As a result, ridings will be divided into larger voter areas in the next election, which means there will likely be fewer polling stations.
In future elections you will still mark a paper ballot, but it will be scanned into a ballot-tabulating machine and stored electronically. Your ballot will then still be put in a ballot box for safe keeping.
B.C. has long had a system in which you can walk into any polling station in the province to vote, regardless of where you live. That will continue, but will be more streamlined now. If you live in Langley but show up to vote in Surrey South, the machines will print off a paper ballot listing the Langley candidates, Boegman said .
The combination of the voters’ lists and the ballot-tabulating machines, Elections B.C. says, means that “all votes would be counted on election night.”
After future provincial elections, officials will review the accuracy of the machine-tabulated results and candidates can review scanned images of the ballots if they dispute the outcome.
Elections B.C. did a trial run in 2018 when it used high-speed tabulators to count 1.4 million ballots over two weeks for the mail-in referendum on electoral reform , and later audits found there were no errors by the machines.
“We found that the technology was extremely accurate,” Boegman said. “So that was a fantastic lesson learned.”
Of course the referendum was a single provincial vote, and the next general election will be far more complicated. “The election is, in essence, 87 concurrent elections,” he said.
Most city halls in B.C., though, have been using these machines for municipal elections for some time.
Back in 1988, Vancouver used an early-version of a ballot that could be read by a machine, but by 1997 the city had purchased its own fleet of machines that could read the votes on election night and provide results within hours. If anyone challenges the final tally, the new version of the machines used by Vancouver capture a photo of the ballot as it is being scanned, Hagiwara said.
By 2014 the city was also using electronic voters lists. “No matter how big or small municipalities are, most of us are using the ballot tabulators and some may not be on the electronic voters list but the trend seems to be going that way for all municipalities,” Hagiwara said.
Elections B.C. has purchased some ballot-tabulating machines and made arrangements to lease more from Ontario when needed, and estimates it will cost $11 million to fund the new system. But it says $14 million can be saved after two elections because it will no longer have to print voters’ lists, and there will be a reduction in staff at the polling stations and for counting ballots.
When Elections B.C. recommended these changes back in 2018, no one, of course, would have predicted the next provincial election would be held in the middle of a global pandemic, and that residents would choose in overwhelming numbers to vote by mail.
Therefore, it’s not clear whether these new rules “would be able to handle 600,000 mail-in ballots” at a future election, Boegman said, so they may require some tinkering.
The new system would allow all the ballots sent by mail to be screened to confirm voter identity as they arrive and then be noted on the voters’ list, with no more need to wait until after Election Day.
“The caveat, of course, is just the volume,” Boegman said. “(But) it could very well be that the large numbers of mail-ins are uniquely attributable to the pandemic.”
He said the mail-in system works well in the United States, where primaries are held early so ballots can be produced far in advance of voting, unlike in B.C. where nominations continue into the campaign period. And in the handful of American states, including Washington and Colorado, where voters can only cast ballots by mail, there is no need to double-check residents haven’t voted in other ways.
Washington switched to a vote-by-mail-only system in 2011 , and had a 78 per cent voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election.
British Columbians have used mail-in ballots in a variety of referendums over the last two decades, and SFU’s Prest doesn’t believe an uptick in mail-in voting would ever have the whiff of scandal here as it does right now south of the border.
“We don’t usually see in consolidated democracies a willingness to politicize and problematize the electoral process the way, to put it mildly, we see in the United States. We certainly don’t see that in Canada.”
“Online voting certainly has, I guess, an appeal to people who use technology every day, and use it for online banking, and everything else,” Boegman acknowledged.
But in 2014, Elections B.C. produced a report that said there were too many security risks with the internet to ensure the integrity of voting online.
“And nothing has changed,” Boegman said. “It may be appropriate at some point of time in the future but right now, it’s not something that I would recommend.”
Also last May, Boegman recommended that B.C. improve cyber protection measures in elections, to protect from foreign interference, political impersonation and misleading advertising, but that action was delayed by the snap election. He has not been notified of any problems that arose during this election.
Nicole Goodman, an assistant political science professor at Brock University in Ontario and director of the Centre for e-Democracy, wrote in a 2017 report for the federal government that concerns about online voting include “authentication, verification, (and) ballot secrecy,” as well as digital connectivity, especially in the north and Indigenous communities.
But she noted there are also benefits such as convenience, access, greater voter privacy, reduction in spoiled ballots, and “modest improvements in turnout.”
At the end of the day, any changes to the voting system must not be seen as barriers to the public, since just over half of registered voters expressed an opinion last Saturday on who our next premier would be. Most experts hope the low turnout was due to health concerns, and not apathy.
“I’m inclined to maybe give it one mulligan. Let’s see what happens in 2024 before I start ringing alarm bells,” Prest said.
More than three quarters of registered voters cast ballots in the 1983 provincial election, the highest turnout in B.C.’s history. The percentage of people voting has slowly declined since then, hitting lows in 2009 and 2013 before rebounding slightly in 2017. This election plummeted to 52 per cent, a trend Boegman hopes will reverse itself by the next election, when the new technology should be in use.
“The pandemic likely influenced some voters to decide not to participate. But certainly everything we do is about reducing barriers, trying to make the electoral process as accessible as possible,” Boegman said.