Voters may get to pick polling stations if province adopts Elections Manitoba pitch

Access to polling stations may be more convenient on the next provincial election day, and counting votes could largely become the job of a machine if the provincial government adopts recommendations by Elections Manitoba.

Speaker of the House Myrna Driedger tabled a report Tuesday during question period at the Manitoba Legislature titled Vote Anywhere in Your Electoral Division On Election Day.

The Elections Manitoba proposal aims to ensure Manitobans can cast their votes at any polling station in their electoral division on election day, as opposed to being limited to one assigned place. This could give people with disabilities and others who face challenges getting to their assigned locations more options.

The report also recommends moving to a virtual automated system expected to speed up the vote tabulation process, said the manager of communications for Elections Manitoba.

“It will kind of be in keeping with our move towards meeting expectations of voters in terms of the efficiency and convenience they’d like to see,” said Alison Mitchell.

“Rather than having to wait in the line for your particular voting station, if yours happens to have a lineup, you can be served by the first available voting officer.”

Each of those voting officers would be equipped with access to the automated virtual program, a time-saving shift away from the paper lists of the past, said Mitchell. She expects this would also cut down on wait times at stations because officers will be able to more quickly pull up registered voters’ names in the electronic system.

This Elections Manitoba graphic illustrates how some of the proposed changes would look on election day: a voter arrives at a polling place in their division and shows ID to an official who scans their documents and gets them struck off the voter list after casting a ballot. Behind a privacy barrier, the voter marks their ballot, which is fed into a tabulator that incorporates the result into a secure virtual database. (Elections Manitoba)

A similar model has previously been used by Elections New Brunswick, Elections Ontario and Elections P.E.I.

The virtual system would also give political parties electronic access to a vote count portal, so they could see results as they rolled in, said Mitchell.

The goal would be to have 85 per cent of votes in a future election counted using the new system. The remainder would likely have to be counted by hand in areas with poor internet connectivity, said Mitchell.

The report also suggests staffing requirements on election day would be cut by 15 per cent due to the new technology.

The new proposal comes after the independent agency floated an idea in October of letting some Manitobans vote by phone.

Support for changes

Opposition party leaders both lauded the latest proposed changes as a way to improve the democratic process.

“There are actually still tons of obstacles to voting in terms of ID. For example, I would favour a universal ID card provincially or federally,” said Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont (St. Boniface).

“Anything that makes it easier for people to be able to cast their ballot and reduce those barriers is a great idea.”

NDP Leader Wab Kinew (Fort Rouge) said giving people more freedom to choose where to vote would be a step in the right direction.

“I think most folks, from a common-sense perspective, would probably be surprised that you can’t just go anywhere in your neighborhood and vote.”

Kinew said the changes would make it easier for seniors, people with mobility issues and those who don’t drive to vote.

He also perceives a renewed interest in the political process, including among young people, and thinks the changes could increase participation in elections down the line.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “people who haven’t been paying attention to politics before … are watching closely,” the Official Opposition leader said.

While the change would make for a more flexible system, Mitchell said it wouldn’t allow Manitobans to vote outside of their electoral divisions.

An eight-day window for advance voting will continue to allow voters to cast ballots anywhere in the province during that period, she said.

‘The sooner the better’

The proposals would warrant a change to section 28.1 of the Elections Act, which concerns modifications to the voting process.

The province’s standing committee on legislative affairs has 60 days to respond to the report once it has formally begun considering the proposal. The committee could accept or reject the proposals, or suggest changes between now and then.

Mitchell said the idea was to introduce the proposal now in hopes of having enough lead time to introduce the new technology, train staff and work out the kinks in advance of the next provincial election. It’s set for Oct. 3, 2023. 

Elections Manitoba is confident it will get some feedback early in the new year.

“The sooner the better,” said Mitchell.