Airdrie's city council has directed administration to formulate a response in the form of a formal letter outlining the municipality's concerns regarding the province's proposed bill, Bill 20.

During an extensive discussion during Tuesday's city council meeting, many Airdrie councillors voiced grave concern as well as exasperation regarding the bill.

 Legislative Officer Karen Jiang, who presented an overview of the bill and how it would impact Airdrie underlined there were many positives of the bill, especially when it comes to the amendments regarding the Local Authorities Election Act (LAEA).

Jiang explained that if passed, Bill 20, will require the city to prepare a permanent electors register a voters list, which will now be used to determine electoral eligibility.

"This is a new change for Airdrie as the voters' list has not been used for any Airdrie municipal election in the past. Instead, for all previous municipal elections, each elector was required to sign a voter declaration. This new change for municipalities to use the voter's list is welcome as it aligns with how the province and federal elections are run," she said. "And for voters, the process change will make the voting process more efficient."

She added that the second change which is a positive is the province wanting to remove the need for a voter to provide a reason why they would like to vote by special ballot, also known as a mail-in ballot.

"Previously, the reasons to allow for a voter to vote by special ballot was limited to someone working in election someone who had a physical disability or was absent from the city."

However, Jiang said that despite some of the positive attributes of the proposals in Bill 20, there are many questions remaining and many serious doubts.

What administration would like to see amended?

Bill 20 is proposing to ban any alternative voting equipment, more commonly known as electronic tabulators for the counting of votes of all municipal elections moving forward.

"This means the tallying of each vote for all ballots will now have to be hand counted by an election worker. This change will have a financial impact on the city that will require the doubling of election costs and will delay when results are known to the public."

The other recommendation by administration is for the province to re-examine the mandatory requirement that it will be the city's responsibility to continually prepare, compile and revise a permanent electors register the voters list for use during an election. 

"Although it is a welcome change for the province to mandate the city use the voters' list to determine electoral eligibility under Bill 20, the onus of responsibility now placed in the city to maintain an ongoing permanent electoral register will have significant ongoing budget implications for the city."

Jiang said that the current bill as it is written has no clarity as to how a municipality is to fulfill access and privacy obligations as per the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP Act).

Current regulations on how votes are counted and how they would change.

Jiang explained that currently, The City administers every election two types of voting structures. The first type is known as the First-past-the-post ballot, where voters cast a vote for a single candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins the election. This type of voting applies to voting for the Office of The Mayor. 

The second type of voting is known as a plurality at large voting system, which elects individuals in a multi-winner election. Each voter may cast as many votes as several seats to be filled.

"All candidates run against each other for an X number of positions. Each voter selects up to an X number of candidates on the ballot and can cast no more than one vote per candidate. In Airdrie, we administer this type of vote for the office of the councillor," she said. "... The public school trustee ballot Airdrie administers also uses this voting structure, where the top three candidates that received the most votes are the representative for Ward three of the Rockyview School Board of Trustees."

Jiang said that without the ability to use electronic tabulators, each ballot would now need to be hand-counted.

"For Airdrie, based on a voter turnout of about 20 to 25 per cent, and based on previous trends [of] around 15,000 electors, this will mean a hand count of approximately 45,000 ballots as there are three separate ballots to count for councils that have an at-large council, which also includes other midsize cities like Lethbridge, St. Albert and Grand Prairie amongst others; the tally of votes will now be significantly more difficult."

Jian continued that a ballot that was previously scanned automatically by an electronic tabulator first for any issues, will now first need to be reviewed by election workers to determine if a ballot is a valid ballot before the count.

"In addition, a new requirement brought in under Bill 20 requires an X mark to be used to select the candidate. This means that if that voter makes a checkmark instead of an X, the ballot is automatically rejected. This also means that if the voter makes a combination of X marks and other marks, the entire ballot is rejected. It is worth noting that this change is inconsistent with Elections Alberta and Elections Canada's current processes of ballot verification for hand counts."

Under the new proposal, if a ballot is considered valid after the first scan, it is only then that an election worker can tally the votes for each candidate.

"For Airdrie, which would typically mean scanning a councillor ballot of around 18 candidates; based on national estimates, assuming each ballot takes two minutes to count, multiplied by 45,000 ballots, and a staff of 60 workers, counting for 10 hours per day, it would take 2.5 days to count all the ballots."

Not only will the proposed changes mean more time, but Jiang said that there also appear to be amendments that would be ineffective.

"... The requirement for municipalities to maintain a permanent elector register; although municipalities can obtain a list from Elections Alberta under Bill 20, it is unclear how often lists may be requested and an agreement with Elections Alberta must be in place. Bill 20, as it is written expects municipalities to continually update the permanent electors register and from that list create your voters' list."

