Chilliwack – On Election Day, the Chilliwack Citizens 4 Change sponsored a free, non-partisan bus system to bring communities to their polling stations.
Many of you readers will be aware that I came up with a sudden plan to encourage and help citizens at The Portal shelter downtown to get out to vote. I hatched this plan with less than a week before last night’s federal election.
The impetus was twofold. Firstly, somebody posted a CBC article in Chilliwack Citizens For Change explaining that people who are currently homeless can, in fact, vote (a previous Conservative government had closed that option, but it was reopened by the Liberals after the last election). Most of us had erroneously thought that you must have a permanent residence to vote; also, as many who suffer homelessness lose their ID over time, it is generally believed they can not possibly vote. It turned out none of that wasn’t true.
Secondly, since I had been working so much on supporting the proposed Portal shelter extension (along with quite a few others within CCFC and the broader community), I had made some connections there. As rhetoric against the shelter, and against issues of homelessness heated up in our community, culminating in the epic saga of a City Council meeting last Tuesday, some of the language used became dehumanizing. I wanted to counter that message (even after the 18-month extension vote), with a re-affirmation that these folks are also equal citizens within our town and our country. I wanted to be able to offer them a way to reconnect with society, to quietly assert or reclaim their place in the decisions that affect their lives far more than most people will ever experience. I wanted to encourage them to exercise their right to vote.
So, I reached out to Cory Buettner and Roseva Klop at The Portal: they thought it was a great idea. I then created a working-group chat in Messenger of CCFC members from committees on homelessness/poverty strategies and electoral issues. From there, we reached out to others who we knew that might be interested in helping out, which eventually led to volunteer call-outs to the greater CCFC Facebook group. Naturally, from the very beginning, we made it clear that, as a CCFC initiative, this would be completely non-partisan.
All along the way, so many people stepped up in so many ways. Margaret Reid helped keep me organized with myriad suggestions, follow-ups, and posting/monitoring calls for volunteers. Several people, including Eryne Croquet, Suzy Coulter, and Julie Penner provided and/or collated weblinks, documents, and video clip links that we could share with Portal staff to potentially share with the residents who wanted information. Julie Penner also reached out to the local Elections Canada office to try and prepare them to expect our group to arrive, so they could confirm we had the correct polling station, and that we understood the methods of registering people from a shelter (though, we never did get the call back from—overworked—EC reps that we were told to expect).
It was vital that we connect with our CCFC Vote Bus 2019 initiative, which was run by Ian Carmichael. He had pitched the idea ahead of the election; you likely saw FB posts, plus a Chilliwack Progress article about it. Organized under the CCFC umbrella, the bus was explicitly a non-partisan endeavour. A brainstorming group involving Ian, Shelby Kennedy, Peter Lang, and myself had roughed out the idea. Shelby Kennedy drafted our posters and relevant information for sharing out and requesting volunteers via the help of Margaret Reid. Ian solidified all of the logistics, created schedules, organized the helpers, and rode along as overseer. Once we had a plan to register voters at The Portal, we then made sure that the Vote Bus would be available as a support to pick them up, at 3:00 PM Monday afternoon, to bring them to the polling station to cast their ballots.
Upon reviewing the original article that inspired me, and after reading multiple Elections Canada (admittedly confusing) documents, it seemed that people without a fixed address, but who lived at a shelter could indeed vote. We simply needed to have The Portal staff, and our CCFC volunteers, fill in “confirmation of residence” forms outlining that the shelter filled that role for them. The information seemed to be saying that we then had to assess whether or not they had relevant ID from the broad list that counts, or if they no longer had ID at all: those with ID to go with the special form would be ready; those without ID could still vote, but required another person to act as a “voucher.” A voucher is another voter who lives within the same polling neighbourhood and who will confirm that this person is in fact a resident of the shelter; but, the rules were that one voucher person could only vouch for one resident who was at the shelter; so, multiple vouchers might be needed.
So, Shelley Goerzen, Lisa Morry, and I set out to The Portal for two hours Saturday morning to canvas the residents, with introductions from Roseva Klop, to see how many people might like the opportunity to vote. It was a fantastic experience. We were welcomed into their home and connected with many people, and in several cases they shared some of their stories with us. Certainly, some there felt disenfranchised and were politely not at all interested in voting. Others were definitely interested and seemed happy that we had come to offer our support in getting out their vote; one man expressed to me how intimidating it can be to enter such an official place as a voting station after having spent time on the streets.
Initially, we had 14 people who thought they might like to take the opportunity to go to vote on the Vote Bus we had arranged. We helped fill in the forms, assessed their ID or lack of it, and realized we had 7 or 8 that would require a “voucher” in order to vote. That’s when we made a couple of volunteer call-out posts within the broader CCFC page looking for vouchers from the same neighbourhood. Again, people came through for us!
When Election Day arrived, along for the Vote Bus ride were a group of “vouchers,” some “vote buddies,” organizer Ian Carmichael, and Portal staffer Roseva Klop. Those who offered to volunteer on the bus included
Renya Switzer, Shelley Goerzen, Kristy van den Bosch, Suzy Coulter, Serena Rosalie, Patsy Byers, Brittany Gidon, Daris LaPointe, Lois Chadburn…and, hopefully, I got everybody (?). As the time approached, eight of the potential voters were confirmed as still willing or available to head out to vote. There were a few minor hiccups with Elections staff at the poll site not being sure of the process for this less common voting scenario, and minor confusion around whether or not vouching was necessary if the confirmation of residence form was filled in; but, in the end, things worked out well.
In closing, my thinking is that we threw this initiative together in under a week, so imagine what we might have accomplished with more time! Now we have a model for the future. Anything we achieved was a success. Having us show up to show support for the residents and offering them an equal voice in the election was an important gesture. Thank you to every single person who helped out with this in any small or large way at all (and I sure hope I did not leave anybody out of my various honourable mentions—many apologies for that inevitable botch job).
I’m quite proud of our fledgling efforts. Next time, we plan well in advance. We include all shelters. We get clarification on the rules, the exact polling stations info, and secure connections to the poll supervisors for smoother transitions. We have vouchers and buddies lined up in advance. We present shelter residents the non-partisan info about the party platforms and local candidates earlier in the weeks leading up to voting. We see if we can arrange for candidates to visit the shelters for meet and greet Q&As. We definitely use the Vote Bus model again. We de-marginalize and empower more people. We got the vote out!