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Powell River mail-in ballots too big to qualify as letter mail

Voting by mail option characterized as parcels and not letters
REMOTE VOTING: City of Powell River returning officer Chris Jackson has indicated that because of the way mail-in ballots need to be packaged, they are larger than regular letter mail, and require additional postage. He has stated that the best way to have them counted is to drop them off at city hall.

A resident has discovered that mail-in ballots for City of Powell River voters have been characterized as parcels and not letters.

Grant Thomas said he lives in Townsite and has an elderly neighbour who reported difficulties with her mail-in ballot for the city municipal election.

Thomas said his neighbour went to city hall to pick up a mail-in ballot, took the time to find out what she could about the various candidates, made an informed choice, and filled in her ballot.

“She was going to drop it in the mailbox, which is what most people would do, but she didn’t know how much a stamp is anymore, so she went to the postal outlet,” said Thomas. “They put a template on it and said it would be a parcel because of the size. It was just a little too big to qualify as a letter, and so it was going to cost her $16 to mail it.

“Because it’s a parcel, it’s going to go to Vancouver to be sorted with other parcels and there is no guarantee it would get back to Powell River to be counted. That is shocking.”

Thomas said his neighbour didn’t pay $16 to mail the ballot. She ended up driving it to city hall, after hours, and stuck it in the mail slot.

“The point is, it is a mail-in ballot, and of course, most people are going to do just that by walking across the street and putting it in the red box,” said Thomas.

He said he had gone to the post office and asked to speak to a supervisor.

“He said the vast majority of people aren’t going to bring it into the post office,” said Thomas. “They will put a couple of stamps on it and drop it in the mailbox. He said in that case, they are all going to go to Vancouver, be spit out by a machine, because of insufficient postage. Then, it’s going to go back into the mail and eventually get returned to the sender, with an insufficient postage stamp, and that could be after the election.”

Thomas said dropping these envelopes in the mailbox is basically a lost vote.

“There should be a notice attached to each mail-in ballot saying to drop it off in person or have someone drop it off for them,” said Thomas. “If people know they have wasted their vote, maybe they can find another remedy.”

Thomas said he was in touch with Elections BC.

“They were appalled,” said Thomas. “They passed me onto the municipal affairs department but I haven’t received a call back.”

Drop-off option

City returning officer Chris Jackson stated that mail ballots are an excellent option but not to let the name fool people.

“They do not have to be mailed at all,” stated Jackson in a written response to the Peak. The legislation just names this as mail ballot voting, he added.

“We make a point of telling everyone picking up packages that they can drop them off at city hall 24/7,” added Jackson. “The mailbox by the front door of city hall is checked every day and I will be standing there on Saturday at 8 pm to collect whatever there is.

“We also suggest people come in to pick up their packages as it is faster and saves us money, too. I am tracking the number of drop-offs and packages received by mail/courier. At this time, I think there are fewer than six by mail and about 150 by drop off.”

Jackson stated that it costs the city less than $2 to send a mail ballot package to someone. That is the whole package, he stated.

“We need to provide people with several envelopes, each slightly larger,” stated Jackson. “There is the secrecy envelope where a completed ballot is inserted and sealed; that envelope is placed in another envelope which has voter information, and then there is another envelope where the other two are placed to be sent back to city hall. This allows us to separate who is submitting the ballot from how they voted.

“We review the voter information to determine if they are entitled to vote. If so, the secrecy envelope containing their ballot is placed in a separate box. Then, at the close of voting on general voting day, that box and all the secrecy envelopes are opened and counted.”

Cost calculations

Jackson stated that city officials made several trips to Canada Post to get estimates on how much it would cost to return the package.

“When we started, we were told it would be around $18,” he stated. “We kept at it, sourcing different envelopes, and ended up having to modify what we purchased to reduce the size and weight as much as we could. In the end, we were advised it may cost as much as $11.

“Of the few we have received back by mail, I saw one had a single stamp and another had two stamps. I think stamps are $1.07 each. It costs the same to mail from Powell River to Powell River as it does to mail from Halifax to Powell River. We cannot control the amount Canada Post charges or how their fees are calculated, but we are able to offer this voting method opportunity.”

Jackson stated the shipping cost is one of the reasons the city promotes the pick-up and drop-off option. He added that the city also provided a service a week or so ago where they dropped off mail ballot packages to those who requested.

“I’ve also seen other ways people are reducing costs by including several responses in one larger envelope,” Jackson stated. “And through the mail ballot method, and a volunteer, we were able to support community elders in extended care units with voting opportunities. It’s also encouraging to see people offering to drive a neighbour to a voting place or offering to drop off a mail ballot package for them.”

Jackson said he reached out to the province, asking if they had a program or method to assist with mail ballot voting, such that costs to the electors is minimized.

“Unfortunately, they do not,” stated Jackson. “However, I have made a note and will be seeking council direction with regard to mail ballot voting. I am wondering if council would advocate through Union of British Columbia Municipalities or Federation of Canadian Municipalities to work with Canada Post such that mail ballot voting opportunities are provided with expedited shipping at minimal or no cost.”

There are likely other options as well, he added, but the point is that council could bring this forward and be solution-focused to address concerns with mail ballot costs.

“We were able to provide mail ballot voting earlier than expected this year as well,” stated Jackson. “We had hoped to have mail ballot packages ready to go by September 29, but actually did much better and had them available on September 22.

“Folks have up to the close of voting Saturday to get them back to city hall in order to be counted. Given the increased popularity with mail ballot voting, it is encouraging to hear so many people are using the opportunity.”

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