Annoyed about voting rules in Montreal? Waited in line for no reason? You're not alone

Are you registered to vote in Montreal’s election?

Or, more to the point, have you been able to figure out how to nail down this simple fact?

Because of the confusing design of a municipal mailout, this question has been stumping a lot of Montrealers, along with a few other voting barriers this year that have voters frustrated.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, with just three days left to get your name listed on voter rolls before the Monday cutoff—if you can figure out how, and make time to go in person.

“It goes without saying that this is a huge drag for anyone wishing to exercise their right to vote,” said political analyst Raphaël Melançon of the consulting firm Trafalgar Strategies.

THE CASE OF THE CONFUSING MAILOUTS

The devil is in the details this election, beginning with the papers mailed to every household in Montreal this month, supposedly to help them.

The problem was, they’re hard to understand. In big letters, on the left, they say NOTICE OF ENTRY and “To the occupant.”

In much smaller type, on the right-hand side, they list the names of people already registered at the address in question. It’s very easy to miss those names entirely and believe you’re not on the list.

That mistaken belief has been sending Montrealers in droves this week to the offices set up across the city for the one-week registration drive, according to people who visited several of them.

At one office in NDG, a worker reported there were more than two dozen people in a single day who went there needlessly.

Another in Villeray had a steady stream of people arriving, handing the receptionist their paper, and being told there was no need to come.

Cote-des-Neiges-NDG councillor Marvin Rotrand, who isn’t running again, said he even got three formal complaints from residents believing they’d been dropped from the voter roll, when they weren't.

“The form that was sent by the city was difficult to read,” he said.

It all begs the question of how many Montrealers, on voting day, won’t bother going to the polls because they believe they’re not registered and couldn’t make the time for the onerous process of visiting a registration office.

WHY FORCE PEOPLE TO REGISTER IN PERSON?

That’s another question that’s rankling voters, especially the most dedicated wannabe voters—why, in this day and age, make people go in person to show their documents?

People had to wait in line for up to an hour at the various Board of Revisors locations to show proof of identity. Some people didn’t have time for that long a wait, leaving and therefore forfeiting their chance to vote.

Meanwhile, non-resident property owners—such as landlords who don’t live in Montreal—are allowed to send in their documents by email.

Residents are only allowed to do the same if they have a health problem.

“That means that a new unregistered voter will have to physically go twice rather than once to be able to make their voice heard,” said Melançon.

“It’s all the more complicated if you are elderly or have reduced mobility,” he said. And that’s not to mention COVID-19 concerns and the need to limit unnecessary in-person interactions.

In the federal election, by comparison, people could show their ID right at the polling station, he pointed out.

“In 2021, such constraints do not make sense,” he said.

“It seems to me that everything should be done to facilitate voter registration, especially in municipal elections where the turnout is already very low.”

Montreal’s last election had just over 42 per cent turnout.

Elections Montreal said in a statement that showing ID and voting simultaneously simply isn’t allowed in municipal elections, throughout Quebec, even if federal elections allow it.

“Elections Montreal therefore does not choose the means, but applies the same rules as the other municipalities,” wrote spokesperson Mathilde St-Vincent.

She also said that “non-domiciled electors”—people who own Montreal property but don’t live here—make up less than 1 per cent of the electorate.

There were some people theorizing that the long lineups meant an increase in administrative errors that dropped people from the voter lists, even if they’re well established at their current address.

It’s too soon to say if that’s true, said St-Vincent.

“We will take stock at the end of the period, which ends on October 18,” she said.

“It is too early to rule on an increase or a decrease in requests, or even potential errors compared to previous years.”

THE CASE OF THE DISAPPEARING POLLING STATIONS

Another major complaint is that the number of places to vote has dwindled. And, on top of that, it’s been left very late to tell people where they can go.

One candidate in Rosemont-Petite-Patrie, Sallim Dahman, wrote on Twitter this week that elderly voters told him they were flummoxed when their paper mailout didn’t include an address of a nearby polling station, instead sending them online to find it.

Preuve que l’accessibilité a des effets sur la démocratie. 3 dépliants @elections_MTL et sur aucun d’eux, le bureau de vote n’est indiqué. On exige d’aller sur un SITE WEB pour trouver l’endroit. Plusieurs personnes âgées m’ont dit ne pas savoir où aller voter. #polmtl #Montreal pic.twitter.com/bNeN4is1f5

— Sallim Dahman (@SallimDahman) October 8, 2021

Maybe the two problems are related. Elections Montreal told CTV that it was contending with a new problem this year as some of their regular spots declined to serve as polling stations, leaving them scrambling for alternatives.

“Due to the pandemic, several polling locations which had opened in the past declined access this year,” wrote St-Vincent.

“It is therefore not a decision to reduce the polling places. Despite this pitfall, we have worked hard to offer a similar number of voting locations as often as possible as in the past.”

“In our area, in Snowdon, we've gone from nine to five [polling stations],” said Rotrand, and one area with hundreds of seniors was told to go 1.5 kilometres away, which would require three buses.

“There was such an outcry that the clerk came up with a solution,” he said, and the additional station left six in the area.

NO VOTING BY MAIL, BUT JUST IN MONTREAL

But another issue is compounding this one: voting by mail is not allowed in Montreal, unlike most municipalities in Quebec, unless you can demonstrate a health problem that limits mobility.

That was a decision adopted by city council earlier this year, and Mayor Valérie Plante has faced heat over it, with opponent Denis Coderre accusing her of limiting seniors’ options because seniors tend to support his party, not hers.

And seniors aren't the only ones upset.

can't believe I'm not allowed to vote in the montreal municipal elections even though I have a lease on an apartment there, which is also my permanent residence. the voting by mail rules only apply to people who are sick, elderly, or isolating.

— Miriam spoooky Lafontaine �� (@MiriLafontaine) October 14, 2021

The city has said it’s a question of timing. Only last fall it unanimously agreed to push the province to allow mail-in voting—which the province did, but only in a March bill, a few months before preparations needed to be finalized for this fall’s election.

With a city as big as Montreal, the Plante administration decided it wasn’t feasible to switch to a vote-by-mail system in time for this election, though smaller cities could handle it, they said.

Not being able to vote by mail isn’t just a pain for seniors, said Rotrand, but in this election it would have also helped many Jewish voters, since two out of four of the polling days are on Saturdays, when observant Jews may not vote.

Voting will take place on two weekends in a row: Oct. 30 and 31 for advance polls, and Nov. 6 and 7 for regular polls.

“I've never had complaints before about municipal elections,” he said, and this year they’re coming from all quarters.

A complete guide to how to register by Monday, and how to prepare to vote, is available here.