After being blasted by the Disability Alliance of BC during the 2021 council byelection for not providing mail-in voting options, the City of Burnaby is looking at options ahead of the 2022 general election.
A city report presented by city staff at a Nov. 22 general council meeting, it was recommended that council approve the use of special voting opportunities in the 2022 local election and also authorize the preparation of the appropriate bylaw and bylaw amendments for that purpose.
The report specifically mentioned care homes as well as assisted living facilities with the city saying a care home staff survey in late 2020/early 2021 showed there was a preference for mail ballot voting by administrators for the facilities.
But numerous city councillors believe the mail-in system should be offered more broadly to city residents.
Leading up to the 2021 Burnaby byelection, a letter dated June 11, 2021, from the Disability Alliance of B.C. was sent to Mayor Mike Hurley and council. The organization said it opposed the choice by the city.
"The exclusion of a mail-in voting option will most certainly create barriers for many Burnaby residents, including people with disabilities, who may not be able to travel to a polling station to cast their vote," the letter reads.
"The City’s failure to offer mail-in ballots actively discriminates against people with disabilities by reducing access to their right to vote. Accommodations must be made for people with disabilities, especially by any level of government, to ensure full access and participation in the voting process."
The city said they would be offering curbside voting, which allowed people to cast a ballot in their car within the parking lot of a policing station, with the presence of election officials.
"However, this does not fully accommodate all people with disabilities as some may not have access to a vehicle. As a result, some Burnaby residents will have no means to vote in the upcoming By-Election," the Disability Alliance of BC said.
Disability Alliance BC also said more efforts should be made for voters to cast a ballot, especially during COVID-19, which could hinder someone's effort to vote.
At a February 8, 2021, council meeting, a report was presented to mayor and council by City Clerk Blanka Zeinabova, where it was recommended that the city not implement mail-in voting for the byelection.
It was suggested that mail-in voting be brought in for the 2022 general election instead.
"Mail-in voting is not a new process," Disability of Alliance BC said in their June 11 letter.
"Elections BC has used mail-in ballots regularly since 2002 and Elections Canada since 1993. Decades later, municipal elections have not yet caught up, despite there being a considerable amount of research and advocacy conducted on the need for barrier-free access to voting.
"It is embarrassing that in 2021, when the systems and structures in place to carry out mailing-in voting are readily available - and especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic in which people with disabilities have experienced further barriers to accessibility and inclusion out of concern for their health - that a municipal government cannot provide a mail-in voting option to its residents."
At the Nov. 22, council meeting, Coun. Dan Johnston said he believes the mail-in ballot option shouldn't be restricted to just long-term care homes and assisted living facilities.
"It would be nice to see a little wider voter opportunities," he said.
"I understand that the municipality of Whistler, I believe was one of the first, to go into the mail ballot opportunity that they will actually mail ballots to snowbirds in California and if they're going to be out of the province for the month of October, there's a deadline they have to apply by and get their ballot mailed to their winter home or wherever they are.
"And then it has to be back by Election Day."
The city said it's aware of Whistler's system and would something they can look into for Burnaby.
"I just think there are people that have challenges in voting and it's not all people in care homes. People that are landlocked at home and they can't get out. They can do the ballot and send it off.
"But to me, I think is... We have to somewhat meet the demands of the public and I think there are people that would like this opportunity."
Coun. Pietro Calendino agreed with Johnston on allowing people away during an election to submit a mail-in ballot, but he didn't agree with sending voting packages into other countries.
"I agree that we should expand it to people that have mobility, or as Coun. Johnston said, are locked in their house and can't leave and go to the sidewalk [voting].
"I think we can look into mail-in ballots upon request for such people."
Calendino thinks mail-in voting should be extended to those who might not be present for voting day, but said they should only be mailed to people who will be away for work or other engagements, not living in another country.
He added ballot packages should be mailed to the person's Burnaby mailing address.
Newcomer Coun. Mike Hillman agreed with the concept of residents being able to vote by mail. But he said he doesn't understand why the city hasn't followed Elections Canada and opening up mail-in ballots compared to scanning them through machines.
"I guess I have a question why we aren't following the example of Elections Canada and opening up mail-in ballots as part of our democratic process.
"It seems to me that the process of opening an envelope as Elections Canada did and ensuring it's properly filled out, there's a blank envelope inside and that the ballot is counted even if it has to be counted manually.
"There's not going to be that many of them that we shouldn't be able to open up the whole process to people who wish to have a mail-in ballot. They should be able to get one."
Mayor Hurley and council sent the report back to city staff, asking them to present another report detailing options available, cost and the most reasonable processes that would be feasible.