Voting process holes need some ‘splaining

Conducting a by-election during a pandemic added some challenges to the voting process in the May 15, 2021 Qualicum Beach Council by-election. The measures taken to manage this risk and still enable a decent turnout at the Voting Place worked well. Social distancing, separate entrance and exit points, and scheduling two Advance Poll days (on weekdays) in addition to Election Day (on a Saturday), all open from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM, greatly helped to minimize line-ups for anyone who voted in-person.

The major change to our 2018 voting practices for this by-election was the added option of mail ballot voting. A voter with a post box handy in the neighbourhood could easily participate in the election without ever needing to come into contact with any person. Definitely COVID-19 infection-proof. However, the lack of transparency surrounding the mail ballot process used by the Town of Qualicum Beach in this election made it difficult to confirm that the mail ballot process was secure.

Mail ballots introduce complexity and cost

Mail ballots cost a lot of money for printing, mailing and handling of the multiple envelopes intended to ensure secrecy. Mail ballots also introduce a separate stream of votes into the election process that have to be accounted for and blended with the in-person votes to ensure integrity of election results.

RULE # 1 of election integrity is a citizen’s entitlement to a secret vote: No person except the voter should EVER be able to see who an elector has voted for.

RULE # 2 of election integrity is one vote per person: No person should EVER be allowed to vote more than once.

Normally, when a person goes to vote at the Voting Place (aka polling station), they are first directed to a table corresponding to the first letter of their surname. There, an election worker will consult the official Voter Registry list obtained from Elections BC to ensure the voter is registered. After confirming the person’s eligibility to vote, the election worker will cross the voter’s name off the list, designating that they have voted (or will immediately thereafter). This ensures that each ballot was given only to an eligible voter. Because this voter list is an open, printed document, this process can easily be observed by each candidate’s scrutineers, an important element of election integrity and public confidence in the process.

A May 14, 2021 letter from the Chief Election Officer, Heather Svensen, addressed to all candidates is the only place we saw mention of a “Mail Ballot Registry.” That’s right, May 14 — one day before Election Day, and two weeks AFTER mail voting began.

However, mail ballot voting introduces complexity and risk to the normal tried-and-true election process. At the same time as the above process was occurring, mail ballot votes were arriving at multiple locations without the same scrutiny as in-person ballots. Therefore, election procedures must be in place to prevent double-voting. In other words, if I have already voted in person, then the system must not be able to also count a mailed-in ballot from me. Conversely, if a mail ballot has been accepted from me, then I should be prevented from obtaining a ballot if I show up to vote in-person. Computer-savvy folks will recognize the attractiveness of a real-time, on-line, single computerized Voter Registry to easily handle this requirement. However, the Chief Elections Officer did not use such a system for this by-election.

How well designed, operated and audited was the manual control system used by the Town to prevent one-voter-two-votes? We’re not sure, as we’ll explain later. This was the first time a QB Town election offered mail ballot voting. How confident was the public that their mail ballot vote would get counted and, more importantly, be kept secure to ensure secrecy?

How well did the Town explain the procedures they were intending to use?

Not very well when one looks at the details. To maintain voter confidence, it is also essential that the Town be fully transparent in explaining the procedures they have implemented to handle the complexities and risks associated with mail ballot voting. For example, when a voter mailed or dropped off a completed ballot at Town Hall, how can we be assured that a) they were an eligible voter, b) their ballot actually got tabulated and c) their choice of candidate remained a secret?

A May 14, 2021 letter from the Chief Election Officer, Heather Svensen, addressed to all candidates is the only place we saw mention of a “Mail Ballot Registry.” That’s right, May 14 — one day before Election Day, and two weeks AFTER mail voting began.

In her letter, Ms. Svensen stated that they “will continue to update the Mail Ballot Registry as ballots are received,” presumably up to the cut-off of 8:00 PM Saturday May 15 when polls closed on Election Day. Ms. Svensen provided no information in her letter to the candidates about how this Mail Ballot Registry updating process could be scrutinized, or even what audits and controls were in place to prevent errors or ballot tampering.

But more importantly, Ms. Svensen provided no explanation of how, and when, or even IF the Mail Ballot Registry would be reconciled against the Voter Registry used for in-person voting at the Civic Centre (Voting Place) on Advance Poll dates and on Election Day. As we noted, the Chief Elections Officer chose not to use an automated voter registry management system that would ensure people only voted once. However, in the absence of a computerized system, there are manual processes that can be used to ensure the integrity of the voting process.

