Monday, April 13, 2020

On absenteeism

The U.S. has seen some of its state elections turned into anti-democratic abominations by the absence of effective absentee balloting - with the lack of effective voting serving as an explicit strategy by Republicans to exclude people from exercising their right to vote.

Fortunately, Saskatchewan doesn't have the extreme exclusions against absentee voting which have been the source of the greatest controversy in the U.S. But voters should nonetheless take note of the limited availability of voting by mail - and ask what the Moe government plans to do about it.

Saskatchewan's elections are governed by The Election Act, 1996, which allows for any voter to request an absentee (mail-in) ballot nine or more days before the election by declaring that they "will be unable to vote at an advance poll or on polling day in the constituency": section 86(2). 

That means voters aren't required to meet a specific standard of age or absence in order to request a ballot by mail. But it does mean that by law, voting by mail is the exception rather than the rule. Even in the midst of a pandemic where any physical interaction creates foreseeable and avoidable risks to public health, Elections Saskatchewan doesn't appear to have authority to make mail-in ballots available in the absence of an individual request.

Other provisions also apply to homebound voters, but with similar limitations (the requirement for an advance request, and a substantial level of advance notice).

Those provisions may have been sufficient during an election period when going to the polls in person could be considered a reasonable default expectation. But it now looks likely - if not inevitable - that this fall's election will take place in the face of a continued need for social distancing.

Which means that it will fall to Moe and his government to decide whether to update the law to make sure that Saskatchewan's residents can vote without jeopardizing public health - or whether they'll choose to force citizens to choose between their votes or their lives as their Republican allies have done so callously south of the border.

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