City council’s unanimous approval of a move to a paperless municipal vote in 2022 generated plenty of pushback, questions and conspiratorial warnings.
So, why not go right to the target of all this distrust and anger, Simply Voting Inc., and talk to the founder, Brian Lack.
It’s the firm that will undertake the electronic vote in the 2022 municipal vote in St. Thomas, as they did in a limited fashion in the 2018 municipal election.
We won’t hold the face he is a Montreal Canadiens fan against him. He is an interesting and knowledgeable individual who is refreshingly forthright.
“I’m the first to admit there is no such thing as 100 per cent security. Nothing on the internet is 100 per cent secure, but we still use it.
“There are people who say we bank online so we should vote online. But actually, it’s not quite the same thing.
“In a way, there is probably more danger with voting online because if my back account is hacked and I’m missing a few hundred dollars, I’m going to know about it.
“If your vote is hacked, how does anybody know? It is not the same analogy.”
“But we have a lot of in-house expertise on security and we work with security companies and we’re following the best practices to make it as secure as possible.”
You start with what Lack refers to as a secure ballot box.
“You have to make sure it is one person, one vote. Each citizen is going to be mailed a voter information letter with a PIN. It’s up to St . Thomas but we suggest nine digits.
“It’s random and it’s also unique. No two electors in St. Thomas will have the same PIN. And that goes out in a security-lined envelope.”
In other words, you can’t hold the letter up to the light and read the PIN.
And the letter is protected by Canadian mail-tampering laws.
To log in to vote you also need a complete date of birth.
“The year of birth alone is not good enough,” stresses Lack.
“And once you log in to vote, every step along the way we’re checking are you logged in with a valid PIN? Are you on the list of eligible voters? Have you already voted?
“If you’ve already voted on some other device, you’re stopped in your tracks . . . it will say ‘Sorry, you have already voted.’
And there is a time-out default, which is determined by the municipality. You have a window of opportunity to vote or else the process times out.
“If you’ve logged in by eight o’clock at night on voting day you can continue. If you log in after that time you can’t vote.”
Key question. After the election, what happens to the data?
“It’s written in the Municipal Elections Act that all ballots and electoral information have to be destroyed within 120 days.”
That’s a safeguard in the event of a candidate challenge or a recount may be required.
“It’s also a safeguard in not leaving copies of sensitive information out there with vendors.”
All information on the company’s backup systems is likewise deleted and “we sign a certificate of destruction and hand it over to the municipal clerk.”
That data includes full name, date of birth, a physical address and a mailing address, which may be different and school board support.
“Those are the different pieces of information that we have. And of course, we have the vote.
“We provide the contents of the ballot box to the clerk at the end of the election. He or she could download it.
“When you vote on Simply Voting we cross your name off the list of electors and flag a record as having voted.”
And each vote is assigned a random receipt code which is typically four or five characters long.
“We don’t store the receipt code anywhere else. We don’t store that with your record so there is no way to cross-reference. So, we actually give the clerk a spreadsheet with each individual vote and the receipt code.
The voter will know their receipt code and they can go online punch in the receipt code and see whether or not a vote exists.
“The elections where we do choose to participate and where we do get contracts, are elections where we sleep well at night. It’s all about balancing risks and benefits.”
As for a potential system crash on election day, Lack explained the main voting system is in a data centre in Kelowna, B.C. And the backup is in Mississauga, and they are synchronized.
“Your vote is initially cast in Kelowna and in the same second it is added in Mississauga.”
If something happens out of Simply Voting’s control and takes down the data centre in Kelowna, data is redirected to the Mississauga servers in a matter of seconds.
“It’s a hot backup and it’s running. And that’s how we’re prepared for the worst.
“There’s an entire procedure manual that we provide to the clerk and they decide if they want to use it or scrap it or change it and we include suggested contingency plans.
“But, it’s not our call, it’s really the municipality’s call.”
Lack is the first to admit internet voting should not be considered at the federal or even provincial level.
It does make sense, however, at the municipal level.
“Internet voting is convenient,” advises Lack. “It’s convenient for the voters, it’s convenient for the staff in St. Thomas. Counting gets done in an instant. There are benefits.
“But you have to use the right tool for the right job. There are times to use a screwdriver, there are times to use a hammer and there are times to use a drill.
“I’m not going to try to push internet voting as the next sliced bread. If used in the wrong place, it’s horrible for democracy.
“The elections where we do choose to participate and where we do get contracts, are elections where we sleep well at night.
“It’s all about balancing risks and benefits.”
PEER OUTREACH WORKERS INSTEAD OF SECURITY
If you read our special midweek post dealing with the wide cross-section of correspondence received following our item last Saturday on the state of the downtown core in St. Thomas, there were a couple of references to alternatives options.
In particular, Jackie Harris, a patient care manager, asked “Why aren’t we thinking of peer outreach workers instead of security?”
