(Note: The following opinion/editorial was submitted by Dr. Michael Boda on October 25, 2019 to CBC Saskatchewan, Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon StarPhoenix)

On Monday, Canadians across the country cast their ballots during a federal election in largely the same way they have since Confederation.  Three years ago, residents of Saskatchewan voted during the 2016 provincial election in much the same manner they had since the province’s first election in 1905.  It’s time for a change. 

Electors in Saskatchewan deserve a voting experience that makes use of technological innovations leading to elections that are more efficient, more transparent, and more consistent with the way we operate in a modern world.

In late 2018, MLAs passed historic legislation that lays the foundation for a new era in how we conduct provincial elections.  Elections Saskatchewan is hard at work to make sure the 2020 Provincial Election—to be held exactly one year from today—will introduce such changes in a responsible and secure way.

For the past 113 years, Saskatchewan has administered elections using paper forms and clerical procedures that were designed in the nineteenth century—yes, the nineteenth century.  For those of us old enough to have worked in offices prior to the computer age, our recent experiences in voting have been something of a trip down memory lane. 

We enter a polling location, provide identification, and a worker begins the process of looking up our name on a paper copy of the voters’ list.  Our information is entered by hand into the poll book, our names are crossed off the list with a ruler and pencil, and we are provided a ballot.  We then take our ballot behind the screen to mark it and the ballot is placed into a ballot box

For voters, the experience can be particularly frustrating if the lines are long.  They find it difficult to understand why paper and pencil are being used instead of the technology that is pervasive in their lives outside the polling location.

Election workers often find this old-fashioned process even more frustrating.  In addition to a day involving pencils, rulers, and reams of paper, their experience becomes even more surreal when voting ends.  The ballot box is opened, and each ballot is hand counted—one-by-one. 

When the counting is finished, workers engage in a reconciliation process to ensure all ballots, used and unused, are accounted for before undertaking further paperwork.  This can take hours and requires significant attention to detail, no small feat after more than 12 hours of work.

As the gap between our experience of worlds inside and outside our polls has increased due to a widespread adoption of technology, so too has it become increasingly difficult to recruit the more than 12,000 workers needed to administer an election in Saskatchewan.  Given these challenges, Elections Saskatchewan is working to introduce a new voting services model.

This model aims to minimize as much paperwork as possible.  Rather than shuffling through pages and pages of a printed voters’ list, an elector’s Voter Information Card will be scanned in order to call up a voter’s relevant registration information.  On the other end of the process, a paper ballot that is cast will be counted using tabulators that minimize the counting process at end of a long day when election workers are most tired. 

The technology to achieve all this is available now.  All that remains is to adopt it in a prudent, methodical and responsible fashion. With new legislation in place, a plan is unfolding that will bring technology into polls across Saskatchewan gradually over the next three elections. 

For the coming provincial election in October 2020, electronic pollbooks and tabulators will be introduced at advance polls in Saskatoon and Regina.  During the next general election, scheduled for 2024, electronic pollbooks and tabulators are to be introduced more broadly across the province and at election day polls after taking into account what is learned during the 2020 process.  In 2028, even further innovation is planned with the introduction of a “vote anywhere” method that would allow electors to vote in any constituency in the province without having to travel home to cast their ballot. 

In pursuing an evolutionary approach over three electoral cycles, Saskatchewan will update its voting experience using technology to eliminate unnecessary paperwork while still retaining the safety and security of the paper ballot.

We live in a time in which our democratic traditions—in Saskatchewan, across Canada and in democracies around the world—are under pressure.  The threats to our democracy are not exclusively external.  They also come from within and are evidenced in low voter turnout, challenges in recruiting election workers, and in a cynicism that is all too common among voters today.

These modern challenges to democracy need to be addressed with modern tools.  Along with the rest of my team at Elections Saskatchewan, I am hard at work to make sure the experience of voting is part of the solution.

Dr. Michael Boda has been Saskatchewan’s Chief Electoral Officer since 2012.