Several Saskatoon councillors are concerned changes to mail-in ballots ahead of the upcoming civic election, which will take place during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, could increase the risk of voter fraud.
University of Saskatchewan political scientist Joe Garcea says the risk of fraud is very low and the potential effect on the election is minimal.
“We rarely hear about any significant stories about voter fraud and there usually aren’t any complaints by candidates,” he said, speaking to Global News via Zoom.
Councillors raised their concerns in a governance and priorities committee meeting last and again during Monday’s city council meeting while discussing a proposed amendment to the municipal voting bylaw.
Returning officer Scott Bastian previously told Global News the city administration is preparing for the number of residents who vote by mail to increase during the COVID-19 pandemic because voting by mail would allow residents to maintain physical distancing and stay safe.
The current bylaw requires residents to register for a mail-in ballot in person at city hall. The proposed changes would allow residents to register online (with identification) and widen the regulations regarding who can be a suitable witness for the application.
Several councillors raised concerns.
Bastian’s answers to Ward 1 representative Darren Hill revealed the city’s election officers do not cross-reference the mail-in ballots against poll station ballots to check if someone voted twice.
“We do not do that,” Bastian replied.
“That’s unfortunate,” Hill responded.
Garcea said the concern is overstated.
He told Global News the effects of any voter fraud, were it to occur, would be minimal because a few ballots seldom decide the outcome of an election.
It would require a concerted effort by a group of nefarious actors to affect the outcome of an election, which Garcea said isn’t realistic for a municipal contest — especially since there is no record of it occurring in Canada to the point where it would be considered a threat.
He told Global News the real threat to the integrity of the election is low voter turnout.
“If you don’t have enough people voting then you run into a risk for the legitimacy of the municipal government, that not enough people really supported that particular government,” he said.
The accessibility offered by mail-in ballots is worth the risk, he added.
It’s an issue councillors will have to consider at least once more.
They voted to approve to amendments, which sends the bylaw back to administration to be rewritten.
The first motion was proposed by Coun. Zach Jeffries of Ward 10.
He argued the new requirements for witnesses were onerous and provided no additional security. He proposed removing the new requirements, other than they be an eligible voter.
Coun. Bev Dubois proposed a motion requiring the administration to prepare a report exploring the implications of adding additional advance polls beyond the eight currently scheduled.
The administration will return the amended bylaw and reports to council before August 11. Provincial legislation requires any changes to the municipal election bylaws to be in effect 90 days before the election takes place.
The election is scheduled for Nov. 9.