Saskatchewan’s 2020 pandemic election was safe and secure: report

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“We had this noise that was south of the border and there was a lot of attention on the mail ballots and postal voting became a political issue.”

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The overwhelming majority of voters in Saskatchewan’s 2020 provincial election found their visit to the polls safe, quick and easy, according to polls that nonetheless suggest unwarranted concerns about mail-in vote fraud may have drained the United States.

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Saskatchewan Chief Electoral Officer Michael Boda said last year’s election was the most difficult of his career – and he has worked in post-conflict situations. The lessons of running a pandemic election have now sparked a long list of commitments for 2024. He released it on Monday, along with a report on how his office handled the election. It provides for high-tech solutions and a possible switch from election day to election week.

Here’s a look at what worked, what didn’t and what could happen the next time Saskatchewanians go to the polls:

How did voters assess the election?

In general, extremely good. Boda’s report gave a detailed account of the survey research of a team of social scientists and graduate students to observe the process and gather feedback from voters and election workers. The results have been almost universally positive.

About 97% of election workers said they were satisfied with COVID-19 safety precautions, while 95% of voters were the same. Voters also enjoyed their interactions with election officials, with more than 96 percent saying they were satisfied.

Observers noted that wait times were short, and voters agreed, with the vast majority experiencing waits of less than 10 minutes.

Did they say something wrong?

A surprising number of voters have expressed fears that the high number of mail-in ballots in the 2020 provincial election could lead to voter fraud. Almost four in 10 – 37 percent – reported such concerns to researchers.

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Boda believes this may have been the result of the near-simultaneous election in the United States, where former President Donald Trump tried to undermine confidence in the postal voting system. Boda thinks the perceptions may have been “skewed” by the US news.

“We had this noise that was south of the border and there was a lot of attention on the mail ballots and postal voting became a political issue,” he said in an interview.

But while Saskatchewan’s two main parties have expressed confidence in the system, some voters still weren’t sure. Boda wants to assure them that the postal system in Saskatchewan works differently than in the United States – and that every report of voter fraud is investigated.

He can count the number of such cases on the one hand, mostly older voters who get confused and vote twice.

Overall, 99 percent of workers on polling day felt the election was fair, while around 95 percent of voters felt their ballots had been counted.

But were there any real problems?

Elections Saskatchewan created a special “extraordinary vote” system, in part to accommodate people who showed symptoms of COVID-19 just before election day and who had not yet voted. A total of 320 such ballots were validly submitted and accepted.

While they waited in isolation, the couriers rushed a ballot to their homes and back. Most of the extraordinary ballots went to the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation, which was then under lockdown due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

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But the deadline for getting extraordinary ballots was October 20, so those who fell ill in the next six days could not vote. Elections Saskatchewan does not know exactly how many.

Boda admits that this was a “loophole” in the system. It would take a legislative change to fulfill it, perhaps by allowing voting by television or video.

The other real problem with the election was timing. Aside from the unfortunate alignment with the US presidential election, the provincial vote only took place two weeks before the municipal elections.

The researchers found that a significant portion of voters – around a fifth – were confused as a result, confusing candidates and issues.

How will this affect the next election?

Boda is relaunching the modernization process which derailed due to reflections on last year’s spring elections. This could mean electronic voter information cards with barcodes that election officials could scan, thereby speeding up the voting process. This could mean an online portal for voter registration and postal voting requests. Boda wants to explore faster ways to count the ballots. An electronic ballot book could have several benefits, including helping political parties obtain the vote.

A shift from Election Day to Election Week is also on the table. Interest in advance polling was so strong in 2020 that, combined with the postal ballots, more people voted before October 26 than on it. Boda said this raises questions about whether the process could be streamlined by combining everything into a single voting period.

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“Perhaps it is time to broaden the concept of election day to incorporate a longer period, such as election week,” its report said.

But that would require legislative change. There are other improvements that Boda plans to make on his own, before 2024.

For example, Boda is committed to working for full accessibility for voters with disabilities, especially people with intellectual disabilities. This could include adapted mail ballots for people with disabilities. He also promises a recruitment and strategy to increase the number of First Nations and Métis election workers.

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