At a meeting with downtown merchants in September of 2020, Mayor Joe Preston commented, “What we don’t have is a street effort. We don’t have a team on the street dealing with it.”
At the time, we wrote there is a team on the streets every night.
Known as The Nameless, they are a community-based, peer-led harm-reduction group offering proactive boots on the ground.
We have talked several times with Leticia Mizon from The Nameless and she participated in last week’s homelessness forum via Zoom.
Mizon offered considerable insight into what is in play.
Here are some of her insights, starting with incidents of vandalism.
“The people who are the most vulnerable and who are expressing their protest in the form of destruction, again because they have no home, they have no shelter, they are barred from activities and supports.
“This is a way they are telling people there is something wrong and that they need help.”
She continued, “We know sick people don’t get well on the street.”
In particular, she asked Dan Logie director of clinical services at the Canadian Mental Health Association Elgin branch about the outcomes with individuals with mental health issues.
“With respect to homelessness and the presence of the most vulnerable requiring services, the most immediate outcome I can generate in that context would be in connection to the street outreach team,” advised Logie.
“That’s the level in which people are being engaged. And there was a time when the CMHA required a certain mental health diagnosis but that is no longer the case and hasn’t been the case for a number of years.”
“So, anyone is eligible for our services.”
Part of the frustration continued Logie, “is people not wanting our services. So it might just be having them become aware. It’s very slow work.
“People are happy with the way things are for them. And, who are we to judge. They have their reasons or their preferences.
“We need to meet people where they are at. It is not about having an office and having people show up at 10 in the morning. It doesn’t work.”
“The best we can do is let them know who we are and that we are available. I think one of the things in which we are challenged is the size of the team (the street outreach team) is small in comparison to the needs of the people who are asking for services in a timely manner.
“It takes a lot of resources. And there is a very high threshold before we can mandate treatment.
“It’s hard for me to accept,” stressed Logie, “that we can’t help people. And that we can’t figure out something.
“We need to meet people where they are at. It is not about having an office and having people show up at 10 in the morning. It doesn’t work.
“And, a lot of it is tied to funding. We have to work with the ministry to explain to them we need to change course here. A change of approach.
“We have our proposals in, we have gone to great lengths to try and do it the way it needs to be done. We’re waiting.”
“So, the system is failing people. And these protests, these planters that are being thrown, your cars that are being destroyed, the windows that are being destroyed, it’s a protest to say, ‘I’m not being supported. My wellness is not being supported. I need help.'”
Logie hit upon a critical factor some of the players in the room need to take to heart.
“The credibility of peer support is unparalleled and we recognize that. And we need to integrate that into the services we offer and we are doing that slowly.”
As Logie reiterated, “Give them a better option than sleeping in a doorway.”
Another critical factor is the justice system, pointed out Logie.
“We have found at times, for certain individuals, bandaid treatment, perhaps at the Southwest Centre, is a good thing for individuals.
“They feel better, but it is always a slippery slope. There is that gap. People have rights, they can choose to be unwell. And the threshold is very high to mandate treatment.”
Turning it back over to Mizon, she noted the justice system, as we know, and the mental health system are very cyclical.
“People will do their crimes and they will add up until we can finally figure it out that there’s the charge that we can hold them.
“They get treatment, they are doing well, they have a plan of care and then they get released to homelessness and we’re back up here where people are unwell.
“We ask people to call us if there is an issue. But because we are so disliked, we’re not seen as a support system. Ignoring us and devaluing the work we do.”
“So, the system is failing people. And these protests, these planters that are being thrown, your cars that are being destroyed, the windows that are being destroyed, it’s a protest to say, ‘I’m not being supported.
My wellness is not being supported. I need help.’ We end up where someone physically hurts somebody else for that person to get better.
“And then we lose them when they are released. What is the outcome? Where does it get better?”
“They can become beautiful people once they have gotten help. What do we do to support CMHA to say the systems aren’t working, people are being failed.
“They want the help but there is just nothing for them.”
As to the ongoing debate around who is responsible for sharps disposal downtown, we talked with Leticia at length last Saturday.
“There is obviously some miscommunication in regard to who does what in the community.
“I don’t think Peter Heywood (with Southwestern Public Health) understands that we are a downtown needle exchange, where people can come and provide or hand in sharps in general.
“We encourage the disposal of sharps. Does he (Heywood) know people can drop them off behind city hall? Does he know we’re in the downtown core and we accept used syringes? Does he know people can take them to Yurek’s (Pharmacy)?
“They (the health unit) are making this a lot more complicated than it should be. We need to have more local people involved in these discussions who can create better solutions that are more accessible to folks.
“Driving down to the health unit doesn’t make any sense. It is way out of the way. And we have that issue of how many disposal bins are there in the city?
“There are six in total and one is over by the health unit. We don’t have enough disposal bins in the general area, to begin with.”