She said that the responsibility of a permanent elector register to reside with the municipality will be ineffective as voter information is available to the province through Elections Alberta.

"... Such as the information from vital statistics: driver's licenses, Canada Revenue Agency; to name a few will always result in a more accurate list that our list and municipality would be able to create and or maintain. In contrast, in Ontario, it is the responsibility of Elections Ontario to provide a voters list to municipalities every election."

Jiang said that they would like to see council advocate that the administering updating and maintaining of permanent electors register to reside with Elections Alberta.

"It is a welcome change to mandate municipalities to use voter lists and municipalities can play a role during the election period to update the list; however, the source of truth during the election period to update the list should reside with Elections Alberta, not on municipal servers. This would ensure the data that is used to generate a voter list is the most credible and reliable."

Councillors’ reactions to Bill 20 and what administration proposed

Airdrie city councillors almost in unison voiced extreme trepidations with regard to Bill 20, agreeing with administration’s recommendations. Councillor Candice Kolson said that if the province uses electronic databases for healthcare records and other records, it should be appropriate to use them for voting tabulation.

"I think that we as a municipality need to take a stand; publicly take a stand, not just happily talking to Minister McIver saying please, please have our back on this one," she said. "We need to make a fuss about this because the general public has no idea what's going to happen here and what this means for municipalities. I'm just so, so angry."

Although Mayor Peter Brown said he shared the councillors' concerns, he said that from his discussions with Municipal Affairs Minister, Ric McIver, the Bill will become law.

"He said it is a nonstarter; it's going to happen, regardless of what anybody says, [they] are not changing [their] mind. That's what he echoed this morning."

Councillor Heather Spearman voiced concern over portions of Bill 20, which would allow the province to require a municipality to repeal or change a bylaw.

"I think it's extreme overreach by this provincial government and I find it extremely concerning because we as a municipal council, understand our municipality better than anybody else," she said.

Mayor Brown noted that the probability of the province sifting through hundreds of bylaws that are passed by countless municipalities in the province is unlikely, saying that this mechanism would more than likely appeal to public health and safety, such as during a pandemic. He noted that during COVID-19 there was little uniformity around public masking mandates which caused strife, as residents were comparing what Airdrie was doing to what Calgary was doing. He said that in such extenuating circumstances the province’s ability to repeal bylaws may offer more clarity.

"The other piece that I feel very passionate about is the donations from unions and businesses. The way that it's been explained is that they're doing it anyway and this is just a way to make it more transparent. I would like to see the data behind that before anybody supports that kind of concept," Councillor Spearman added.

She said that although the introduction of party politics into municipalities is for the time being only being considered in Calgary and Edmonton, she said that the idea is not one she supports.

"My concern is it is a foot in the door and as soon as those two municipalities are under this scenario, it puts everybody else, particularly midsize cities, under that umbrella, not long afterwards. I would also personally like to see us speak out against that."

Councillor Ron Chapman said he found many parts of the bill 'disgusting', echoing others' view that the bill is an overreach.

"... Other parts, discussing party politics and municipal government is bad planning. I was hoping I was going to have a chance to question our MLA about that and ask her how it worked out in 2013; because it didn't work out very well at all," he added. "Electronic tabulators - they've even admitted they're not broken; so why are they changing?"

Mayor Brown underlined that one of the other propositions in Bill 20, which would allow the province to remove a councillor from their position may not have even been considered if it weren't for the issue surrounding Chestermere.

"I've said from the beginning, especially when we were commenting, everybody was going crazy, and I appreciate that," Mayor Brown said. "I said, let's all take a deep breath; let's walk before we run. But the premise I always go by, [is] we serve at the pleasure of the province; that's in legislation. We can't argue that - we're here because of them. I'm happy to do whatever council's wishes are and I think we have got to do that, around the areas where everyone's discussed [their] concerns, let's bring it all forward."

Mayor Brown said that Minister McIver should be held to account as there were discussions and promises of discussing Bill 20 with municipalities and utilizing that input to make amendments to the bill.

"... Let's hold them to account, but I am telling you, honestly, I don't feel like we're going to have a lot of energy to change a lot. That's how I feel, and I hope I'm wrong."

While Councillor Kolson conceded to the mayor’s point, she noted that the councillors are the closest link between residents and government and policy which then affects those very residents.

"We are their direct link, and it's falling on deaf ears; they're saying we need a hospital, we need more schools, we need all of these things, for them [the province] to take some of our powers away or to push that on us," she noted. "It's time that we let our voters know what the stresses that it's putting on the city."

Council accepted administration's presentation for information and asked that they incorporate the discussions to be enumerated in a letter which will formally address all concerns stemming from Bill 20.

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