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Westlock County voting numbers down slightly compared to 2017

Counting of Senator and referendum questions slowed process, says returning officer

WESTLOCK – All things being equal, voter turnout in Westlock County for the Oct. 18 municipal election was nearly on par with 2017, albeit down slightly.

Although at first blush the numbers show a dramatic eight-per cent decline, this year’s number excludes Division 2, which didn’t require an election following the acclamation of Jared Stitsen.

First-time county returning officer Dianne Johnston said 1,742 voters cast ballots for councillors in the municipality’s six other divisions, a number that equates to 29 per cent of the population as the county has 5,950 eligible voters — in 2017, 37 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot. Johnston went on to clarify that in 2017, 368 people voted in Division 2, while this year 306 Division 2 residents voted for the trustee and on the provincial questions. So, choosing either of those numbers would bring this year’s overall total up to around 34 to 35 per cent.

“It could be COVID as some our seniors are still not comfortable going out, plus the loss of Division 2 added up to the number going down,” she said.

Election day turned out to be a long one for Johnston at the county office and the pollsters, who were set up at the six stations throughout the municipality as the county results weren’t released to the public until just past 12:30 a.m., Oct. 19.

Johnston said tabulating the Pembina Hills School Division and Evergreen Catholic ballots wasn’t a big deal, but the addition of the Senate and the referendum questions posed by the province slowed the count to a crawl.

“We started counting the advance polls at 7:30 p.m. as we had previously passed a bylaw that allowed us to do that. And even just counting those two advance polls still took a long time because of the referendum and Senate ballots and the two school boards,” she said.

“We didn’t finish here until probably around 10:30 counting just the advance polls and then we waited for the people to count them at the polling stations. We didn’t leave here until 1:30 a.m. It was a long day.

“Honestly, if we would have had just done the two school boards and our councillors we would have been done by 9:30, 10 p.m. A lot of our election workers are seniors so to have such a long day was tough on them.”

Adding to that long day was the dead heat in Division 6, which saw Stuart Fox-Robinson and Brian Schryver tied at 123 votes apiece. Johnston said the recount, conducted at 10 a.m. the next morning, found that three ballots cast for Schryver had to be rejected — the candidate and scrutineer were on hand for the recount and took no issue.

“You can put an ‘X’ or you can put a checkmark in the appropriate box. What you can’t have is a strike-through of a name, or circling of the name. The indicator has to be in the box. And that’s what happened there,” she explained.

The county’s two advance polls, held Oct. 7 and Oct. 15, were well attended — 67 people showed up at the first one, while 104 voted at the second. The first advance poll had some hiccups in regard to the ballot-box preparation, meaning ratepayers were forced to wait. As well, there were some access issues as the station was on the second floor. Both were noted, said Johnston, and will be remembered for the 2025 municipal election.

“We didn’t do anything wrong, there are some processes we could have done better. The first one is that ballot boxes can’t be sealed until the first voter is there to confirm that they’re empty. What we didn’t do is at least seal the bottoms of the boxes so that we only had to seal one end. At our second advance poll date, we sealed one end, so we were ahead on that,” she explained.

“And one of our first voters needed a bit of extra assistance as we had to help with interpretation. So that slowed us down a little bit as well. And the facility, our county building, in hindsight probably wasn’t the best place to hold it. We do have a lift, but again with some of our seniors having to climb the stairs or wait in line … it was a little more difficult for them. Two learning things for sure which caused some angst for our voters.”

Beyond changing the location for the advance poll, Johnston said they may hold a county-specific training session for their workers. She also said they tried to be as prepared as possible following the “kerfuffles” around the Division 5 byelection in 2019 and reviewed the appropriate legislation to ensure everything was done by the book.

“We have a whole list of notes now and we had a lot of our polling stations let us know what they thought would work better and we’re putting that together. Every though we were learning throughout, I think it was run well,” she continued.

“We had some of the candidates and scrutineers tell us how well they thought the election was run and were appreciative of it, so that was nice to hear.”

George Blais,

George Blais

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