October 4, 2010
Municipal ballot couriered to Kandahar
By Michael Platt, QMI Agency
CALGARY - Two hundred and forty dollars, and twenty-one cents.
That's the exact price of democracy, when you're a soldier stationed 10,850 kilometres from the nearest voting booth, and the government back home hasn't made election provisions for troops overseas.
All being well, Sgt. Christopher Harris will be receiving a couriered Fed-Ex package in Kandahar, Afghanistan on October 11, containing mail-in ballots for Calgary's municipal election.
It's a pricey trip for one little envelope - $94.34 to Kandahar, and $145.87 back to Calgary - but the commanding officers of 746 Communication Squadron apparently believe that's a small price for one of their own.
"I think it's fantastic and it's a reflection of how they feel about Christopher in his unit," said Janet Harris McLeod.
"They said to me, the military is his second family, and we're here to look after him."
Harris McLeod learned about the squad's last-minute courier strategy from a commanding officer with the Calgary-based reserve unit, after Alberta's voting SNAFU made the front page of the Sun.
If sent Monday as planned, the ballots will reach Kandahar on Oct. 11, and be returned to Calgary on Oct. 14, four days before the election.
A close shave, but at least Sgt. Harris will have a vote, unlike hundreds of other Alberta soldiers.
Under Alberta's Local Authorities Elections Act, municipal elections voting can be done only two ways: In person or by mail-in ballot.
But mail flown to Afghanistan from the military postal station in Belleville, Ont. officially takes three weeks to reach the intended recipient - and those sending mail say the reality is closer to six weeks.
With only 28 days between Nomination Day and the provincewide municipal vote on Oct. 18, it's unfeasible for Alberta soldiers in Afghanistan to use mail-in ballots.
For up to one hundred Calgarians and hundreds of Edmonton soldiers, it means being deprived of the very thing they are fighting to provide in Afghanistan - a democratic voice.
Thus, Sgt. Harris can count himself lucky. If all goes well, his unit's willingness to pay a steep courier bill means he will have the unique privilege of casting a vote for mayor, alderman and trustee.
"They told me, 'We don't care what this costs, we're going to do it,'" said Harris McLeod.
Officers with Harris' squad couldn't be reached for comment, but the plan to deploy a ballot through a private courier, as admirable as it sounds, is a Band-Aid solution at best.
A $240.21 package provides a voice for one soldier, when the entire troop deserves a say.
In the U.S., overseas soldiers also vote through the mail-in method, but the American absentee ballot allows those choices to be counted, even if they arrive weeks late - and the result isn't official until they're in.
Another answer is online voting, touted two years ago as a potential path to improving voter participation - but so far, cyber-democracy remains in the realm of science fiction.
Calgary Ald. Diane Colley-Urquhart, Alberta vice-chair of the Canadian Forces Liaison Council, said couriering a ballot to one soldier does nothing to remedy the larger problem.
"It doesn't solve the issue for those serving outside of Canada," said Colley-Urquhart.
"This doesn't seem like it would all be that difficult to fix, and we absolutely need to amend the provincial legislation."
She says the province's continued refusal to trust computer technology for voting must cease.
"Online voting is becoming more and more reliable - it is time that we seriously consider this option."
If the province is unwilling to change the Local Authorities Elections Act to reflect modern technology, other critics say there must be a system established using the tried and true system of people and paper.
Wildrose Alliance deputy leader Paul Hinman says the Stelmach government should have anticipated the problem, and sent a returning officer to Afghanistan to collect Alberta's votes.
"An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, and to courier one ballot out isn't a prudent use of taxpayer money," said Hinman.
"If they'd been thinking this through, why isn't there a ballot box and a returning officer over there? It's a very simple thing to do, and a small price to pay."