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Calgary’s Returning Officer makes suggestions for improved local election rules

Calgary’s Returning Officer is recommending public access to third party advertiser registration forms along with 19 other suggestions to improve local elections.

The city made public on Monday the 2021 General Election report from City Clerk and Returning Officer Kate Martin. It outlined the result of the Oct. 18, 2021, election from a logistical perspective and proposed improvements for the future.

The release also included Martin’s recommendations for improvements to the Local Authorities Election Act. That’s the provincial act that governs the administration of local elections.

“The COVID-19 pandemic challenged Elections Calgary to be adaptive to changing circumstances, continuously making contingency plans, and be innovative to ensure a safe and accessible voting experience for all Calgarians,” Martin wrote in the report.

Martin also said the local election was made even more challenging with the addition of provincial and local referendum questions, along with Senate selections.

The report outlines Calgarians’ response to how the last election was carried out. It showed that between 70 and 81 per cent of people had enough information, it was easy to understand and available at the right time and on channels where they find information.

The City scored high in all facets of delivering the election on vote day, with safety, accessibility, vote stations, waits and crowds all scored near 90 per cent plus in satisfaction. Most people (8 in 10) were happy with Covid-19 safety.

The election cost was tallied at $8.472 million, with school boards paying 30 per cent.

Overall voter turnout was 46.48 per cent, which is 393, 909 out of 847,556 enumerated electors.

Changes for the next election

The City identified a handful of areas for improvement in their delivery of the election.

They want to improve service to diverse Calgarians, work with other stakeholders to improve the voting experience, look at the supply delivery model and improve event readiness and election technology.

Martin’s report also said they would conduct a review of the integrity and security in the last election. The report said there were no incidents or issues in these areas, but it wants to ensure best practices.

They will also be advocating for changes to the Local Authorities Election Act.

Among the 20 suggested changes are three related to third-party advertisers.  

First, the report said Elections Calgary received inquiries from both campaign and advertisers on campaign activities and communications between these sides.  The LAEA forbids the use of the third party advertiser to contravene expense limits.

Many publicly raised concerns about mayoral candidate Jeff Davison’s ties with the Calgary Tomorrow third party advertiser.

There were also concerns with issue-based third parties in the Calgary election. The Returning Officer recommendations were to more clearly regulate the activities of these groups should an issue be on the ballot.

The report also recommends public access to third party advertiser registration and disclosure documents.

LiveWire Calgary and others had to file a Freedom of Information and Privacy request to review these documents. Even then, names of donors were redacted.  Names of standard candidate donors in a municipal election are made public.

The decision to block access to donor lists is being appealed.

A UCalgary political scientist said it was a violation of transparency these names were being withheld from the public.

Calgary Returning Officer R… by Darren Krause

Short window for council response

There were other suggestions made, including being able to make the nomination deposit by debit or credit card and moving nomination day to six weeks before the election. (It’s currently four weeks).

They also suggested allowing people in line outside the voting station when voting closes to be allowed to vote. Currently, voters must be inside the voting station when polls close.

Calgary city council had the opportunity to provide feedback with regard to specific questions from the province.

The questions were on candidate eligibility, the list of electors and the scrutineer’s ability to object to a voter who has shown up to vote.

It also asked about the ability to have a judicial recount in cases where electronic tabulators are used to vote.

In Ward 4, the prospect of a judicial recount fizzled out after a judge said it wasn’t possible based on current legislation.

A seven-page letter drafted by the city outlines some of the concerns about the Local Authorities Election Act.

Notably, they felt the topics were very narrow in scope and the time to engage was far too short. A letter from Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver was sent May 16. That letter prescribed a response by June 14.

“These issues are complex, and Council has much to say, but it takes time to delve into these topics in detail, not to mention the time needed to schedule these conversations so they can take place in a manner that is open and transparent to our citizens, such as at Committee or Council meeting,” read a letter from Mayor Jyoti Gondek.