As staff at Elections NWT prepare for the next territorial election, the chief electoral officer says making sure polling stations are accessible to all voters is a priority.
Stephen Dunbar, who took over the role in November, said planning for the NWT’s 2023 general election is still in its early stages but he is already thinking about accessibility.
“We very much want to ensure that when voters want to vote, they can do so without any barriers,” he told Cabin Radio.
In 2020, the NWT Human Rights Commission ordered Elections NWT to refrain from using inaccessible polling stations or stations that cannot be adapted to become accessible with reasonable accommodations.
“This decision is top of mind for me as we start to determine what polling stations we’ll be using in the 2023 election,” Dunbar said.
The ruling was part of a decision where an adjudicator found Elections NWT had discriminated against a voter based on physical disability by failing to provide a barrier-free polling station in Yellowknife during the 2015 territorial election.
While the voter raised accessibility concerns more than a year ahead of election day, she said she did not feel they were taken seriously. When she went to vote, she said the polling station – located at a high school – did not have automatic doors. There was no one present to help her open the heavy doors and the bathrooms were not accessible.
According to the decision, automatic door openers have since been installed at the high school.
Elections NWT said at the time that the polling station was chosen as it could serve more than 2,400 people on election day and it was in a convenient location known to voters. Ahead of the election, the then-chief electoral officer provided the voter three alternatives to casting a ballot at the polling station on election day: voting at a mobile poll, by mail-in ballot, or using an advanced poll.
The adjudicator found that did not address the voter’s right to vote on election day alongside able-bodied voters and caused her to “feel like a lesser person.”
“For the complainant, having full agency means being able to vote independently in public and at the same location as anybody else without having to rely on others to assist her,” the decision read.
Elections NWT said it developed an accessibility checklist for polling stations during the 2015 election, among other steps to ensure accessibility. That resulted in a ramp being built at a polling station located in a residential building in a small community.
Dunbar said Elections NWT will review that checklist ahead of the 2023 election based on input from other elections organizations. He plans to reach out to the NWT Disabilities Council and Inclusion NWT and welcomes feedback from others.
According to Dunbar, the checklist currently includes ensuring the presence of adequate accessible parking, doors that can easily or automatically open, clear signage, and wheelchair-accessible washrooms.
Elections NWT is responsible for providing polling stations in each of the territory’s 33 communities that are not only free of physical barriers but are accessible in terms of factors like language and to those with visual impairments.
Dunbar said Elections NWT is working to make sure materials in all official languages of the NWT are available to voters, and reviewing training for returning officers.
He added that Elections NWT has been directed to develop regulations regarding online voting ahead of the election. Dunbar said staff are speaking with experts on the subject.
During the 2019 territorial election, the NWT became the first jurisdiction in Canada to offer online voting in a provincial or territorial election.
In a recent report, Dunbar made a number of recommendations for the 2023 election based on issues that arose during the 2019 election.
Those recommendations include trialling a “vote anywhere” model during advance voting. That would allow eligible voters to cast a ballot at any office of a returning officer across the NWT, including those outside their ‘home’ voting district.
The report and its recommendations are now being reviewed by the Legislative Assembly.