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Review finds municipal election accessible, but calls for further training

A city review identified the need for better accessibility training for Thunder Bay poll workers, but otherwise flagged few significant issues for voters with disabilities in the 2022 municipal election.
The city offered drive-thru voting for the first time in 2022, which a report from the city clerk's office called a boost for accessibility. (File)

THUNDER BAY – Turnout in Thunder Bay’s recent municipal election may have dropped sharply, but the city reported more encouraging results Monday on how accessible the election was for voters with disabilities.

A review of accessibility measures in the 2022 election, mandated under provincial law and carried out by the city clerk's office, recommended expanding accessibility training for poll workers and identified problems with how the city used accessible voting software.

Overall, however, the report presented to city council Monday identified few serious complaints, indicating accommodations are largely meetings voters’ needs.

“I would say overall we’re really pleased with the results,” city clerk Krista Power said in an interview. “We think for the most part we had a very accessible election [that] allowed opportunities for individuals with disabilities to be engaged in the voting process. We did see some flags for things we can improve upon for 2026.”

Making elections accessible ranges from the mundane – ensuring meets web accessibility standards – to the more creative, like offering a free transit pass to and from polling locations.

As part of its accessible elections plan, the city also offers magnifying devices and ImageCast accessible voting machines at polling places, and inspects polling locations for physical accessibility.

That resulted in upgrades for the Kinsmen Youth Centre, North End Community Centre, and North McIntyre Recreation Centre last year to remove barriers.

The review stated the ability to vote online, exercised by over 60 per cent of Thunder Bay voters last year, had been welcomed by many in the disability committee.

Nearly 600 people also cast their ballots at special voting locations like long-term care homes.

The city received just over 70 individual requests for voting accommodation in 2022. All received before the deadline of Oct. 13 were met, while five received afterwards were not.

Among the lessons to be learned? Expand accessibility training to all poll workers.

Only four city staff were trained on the ImageCast voting system and other accessibility supports, the review stated, though other city staff had received some form of accessibility training.

Voter feedback indicated additional training is necessary for temporary election workers. Administration pledged to develop that training before 2026.

The city added drive-through voting last year, calling that a success it plans to continue.

"I would certainly say it’s something we’re planning to bring back in 2026," Power said. "Gangbuster reviews across the board, and one of the first vehicles that actually pulled through was an individual who suffered from mobility challenges."

Telephone voting, employed by around five per cent of voters in 2018, was eliminated. That led to only one complaint, Power said, adding the method had brought its own share of problems.

"We experienced quite a few complaints about [telephone voting] in 2018,” she said. “Most of it was, in fact, user error – you’ve gone past the prompt, is your ballot in the ballot box? When you’ve got 119-plus people on the ballot, it can make that telephone vote very long and a bit arduous for voters."

Voters with accessibility challenges can also vote by proxy, appointing another person to vote in their stead. Only two voters did so in 2022.

Staff identified issues with the use of ImageCast, which allows voters with visual disabilities to access an audio version of the ballot and make selections using a handheld or sip-and-puff device.

Only one voter used the system in 2022, down from a high of six in 2014, and the devices continue to offer a slow voting experience, staff said.

Perhaps more seriously, feedback suggested the fact the device had to be connected nearby each poll's vote tabulator placed it too close to other voting activity to "allow for a comfortable level of privacy."

The city pledged to address that issue with a separate tabulator if the machines are still used in 2026.

Power said the city always welcomes feedback on accessibility, which can be submitted to the municipal accessibility specialist or the accessibility advisory committee. More information is available online.

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

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