Municipalities Step Up Role to Increase Voter Turnout

The City of Sault Ste. Marie is embarking upon a plan designed to increase voter turnout at the Oct. 24 municipal election. Author of the article:Elaine Della-Mattia
Publishing date:Apr 07, 2022

At one time, it was up to candidates to get citizens out to the polls to vote.

But even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, municipalities have been examining ways and implementing new policies and procedures to offer citizens every possible opportunity to cast a vote.

With trends showing declining voter turnouts – even dismal turnouts at some elections – the tide may be changing.

Municipalities are looking for ways to better engage voters.

There are educational components forwarded to school boards in the hopes of sparking interest in future voters, hoping students will deliver the message and the importance of voting to their families.

Social media, municipal websites and traditional media outlets provide a variety of forums to spread the word, showing how simple it is for individuals to ensure they are on the voter’s list and how quick, easy and painless the voting process is.

Special arrangements are made to ensure accessibility needs are met and new methods of casting ballots have been adapted.

For decades, city clerk departments have been charged with leading the election process, ensuring voters lists are current, that staff is assigned to voting stations, that counting systems are accurate and integrity preserved.

More recently, municipal staff have also been called upon to create and activate plans that will stimulate voter engagement, a fine role that creates a delicate balance between the role of the municipality versus the political side of the equation, said Rachel Tyczinski, Sault Ste. Marie city clerk.

“Traditionally it was not the clerk’s job to get the vote out. That was the candidate’s job, but, we’re seeing a change where we are now really working on educating the electorate and getting the message out about where and when and how they can cast a ballot,” Tyczinski told the Sault Star.

There’s no doubt that municipal governments have the greatest influence on everyday life for taxpayers. It’s municipal governments who determine how often waste will be collected from the curbside, how often streets will be plowed in the winter, what level of policing is required to keep citizens safe and what quality of life aspects should be invested in through taxpayer dollars, among other things.

That’s the educational role the municipality will push in a voter engagement plan to be launched sometime in early summer, and continue to build until the Oct. 24 election day.

The campaign will include a vibrant communication plan with messaging on voter lookup, nomination day, voter identification requirements and alternative voting methods. It will also include particulars for advance voting day opportunities, voting day information and of course, the official results, said Tessa Vecchio, communication’s manager.

The city is allocating $10,000 to $15,000 to run the campaign, which will include a variety of print, digital and radio advertising techniques. Information will also be displayed on posters, billboards, in community centres, malls, grocery stores, community access centres and schools.

Summer students will assist with ensuring that a mobile voter’s list is available in high-traffic areas and at community events to ensure eligible electors are on the list, or add or revise information where necessary.

A targeted approach will also be employed to populations and neighbourhoods with low voter turnout, Vecchio said.

But the campaign will go even further, said deputy city clerk Madison Zuppa.

It’s also important the municipality engage with groups that may have traditionally faced barriers to casting ballots, and ensure those barriers are reduced.

Data from the 2021 federal election show that while voters ages 18-24 are among the lowest to show up at the polls, seven per cent of non-voters identified issues such as “not being able to prove identity or address, lacking information about the voting process or having issues travelling to a polling station,” as the reason for not casting a ballot.

Similarly, disability or illness was highest among those over the age of 75.

Past voter turnout statistics show that turnout in wards four and five of the city are particularly low, along with turnout for the 18- to 45-year-old age brackets.

New technologies and methods of voting will be incorporated into this year’s municipal election and will be communicated to voters well ahead of election day in order to help break down those barriers and bridge the gap, Zuppa said.

In addition to the communication campaign, city staff will make it easier for people to vote, she said.

During the last municipal election, staff delivered the ballot box to individuals’ homes, helping those with illness or accessibility issues. Sixty-six ballots were cast in that manner.

Proxy voting will continue to be an option, but the municipality is also adding an option for the electorate to submit a registered vote by mail.

That process will allow individuals to request a voting kit by mail. Instructions will be provided explaining how to submit and mail the ballot back to city hall, complete with a postage-paid envelope.

Safeguards are in place that will allow city election staff to ensure the individual doesn’t have the opportunity to vote twice – through mail and on election day – once a voter declaration card and ballot (with a bar code) is returned, Zuppa said.

Individuals will be permitted to check the voter list and check off a ‘register vote by mail’ option if they want to receive the package. Once the package is returned to the city, the voter’s name is crossed off the voter’s list.

Also new this election will be the use of a tabulator to help those with accessibility issues.

The tabulator will offer a sniff and puff option, an audio ballot and a traditional translator ballot option.

“We’re reaching out to service groups and through the accessibility advisory committee about this option,” Zuppa said.

It’s anticipated the tabulator will be available at the advance polling station, but staff are undergoing a training process and not all details have been finalized yet, she said.

AdvertiFree transit on voting day will also be offered to individuals who show transit drivers their ‘Vote At’ cards, an attempt to eliminate an identified barrier that some voters can’t get to a voting station.

Tyczinski said the city has budgeted for about 10 per cent of eligible voters to use the alternative voting methods, double the average threshold of five per cent.

“We don’t have that sense of certainty with the pandemic but we will be tracking the metrics and evaluating these additional voting methods after the election is over,” she said.

Internet voting will not be offered for the municipal election. Based on some communities’ experiences during the last election, city staff have recommended that the municipality hold off on this voting method until standards are established and system flaws are removed.

“It’s certainly something we will see in the future,” Tyczinski said. “But we won’t see it here, not yet.”

City staff hasn’t set any quantitative goals on how many more voters they’d like to see cast ballots in the municipal election.

There’s too many variables to analyze, considering this is the municipalities first attempt at a mass communication/voter engagement plan. However, Vecchio said, the results will be used as a base for future elections.

Instead, the city is employing the ‘SMART goals’ technique –
launching specific and measurable goals, keeping those goals attainable, relevant and timely, and see how it all plays out.

This year’s municipal election includes some aspects that may naturally grow or peak the interest of the electorate.

Studies show that a mayoral race without an incumbent seeking reelection creates a greater buzz in the community. The opportunity to cast a ballot with new and more voting methods available may also increase voter turnout. And finally, the municipal’s instructions to develop and execute a communication plan to increase voter engagement may also play a role to increase voter turnout.

On the down side, the municipal election comes five months after a provincial election, often the source of voter fatigue and confusion created by different processes.

“We really won’t start our campaign until about mid-summer and then ramp up after Labour Day,” Vecchio said.

“In the past we’ve been more reactive versus proactive but this year we will get our summer students out to street parties and events with their laptops and engage the community to make sure voters are on the voter’s list,” Tyczinski said.

The clerk’s department will also keep in tune with what other municipalities are doing to attract more voters and determine if other actions can be used locally in upcoming or future election campaigns.

“Every municipality has its unique challenges and we continue to look at best practices and adjust along the way,” Vecchio said.

The voter look-up system is already active. Voters can go to https://www.voterlookup.ca to ensure they are on the list of eligible electors, or update their information, if required.

Original at https://www.saultstar.com/news/municipalities-step-up-role-to-increase-voter-turnout