City council is reviewing a proposal for its current Northwestel contract renewal. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News)

Proxy voting is best barrier-free option, Whitehorse woman says

Bali Epoch urges city council to reconsider phasing out proxy ballots for fall vote

A Whitehorse woman says the removal of proxy voting as an option in the October municipal election creates one more barrier for Yukoners with disabilities.

Bali Epoch, who is a person with disabilities, told the News her disability can be episodic. She doesn’t know in advance when it might prevent her from being able to do something like get to a polling station.

She said she has never voted by proxy, but she has skipped the special ballot because she knew proxy voting was an option.

In the past, she has also voted by special ballot, for which voters must apply two weeks in advance of the election. Epoch said that process isn’t accessible to everyone.

“Some people don’t have a level of functioning that they can go through that process and get the special ballot. Or even the literacy level that you need for that,” she said. “Whereas the proxy ballot, it’s a whole other universe of ability for me to be like ‘hey you’re my friend, I trust you. Vote for that person.’”

The question of proxy voting has come up during recent city council meetings as mayor and council have discussed the details of the elections bylaw for the upcoming municipal election.

Coun. Samson Hartland said at the May 14 standing committees meeting that proxy voting has already been removed from the Elections Act at the territorial level. He asked why advance polls weren’t sufficient.

City staff told council the proxy option is there largely for people in work camps, who aren’t in town around election time. In the 2015 municipal election, 12 residents voted this way.

Hartland has previously suggested online or phone voting, something city staff have said takes a long time to put into place. If the city wants to establish those as options for 2021, for example, staff would have to start working on putting that in place immediately.

Hartland told the News June 8 he doesn’t want to limit anyone, and would like to see the city open up a variety of different ways for residents to vote.

“I think that’s a totally legitimate concern,” Hartland said of Epoch’s point. He said when council began discussing the issue of removing proxy voting, it wasn’t meant to disenfranchise anyone, but that it’s a balancing act between safeguarding against misuse and ensuring everyone has access to the polls.

“That’s why you see the discussion sort of evolving now to this whole sort of general versus limited proxy voting,” he said. Council had asked city staff for more information on general proxy voting, which allows for someone to give their vote to another person, and limited proxy voting, which allows a voter to give specific direction to another person voting in their place.

“I’ve got an appetite for (limited proxy voting),” said Hartland. “In the research that I’ve done, it’s good to know there are ways to prevent misuse of proxy voting.”

Epoch said she doesn’t think potential misuse is a valid concern.

“I think the concern that it can be misused when there’s no evidence that that’s happening right now is really disproportionate to the effect that removing proxy voting would have on people,” she said. “Because our Charter right to vote is a fundamental part of being a part of society and people with disabilities already get told on a daily, hourly, minute-ly sometimes, basis that we’re not full members of society.”

It wasn’t until 1993 that the Elections Canada Act even allowed people with disabilities to vote. Prior to that, it excluded anyone who was “restrained of his liberty of movement or deprived of the management of his property by reason of mental disease.”

She said limiting anyone reinforces the stereotype that people with disabilities aren’t capable.

“We’ll never have a perfect system,” said Epoch. “But with 12 people, that, to me, does not scream widespread voting fraud.”

She said the alternatives suggested by council do allow most people to vote, including most people with most disabilities, but not all.

“And that’s really the problem here is that we’re just excluding part of society and that part of society is already the part of society that gets excluded from everything,” she said. “But when you’re talking about something as huge as voting, that’s literally your right to participate in our society, it becomes lot more insulting to talk about it like that.”

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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