An alliance of student associations representing 90,000 post-secondary students in Calgary is calling on Elections Calgary to reverse its decision to not offer “vote anywhere” advance polling stations in this fall’s municipal election.
Used in the 2017 municipal election, “vote anywhere” allowed Calgarians to cast their vote at any advance polling station, regardless of where they lived.
Marley Gillies, chair of the Calgary Student Association, said the CSA recently met with Elections Calgary officials to hear why that voting option wasn’t being offered again.
“We heard several reasons, including COVID-19, ballot availability and distribution, as well as parking and accessibility,” Gillies told reporters Tuesday. “For the former and the latter, the student associations really want to partner with Elections Calgary to make sure that it’s a safe activity for people to participate in and that it’s very accessible so that our campus can welcome students and the community to vote.
“The ballot supply is simply an issue of logistics and organization that we feel is not a viable excuse for taking away this opportunity from students and depressing voter turnout.”
Gillies said the post-secondary institutions whose student associations are members of the CSA also support the increased accessibility afforded to students, staff and community members under the “vote anywhere” system, adding that campuses have been a “really great place to host this before.”
In a June 30 information brief, Calgary’s returning officer said Elections Calgary “recognizes the convenience and ease of access” with “vote anywhere” stations. But with the election being planned during the pandemic, “it was important to establish a vote model that would reduce the risks of COVID-19 infections, in the event of a prolonged pandemic.”
“Unlike in any previous general election, a ‘vote anywhere’ may introduce potential risks to public safety, should public health restrictions return,” the returning officer wrote.
The info brief also said it ruled out a vote bus because it wouldn’t allow for social distancing and a drive-up vote was eliminated because of the “complexity of (PPE), cost and protocols required and to ensure (Alberta Health Services) has access to drive-up facilities for COVID-19 testing and vaccines.”
With confirmation of rental agreements still to come, Elections Calgary expects to offer 33 advance polling locations throughout the city, open from Oct. 4-10. They also have planned on having 186 polling stations open on voting day, Oct. 18, extending voting hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
But Calgarians will have to cast their ballot at their prescribed voting location.
Gillies fears that will lead to lower voter turnout.
“In the 2017 election, advanced voter turnout more than tripled (compared to) the previous election,” Gillies, also the VP external of the University of Calgary’s Students Union, said.
“The CSA believes that offering the ‘vote anywhere’ advanced option was key to this and Elections Calgary’s refusal to do this will depress voter turnout.”
Ward 8 Coun. Evan Woolley, who joined the CSA representatives on the steps of old city hall, said the decision to not have a “vote anywhere” advance vote option is “unacceptable,” especially with downtown neighbourhoods in his ward having as little as 19 per cent turnout in 2017.
“Our low numbers are unacceptable for us (to call) ourselves an advanced Western democracy,” Woolley told reporters. “When you have voter turnout that’s that low, you have a problem. And the problem is solvable by resources and accessibility.”
Woolley said the city has the expertise to work through any logistical challenges and knows what must be done to prevent possible spread of COVID-19. He also pointed to how quickly city resources mobilized to get COVID-19 vaccinations to Calgarians, via pop-up clinics or more permanent clinics like the Telus Convention Centre or Genesis Centre.
“We adapted really, really quickly because addressing this pandemic and getting jabs in arms was really, really important. And so I think about this and kind of the same way.”
But the Ward 8 representative stopped short of directing Elections Calgary, the independent election administrator, from reinstating “vote anywhere,” but said if it comes to council on July 26 to give direction to do that, he will be in support.
“I don’t think I can get into trouble for asking for higher voter turnout, right?,” Woolley, who is not seeking re-election, said. “I don’t think there’s an inherent conflict in that.”
Calgary’s mayor also supports the students’ request.
“I see great value in ‘vote anywhere’ polls and I hope that the returning officer will consider this request,” Mayor Naheed Nenshi said in a written statement provided to Global News.
In a statement, Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell, whose ward includes the University of Calgary, SAIT, Bow Valley College and Alberta University of the Arts, said it’s important that student voices are heard during the election.
“We need to be making it easier and more accessible for young people to vote, not more difficult.”