The Northwest Territories may be considered remote by Ontario standards, but it is at the cutting edge for election reform.
Nicole Latour, the NWT’s Chief Electoral Officer, explained to us how online voting may soon be a reality in her territory. The option of casting ballots digitally is expected to help boost voter turnout rates and increase accessibility.
For example, there is no degree-granting institution in the NWT; most-postsecondary students need to relocate in order to complete their education. Under the new system, tech-savvy university students living in out-of-territory would be able to choose a digital ballot over a mail-in-ballot.
We also learned that, although the overall voter turnout in the NWT is comparable to national averages, voter turnout is disproportionately low in Yellowknife, perhaps due in part to its relatively transient population. Introducing the option of online voting may invigorate interest in territorial elections, while also enabling residents to cast ballots from the comfort of their own homes. That comfort is not merely rhetorical. The last territorial election occurred in November 2015, and the turnout rate plummeted alongside the arctic temperatures.
There are other ways in which Latour champions innovation. Learning from practices in British Columbia, she has started specifically hiring youth to run polling stations. In addition to being familiar with technology, high school students are energetic, in a position to benefit from the work experience, and have flexible schedules. Another area of innovation is the creation of an online portal that will enable constituents to learn about local candidates, familiarize themselves with the returning officer, and live-stream the number of votes cast on election day. Lastly, territorial ballots in the NWT have a unique appearance. Literacy rates are relatively low in the NWT; consequently, in order to ensure accessibility, photographs of each candidate appear next to their name on the ballot.
We left our meeting with Latour impressed by how much Elections NWT has been able to accomplish, despite being such a new agency. Elections were not held for the territorial government until 1951, and they were historically administered by Elections Canada. The office of the NWT’s Chief Electoral Officer was not created until 1987, though it took until 1999 for the devolution process to be completed and Elections NWT to run its first election. For a young institution, Elections NWT seems to have made an excellent start, seeking innovations in order to serve the unique needs of a unique territory.