Seems like any downtown business could just walk down the street to The Nameless office on Talbot Street and hand the sharps in there. Wouldn’t that make a lot more sense?
“We’ve offered local businesses cleanup kits and training and coming to the business. We do our best to keep our block clean. We do outreach two times a week where we actively go out into the community and pick up discarded sharps.
“We ask people to call us if there is an issue. But because we are so disliked, we’re not seen as a support system. Ignoring us and devaluing the work we do.”
So, here’s a thought and we will approach Earl Taylor with the suggestion.
Why not an information session, not unlike the homelessness forum, with the DDB and some of the merchants like Patti Mugford and Renee Carpenter to brainstorm with Leticia about the function of The Nameless and perhaps resolve some of the misconceptions?
Open it up to mayor and council to overcome any bias and get down to the hard work of assisting people who are crying out for help.
Yes, the city is building on its stock of social housing. Yes, there are now the Railway City Lofts and later this month the new Inn Out of the Cold.
But what about the individuals who are reluctant to step up, who have been banned from attending due to past indiscretions?
There has to be a multi-pronged approach to what is more than a homelessness issue.
Perhaps, going back to the top of this item, “Why aren’t we thinking of peer outreach workers instead of security?”
Or, as Dan Logie advised, “The credibility of peer support is unparalleled and we recognize that.”
Do the powers at city hall and the health unit recognize that?
DOWNTOWN WITH STEVE
As witnessed from the above item, there has been no shortage of discussion over the past couple of weeks on the health of the downtown core.
What is it like to live right in the heart of the city?
Who better to speak with than a member of city council who has resided downtown for 30 years and has seen life’s panorama morph from the vantage point of his front, side and back windows.
And now, Steve Peters is deeply concerned about what he sees on the front line of the city he so loves.
We’ll serve up a couple of teasers this week and dive into the conversation further next week.
“Are there different things we should be doing that we’re not doing? These are areas where I don’t have the expertise and, as a city, we may not have the expertise,” acknowledged Peters.
“Is the city prepared to be part of the solution and work with the others?
“I would say wholeheartedly. I would say we have demonstrated that. But we need some of these other organizations to really show some leadership.
“I look at what our police have done in dealing with mental health. We’re a leader.”
“I can sit at my front window daily and sadly watch someone with their life’s possessions in a shopping cart. It saddens me. Where are they going at night and are they in a safe environment?”
The reference is to the St. Thomas Police Service’s Mobile Outreach Support Team (MOST).
“Kudos to Chief (Chris) Herridge and his whole team. There’s, to me, a perfect example of how we’ve been able to do things differently.
“So if we can do it differently with our police service to help de-escalate issues . . . how do we take that another step further to bring it more to the street to help some of these individuals who may not want the help.
“The people who should be able to develop that plan, to me, is the CMHA.”
We’ll close off this teaser with a vivid snapshot that just lingers with you. And not in a comfortable way.
“Twenty-nine years ago, when I moved downtown, I didn’t see individuals with their life’s belongings in a shopping cart.
“Or on a bicycle pulling a little trailer with their life’s belongings.
“It may have been out there, but not to the degree it is now.
“I can sit at my front window daily and sadly watch someone with their life’s possessions in a shopping cart.
“It saddens me. Where are they going at night and are they in a safe environment?
“Sleeping under a bridge in the colder weather cannot be healthy. It is not acceptable in our society.”
Something to dwell on until we pick up the conversation with Steve Peters next week.
ONE TO WATCH
Two special meetings of council are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday of next week to begin the 2022 city budget deliberations.
The proposed municipal tax levy is just shy of $62 million, up from $59.6 million this year.
At this point, council is looking at a 2.35 per cent increase in the property tax levy next year.
Members did a good job at this time last year in whittling down the municipal property tax levy from a proposed 2.48 per cent increase to 1.5 per cent in deference to the economic impact on ratepayers of the coronavirus.
The two meetings are available to watch through the city’s website.
THE ECHO CHAMBER
Vicki Maudsley Woolley forwarded this observation about a service in the city no longer offered. It closed its doors in April of this year.
“There was a peer support-staffed drop-in centre PSNE (Psychiatric Survivors Network Elgin) downtown, that ran daytime drop-in and in cold months overnight hours for those that couldn’t access the Inn Out of the Cold.
But due to ministry funds being redirected elsewhere within the city, our drop-in had to close. We are still trying our best to help our vulnerable at the street level.”
And Tina Caldwell applauds the work of Brad Jones.
“Brad P Jones did an amazing job on cleaning our streets from all the paraphernalia laying around St Thomas … made our streets a lot safer … it’s sad that the city refuses to pay him for his services …it’s a full-time job!”
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And a reminder, I can be heard weekday afternoons as news anchor and reporter on 94.1 myFM in St. Thomas. As always, your comments and input are appreciated.