Mail-in voting still unavailable to Invermere residents

An Invermere couple who was hoping to vote in this year’s local government election will have to wait until 2018.

An Invermere couple who was hoping to vote in this year’s local government election will have to wait until 2018 to exercise their democratic right at the municipal level.

John and Joan Rouse initially inquired about mail-in voting for the District of Invermere shortly before the 2011 election. Some jurisdictions in B.C. allow mail ballot voting for those eligible voters who cannot physically attend a voting place or are unable to vote on advance and general voting days. The Rouses, who are eligible B.C. voters, leave the valley shortly after Thanksgiving each year to travel south, and upon learning Radium Hot Springs and the Regional District of East Kootenay allowed for mail-in voting, had requested that Invermere council do the same. At the time, there wasn’t enough time to change the necessary bylaws so nothing could be done for the 2011 election, but the Rouses were left with the impression that mail-in voting would be permitted for 2014. It wasn’t until August that they learned no provision had been made for mail-in ballots for the upcoming November 15th election.

“Based on that conversation (in 2011 with chief administrative officer Chris Prosser), it was our understanding that mail in ballots would be accommodated for the 2014 election,” wrote Mr. Rouse in an email to the District of Invermere on August 29th.

The topic was raised at a June 10th Council of the Whole meeting, at which time council voted not to proceed with the provision based on information provided to them by district staff. Mr. Rouse said he had no idea the vote had taken place until he called Invermere corporate officer Kindry Luyendyk, at which time he sent the aforementioned email urging Invermere council to enable mail ballot voting in time for the 2014 municipal election. But to the Rouses’ dismay, the deadline for doing so had already passed.

According to Invermere mayor Gerry Taft, when staff raised the topic of mail-in voting at the meeting in June, according to their research Invermere would have to do away with same-day registration — Invermere’s current system — and implement a voter’s list.

“That’s how it was explained to us,” he said. “We had concerns that younger or more recent residents who want to vote might not be captured by a voter’s list.”

Mayor Taft said that after receiving the Rouses’ correspondence in August and another email in September, staff looked at the issue again. After calling a couple of communities, such as Kelowna, that allow mail-in voting, it was discovered mail-in voting didn’t automatically exclude same-day registration.

“It turns out that some of them (communities) have mail-in voting but don’t have a voters list and still do same-day registration,” said Mayor Taft. “So there seems to be different ways of doing this.”

At the most recent council meeting on October 14th, the Rouses learned that if staff knew back in June what they know now, the decision would have been made to allow mail-in voting for Invermere residents. Council has now given direction to staff “to start working on it right away so that the same thing doesn’t happen four years from now,” said Mayor Taft. “I think in hindsight it was a mistake; it should have been looked at sooner.”

“I’m still so frustrated because it will be seven years before we get to vote for mayor and council, and a lot of people are in that position, not just those who go away for retirement holidays. There are also a number of businesses whose staff go away; November is slow so that’s when they go,” said Mrs. Rouse.

There are also permanent residents of Invermere who are qualified to vote, but who may be working outside the area and are therefore unable to attend the advance polls and the actual voting day, or people who might be physically unable to vote if they’re in the hospital in Cranbrook or Invermere, she added.

“Here we’ve got two jurisdictions that are smaller than Invermere and they were able to get their act together to allow mail-in voting,” she said.

According to Radium Hot Springs’ chief administrative officer and  chief elections officer Mark Read, mail-in voting was put in place in Radium for the 2011 election.

“There had actually been interest expressed for the previous election, but you have to have your bylaw in place by August so we missed the deadline in the 2008 election,” said Mr. Read, “so we made a commitment to evaluate it for the 2011 election and we just got it all in place.”

Ten mail-in voting packages went out in that election — even one to Scotland — and all were received back in time, despite strict time constraints.

“It’s their responsibility to get them back,” he said. “In this (coming) election, the last day we’ll mail out packages is November 7th (but) we will still make mail-in packages available right up to basically the 13th at 4 p.m. Theoretically, someone could pick up the ballot on the Thursday and get it to someone who is down in the States (by courier) and get it back to us by 8 p.m. on voting day.”

Mr. Read said he does not recall being consulted by District of Invermere staff on Radium’s mail-in voting.

“Initially, I was concerned it was going to be an onerous administrative issue, but now that we’ve got a system laid out, it’s really quite simplistic,” he said, adding that the cost is also “minor.”

“We’re not talking a huge number, but it’s nice for people to have the ability to vote.”