Mail-based ballot idea for municipal election supported

Oak Bay council looks for way to drive up polling numbers

In an effort to increase voter turnout for this fall’s municipal election, Oak Bay council is looking into the possibility of using mail ballots for the first time.

Low poll numbers have long been an issue in civic elections across the region.

“Any opportunity to increase citizen engagement with the way we govern ourselves, I just think it’s a good thing,” said Coun. Tara Ney. “The more people we have participating in the election, the healthier we are as a community.”

Mail ballots would allow voters who will be out of the area during the voting period and those who can’t attend voting places due to illness or physical disability to have their say, says a memo drafted by municipal clerk Loranne Hilton.

“I think a mail ballot is a great thing to have,” said Mayor Christopher Causton. He cautioned, however, “We have to address in the best way possible how to make it a speedy process. If you can ask for a ballot to be sent to you by email, that would certainly help.”

The City of Victoria used mail ballots for the first time in last November’s by-election and referendum on the Johnson Street Bridge.

“We certainly saw an increased turnout at extended care facilities, and it captured those who were absent for holidays,” said Victoria’s director of legislative and regulatory services, Rob Woodland.

That by-election saw 26 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. The numbers were similar to those seen in the 2008 general election, but without a larger sample size it’s still too early to determine the impact of mail ballots on the overall total.

Officials in Saanich are also looking at implementing a mail ballot system in time for November’s election.

A bylaw amendment to that effect will be in front of Saanich council in July.

Just over 20 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2008 in that municipality.

Hilton’s memo also pointed out that the addition of mail ballots in Oak Bay could bring an increase in administrative costs and lead to increased workloads for municipal elections staff. It recommends eliminating Oak Bay Lodge as a polling place, and reducing the number of advance voting days from three to two as a means of offsetting the higher price tag.

“What we would do is offer this (mail ballots) as an alternative to the people at the Oak Bay Lodge,” said Causton.

“We could potentially turn this into more people voting there, as they wouldn’t have to come to the polling stations and could vote in the comfort of their own room.”

What the mayor would really like to see is the eventual inclusion of an electronic voting option. “I did my census online,” he said. “Voting online with a secure password? I don’t see why we can’t do it.”

Hilton and her staff have just a few weeks to draft the mail ballot bylaw amendment.

Any changes need to be approved by council no later than Aug. 8 to be in effect in time for the Nov. 19 election.

By the numbers

Voter turnout in the recent municipal elections:

• Oak Bay — 2005: 29 per cent of eligible voters, 2008: 36 per cent

* Increase largely attributed to the fact that unlike 2005, incumbent Mayor Christopher Causton had competition for the position.

• Victoria — 2005: 26 per cent, 2008: 27 per cent

** A 2010 council by-election, which also included the Johnson Street bridge referendum question, drew 26 per cent of eligible voters.

• Saanich — 2005: 19 per cent, 2008: 21 per cent