Elections P.E.I. issues request for proposals to introduce online voting for school boards

It is too early to say what will come from this request for proposals, says P.E.I. Chief Electoral Officer Tim Garrity. (CBC/Zoom - image credit)
It is too early to say what will come from this request for proposals, says P.E.I. Chief Electoral Officer Tim Garrity. (CBC/Zoom - image credit)

P.E.I.'s next school board elections in 2025 might include online voting, but Chief Electoral Officer Tim Garrity says that doesn't mean a move toward online voting for provincial general elections or byelections.

Elections P.E.I. has issued a request for proposals to introduce online voting, after the Department of Education expressed interest in that option following the 2022 school board elections, Garrity said.

"We're not looking to bring in online voting for any provincial election event. This is not a first step in that," he said. "The school board elections that we do, that's a whole separate thing."

The 2022 vote was the first time in 14 years that the English language school system had held elections for trustees, after a major reorganization meant two school boards covering the eastern and western halves of the province merged into the Public Schools Branch.

Voters will need their personal identification number and their date of birth to log in to cast their ballot online in the P.E.I. plebiscite.
Voters will need their personal identification number and their date of birth to log in to cast their ballot online in the P.E.I. plebiscite.

P.E.I. allowed online voting in the 2016 plebiscite on electoral reform. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

The rules around the election of trustees had to be rewritten anyway, so that rewrite included the use of mail-in ballots. There was no time to consider online voting before the 2022 elections, Garrity said, but the department asked for it to be an option next time.

"They wanted to see if this was going to be a possibility," he said. "Could we increase voter turnout? Is this better accessibility for people? Is this, you know, an easier process and might this be possible?"

Voter turnout is historically low in school board elections on P.E.I., and that was part of the rationale the government presented when it moved to appointed trustees in 2011.

When elections returned in 2022, the turnout through mail-in ballots was 3.5 per cent. As low as that is, it was still about double the turnout in 2008, the last time there was in-person voting for P.E.I. school trustees.

'You don't want to put a price tag on democracy'

With the request for proposals only just issued, Garrity said he still doesn't know whether online voting for trustees will be possible.

Cost is a factor, he said. Typically, companies charge by the number of electors, and with turnouts for trustees in the low single digits, that could make costs prohibitive.

"You don't want to put a price tag on democracy but you also have to be realistic," he said. "You don't want to be spending a ton of money and still having a low turnout."

While he would like to see voter turnout improve, and it is reasonable to think that making voting easier improves turnout, he said the experience with online voting elsewhere is that it doesn't.

"It does not increase or decrease voter turnout. This is just an additional option that people can use," said Garrity.

Voter turnout is tricky to predict, he said, but promotion of the election appears to be the key to getting people to cast a ballot.

"As for the provincial election, the process that we have now, the in-person voting, how we do things with the mail-in ballot and everything else, that's the process that we're sticking with it this time," he said.