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City of Ottawa pushing proxy voting as COVID-safe alternative in Cumberland Ward byelection

FILE - In this May 27, 2020 file photo, a worker processes mail-in ballots at the Bucks County Board of Elections office prior to the primary election in Doylestown, Pa. A network of deep-pocketed progressive donors are launching a $59 million effort to encourage people of color to vote by mail in November, a step many Democrats view as crucial to turning out the party's base during a global pandemic. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File).
FILE - In this May 27, 2020 file photo, a worker processes mail-in ballots at the Bucks County Board of Elections office prior to the primary election in Doylestown, Pa. A network of deep-pocketed progressive donors are launching a $59 million effort to encourage people of color to vote by mail in November, a step many Democrats view as crucial to turning out the party's base during a global pandemic. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File). AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File

As voters start casting their ballots to elect a new council representative for Cumberland Ward, Ottawa’s election officials hope a new focus on mail-in and proxy voting will help residents feel safe during a trip to the polls in a pandemic.

Advanced voting started Monday and will stretch into Tuesday in the byelection to replace Stephen Blais as the new councilor for Cumberland Ward.

The formal byelection day is set for Monday, Oct. 5.

Blais, now the MPP for Orléans, retained his seat at council in the 2019 municipal election last October, but announced shortly afterwards that he’d vacate the seat to run provincially for the Ontario Liberals.

Read more: British Columbians heading to the polls on Oct. 24 in fall election

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The timeline to fill his seat was pushed back due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The estimated cost to hold the election has also ballooned due to the pandemic with associated expenses such as mail-in ballots, protective equipment and an extra day of advance voting. The total cost is now expected to hit $523,835, up from a quoted price of $375,000 before COVID-19.

The byelection to name a new representative for the ward will look quite different than any before seen in Ottawa, again thanks to the pandemic.

Residents heading to the polls for advanced voting or on Oct. 5 can expect to see lineups and plastic barriers at their polling places and should come prepared with masks, in keeping with the city’s temporary face covering bylaw.

But not every elector will cast a ballot in-person this year.

The city received more than 1,400 special mail-in ballot applications for the byelection this year, according to Michèle Rochette, Ottawa’s manager of municipal elections.

All mail-in ballots must be returned by 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 5 in order to be counted.

Rochette said Monday that nearly 500 of those ballots have already been received by election officials.

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The registration deadline has already passed for mail-in voters, but Rochette said the city has another alternative for anyone who doesn’t feel safe lining up at a polling station during the pandemic.

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Proxy voting will allow someone to submit a ballot for another elector, provided they come properly accredited.

For the first time, Rochette said, the city is allowing proxy voters to get certified at the polling place itself rather than at a client services or elections office.

Rochette said proxy is being pushed as an effective way to encourage people to cast their ballot while following public health advice.

“We are doing everything in our power to help electors get their vote in in a way that they feel comfortable,” she said.

“We’ve decided to push (proxy voting) more because it’s the method of voting that’s safest for people who don’t want to go to the voting location.”

Rochette encouraged anyone who feels unwell on byelection day to stay home and use the proxy voting option instead.

Read more: What you need to know about the 2020 U.S. election today

To get their heads around the challenges COVID-19 presented to the electoral process, Rochette and Ottawa’s municipal elections team consulted with their counterparts in New Brunswick, which held a provincial election earlier this month, as well as other Ontario municipalities such as Cambridge, Windsor and Pelham that were also organizing byelections in the middle of the pandemic.

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“This is the first time for all of us, running a byelection in the pandemic,” she said.

Electors must bring a valid piece of ID with a qualifying address and be registered on the Voters’ List to cast their ballot.

Cumberland Ward residents can vote at any of the following locations on Oct. 5 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.:

  • Bearbrook Community Hall, 8720 Russell Rd.
  • Carlsbad Springs Community Centre, 6020 Piperville Rd.
  • François Dupuis Recreation Centre, 2263 Portobello Blvd.
  • Navan Memorial Centre, 1295 Colonial Rd.
  • Redeemer Alliance Church, 4825 Innes Rd.
  • R.J. Kennedy Arena and Community Hall, 1115 Dunning Rd.
  • Sarsfield Community Hall, 3585 Sarsfield Rd.
  • South Fallingbrook Community Centre, 998 Valin St.
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