A few months ago I was collecting questions from citizens to ask City Council. I organize question and answer segments between the people of Sarnia and their local government through a project I created called Vocalize Sarnia. We recently celebrated 100 questions exchanged between the local power and the local people. Since the inception of this grassroots project in 2016, every member of Sarnia Council, with the exception of Councillor Boushy, has participated in the ongoing dialogue. During the latest round of Q and As I was contacted by a person (who I am writing about with permission but has asked not to be named) that had a concern-turned-question about Internet voting. The question for our Council read: “Are you satisfied with the amount of public input that was received regarding Telephone and eVoting, and do you think the methods used for gathering public input were fair and reasonable?”
Mayor Mike Bradley stated there was no fair and reasonable methods for gathering input and wrote that the administration and councillors who voted this in rushed to push it through without proper consultation of the public.
Councillor Andy Bruziewicz said he’s never satisfied with the amount of public interest on any issue but for this one, the public had an opportunity to provide input and didn’t show any interest until after the decision was made.
Councillor and mayoral candidate Anne Marie Gillis pointed to the fact that Sarnia City Councils have been discussing alternative methods of voting since 2010. She also mentioned that no one came forward to volunteer on a “well advertised” volunteer citizen committee “to review alternative methods of voting” that was published on the local Civic Corner and City Website previous to the 2014 election.
Retiring Councillor Mike Kelch stated it was actually after the 2014 election, within the first year of the current council being elected, that the public was asked for input into ways to increase voter turnout in this election, along with possible alternative voting methods to consider. “There were no takers.”
Councillor Bev MacDougall said that in the interest of community morale, its time for all of us to move on from the issue.
Councillors Brian White, Matt Mitro, and Cindy Scholten said nothing.
Of the elected officials who did respond to the question, there were five conflicting explanations. One official says it didn’t happen. Another states there was an ask for public input and blames the people for not responding. Another two say yes there was an ask for input, but one says it was the previous council who offered, and the other that it was the current council who offered. And another recommended we simply just move along.
I ended up moving along to my email and composing a message to the Clerk’s office. I asked if there was ever a formal request sent out to the public requesting input about removing paper ballots from the election process. I was sent links to the two agendas where current Council discussed the issue amongst themselves. I had links to previous staff reports to the 2010 Council discussing alternative voting methods, and the failed committee from five years ago. I was also sent a message from the Clerk’s office stating that no, there was never an official notice sent to the public that paper ballots were going to be removed, there was never a formal request asking specifically for input regarding Internet voting and the removal of the paper ballot, and she’s also determined that there is no requirement to do so.
In fact, a Council has reached out to the public only one time on this issue, and that was back in 2013.
This all started in 2010 when City Clerk Brian Knott recommended that Council directs staff to investigate methodology changes for the 2014 election. This was completed and in 2013 Knott went on to recommend to Council that Internet voting be offered as a pilot project during the advance poll period, also writing it is important to be aware that Internet voting will not necessarily increase voter turnout, solve apathy or address a lack of participation in elections. Later in 2013, that Council was asking for volunteers for a citizen committee to look into alternative methods of voting and to increase voter turnout. They were not asking people what they thought about removing the paper ballot: they were just asking if people wanted to talk about alternative methods of voting. No one signed up for that, indicating there was no interest in discussing alternative methods, but certainly not indicating no one cared that the ballot was going to be removed five years later.
Fast forward to our current Clerk and Council.
November 14, 2016 the Clerk recommends that Sarnia City Council authorize the use of internet and telephone voting as an alternative method in the 2018 municipal election. Not a replacement method. An alternative method.
Less than four months pass after the current Council’s first reading of the motion. The City Clerk recommends Council changes the By-Law to implement internet/telephone voting for the 2018 election. While Councillor White was absent, Boushy, Bradley, and Bruziewicz voted no and Gillis, Kelch, MacDougall, Mitro, and Scholten voted yes, passing the Clerk’s recommendation without a single survey, announcement, or request for public input on how they feel about the Internet totally replacing the paper ballot. Now if you read through every report and agenda on this issue since 2010, the words “removing the paper ballot” are actually never written. Things like complement, alternative, implement, and adopt were used when speaking of alternative voting methods, but the words replacing paper or removing paper are technically not written in the Clerk’s motions from this term.
Personally, I’m in favour of internet voting. I’m a millennial. I love the internet. I’m using it right now as I write this column. But for me its not about going online. Its not about what they did. Its about how they did it. This council did not ask Sarnia what they thought about removing the paper ballot. Unless of course you count a Council putting a notice on the website that asks citizens to talk about increasing turnout and alternative methods, that had no response, five years ago, as a fair and reasonable method of gathering public input on democracy.
I don’t. To read more question and answer segments between Sarnia Citizens and their elected officials visit www.vocalizesarnia.com