One way to prevent double-voting would be to NOT open and validate mail ballots until AFTER polls closed at 8 PM on Election Day, when the official Voter Registry is completely up-to-date with all in-person voters marked off. Then, open the locked box of mail ballots, and validate the Certification Envelopes, striking a line through the names of each eligible voter on the single, official Voter Registry. Once all of the mail ballot certifications have been confirmed, the Secrecy Envelopes would be opened and the ballots would be run through the scanner / tabulator.

If the Voter Registry indicates that someone has already voted using that name and address, the mail ballot would be rejected without even opening the Certification Envelope. The envelope would be handed over to an independent auditor to follow-up later to determine why the apparent double voting was attempted or occurred. It could be a clerical error, it could be someone who forgot they had mailed in a ballot and proceeded to vote in-person, or it could be mischief. That’s what post-election audits and controls are for.

But that is NOT the process that was used. Our confidence in the mail ballot handling process took a big hit when we read the following section of Ms. Svensen’s May 14th letter to the candidates:

Mail Ballot Processing – General Voting Day

You and/or your representative are invited to attend to observe the Election Officials (EO) putting mail ballots through the voting tabulator.

Each unopened accepted Certification Envelope (Number 2) will remain in a locked ballot box in a secure place until approximately 10:00 am on May 15, 2021. We will open each Certification Envelope and remove the sealed Secrecy Envelope (Number 1 – containing the ballot) and place them in a secure place. Commencing at approximately 2:00 pm on May 15, 2021, in the presence of at least one other EO, the Secrecy Envelopes will be opened and the ballots inserted into the designated vote tabulating unit to process mail ballots only. At 8pm the vote tabulating units are closed and the tapes are run.

Uh-oh — here are a few of the thoughts that immediately came to mind.

Candidates were allowed to observe the ballots being run through the tabulator, but were not permitted to observe the Certification Envelopes being validated against the Voter Registry? Really?? This does not appear to meet minimum expectations of scrutineer access to the voting process, a fundamental component of the democratic system.

Worse, Ms. Svensen’s letter to candidates doesn’t even mention whether the mail Certification Envelopes were ever going to BE validated against the Voter Registry. Her letter to candidates stated that election personnel were going to start opening Certification Envelopes at 10:00 am on Election Day AND separating each mail ballot (Secrecy Envelope) from its Certification Envelope. Again, no mention of the absolutely essential step of marking the voter off the official Voter Registry that must be done first in order to prevent a person voting more than once.

No peeking

Let’s end on a concern that is less complicated but still a disturbing weakness in the ballot counting process that the Town of Qualicum Beach has chosen to use. In a traditional ballot “box” system, the voter goes into a private booth, marks their ballot and then folds the ballot to ensure no one can then see for whom they voted.

Compare that to the system used in our municipal by-election. The voter went into a private booth, marked their ballot and then WITHOUT FOLDING the ballot walked to the scanner and inserted it — in the presence of an unidentified elections official (who could be your neighbour or the cousin of a town official). How many of you remembered to turn your marked ballot over so that this person could not see whom you voted for? This is an unnecessary risk to the secret vote imperative that could easily be minimized by placing a sign in each voting booth instructing the voter to turn their ballot over to prevent their choice of candidate from being observed by the person supervising the scanner.

Are mail ballots worth the hassle for municipal elections?

Is mail ballot voting worth the effort, expense and additional precautions and procedures needed to maintain election integrity, as we have questioned above?

Mail ballots did not improve turnout in the 2021 QB Council by-election. Of 8,270 eligible voters, 2,469 voted in person, according to the Official Election Results. Of the remaining 5,801 eligible voters, only one in six (15%) chose to vote by mail ballot, despite the pandemic. This might have been the result of apathy, or it might also have reflected a lack of confidence in the integrity of the mail voting process.

The City of Burnaby has a by-election scheduled in June 2021 to fill two vacant Council seats. For a number of reasons explained in a January 2021 report on Mail Ballot Voting written by City of Burnaby staff for their Council, this municipality decided not to use mail ballots in their upcoming by-election. Unless and until our voters can be assured that appropriate audits and controls are in place to ensure the secrecy and integrity of our voting results, the Town of Qualicum Beach might well be advised to give mail ballots a pass next time.

We look forward to seeing a comprehensive post-election public communication from the Town that will, hopefully, address at least some of the election process concerns we have observed, as well as tell us:

  • how many mail ballots were received after the 8:00 PM Election Day deadline?
  • how many, if any, attempts to double-vote were detected?
  • how many mail ballots were rejected by the tabulator and marked spoiled? and
  • how many mail ballots were rejected (without opening the Certification Envelope) e.g. because of incomplete or invalid voter registration, or because they had already voted in person?