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St. Albertans frustrated by long lineups for municipal vote

Health measures, provincial ballot questions, and space cited as reasons behind long lines at polling stations
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The lineup to cast a ballot in the municipal election snaked around buildings and the parking lot outside the Salvation Army on Oct. 18, 2021. JESSICA NELSON/St. Albert Gazette

Laura L’heureux drove by Holy Family Catholic Church twice before she got in line to cast her ballot just before close last Monday night.

“I just decided I was just going to do it at the end. And because I knew that if I was in line, I knew that they would still let me in,” she said.

For some St. Albertans, the Oct.18 municipal election meant waiting outside a polling station for up to an hour.

Darren Moric drove by the line-up outside Holy Family Catholic Church three times during election day — once on his way home from work; later coming home from the gym; and a third and final time before lines closed at 8 p.m.

“I’m shocked,” Moric said. “It’s been a non-stop line to the end of the curb. Voting in the federal election was a lot faster, and an easier process."

Don Murray said he had also been at the polls more than once that day in an effort to monitor when might be best to vote. Concerned about how the long lines might impact his ability to cast a ballot, Murray reached out to St. Albert’s election office. 

“They emailed back right away and confirmed if we’re in line at 8 p.m. we’re good to go,” Murray said. “I made it here and all that information was good.”

Doris Stapleton went to vote at the Holy Family Catholic Church four times on election night but was deterred by the long line 

“It was so disheartening,” Stapleton said. “You could tell the people at the polling station were working very hard. You can’t fault their work ethic. I feel the decision to put three communities at the same polling station was a big mistake.” 

At one point, Stapleton was worried she wouldn’t be able to cast her ballot. Instead, she returned a final time and was able to join the end of the line before 8 p.m. A long-time resident of Oakmont, the 61-year-old said she hasn’t waited this long to vote in all her years as an elector. 

Ultimately, what convinced her to keep at it was a feeling of responsibility. 

“I said to myself, ‘If I don’t vote, I don’t have the right to complain about decisions the mayor and council make,’” Stapleton said. 

David Leflar, the city's returning officer, said there were certain stations at certain times of the day that had line-ups of half an hour to 45 minutes long. Holy Family Catholic Church was the station that seemed to have the longest line-ups, but St. Albert Alliance Church, Red Willow Place, and the Salvation Army also experienced long lines.

There were many reasons for the extraordinary line-ups this year, one being space.

Leflar said they try to divide the city up as best they can, but it isn’t easy to find places that are willing to have polling stations and places such as churches don’t have a lot of room for people.

Leflar said they aren’t limited statute-wise by the number of voting stations they have in the city, but they are limited by cost.

“If we make 50 different voting stations, the cost of an election would be much, much higher,” he said.

What also made this year different, said Leflar, was the exceptional measures for COVID.

“We couldn't put as many voting booths in as we would have liked to. We had to sanitize between voters, and had to maintain that physical distancing as well,” he said.

Another reason that Leflar observed was people were taking more time to mark their ballots.

“It was a busy ballot this time,” he said.

Leflar said the number of candidates on the ballot was about average, but there were also the Senate candidates and referendum questions to fill out.

“[People are] sitting there thinking, ‘What does this mean? What do I really think?’ Even if you only take two or three minutes to do that, it doesn't take long before you start stacking them up at the door,” he said.

Leflar said it might be time for the province to look at alternative methods of voting. Voting by mail is available in Alberta, but qualifications for mail-in are quite narrow. He said there are also places experimenting with Internet voting where people are given a personalized code before they can fill out an electronic ballot.

“These things need to be looked into,” he said.

“The old-fashioned show up with a pool of voters in person, I mean there's nothing wrong with it, but when anything exceptional happens you can get line-ups.”

Leflar said not much changed by way of how the wards were divided this year compared to four years ago, but next time they will have to take a hard look at dividing the city. Under the Local Authorities Election Act, they don’t have to put voting stations in the same voting division.

“If we can get large venues where we can have, instead of eight voting stations, we can have 20, that'll push them through a whole lot faster. That's really where the bottleneck is at the voting booth,” he said.

The entire elections team will be doing a thorough debrief on the election, said Leflar.

“We try to get better each election, and I think we do. I think this election was better than the last one. But we do try to get better each time around and work within the parameters the provincial government tells us we have to work with. As returning officer, I have very little scope to change that.”