Frustration and misinformation for students at Sackville polling station

A photo of Sydney Thorburn outside a polling station at Mount Allison.
Sydney Thorburn, the VP External for the Mount Allison Students' Union, outside the Sackville polling station on Election Day, Sept. 14, 2020.
Erica Butler - CHMA - SackvilleNB | 15-09-2020

Confusion reigned at Sackville’s provincial election polling station yesterday afternoon, as student after student left the poll saying they couldn’t vote.

Some students say they were turned away, others say they were told if they signed a declaration saying they had been “ordinarily resident” in New Brunswick for the past 40 days, they would be committing voting fraud.

Despite phone calls from the province’s Chief Electoral Officer Kim Poffenroth at about 1:30pm to clarify eligibility rules, the uncertainty continued into the evening.

CHMA spoke to Mount Allison Students’ Union VP External Sydney Thorburn outside the polling station late yesterday afternoon.

“We’ve gotten a lot of complaints from students, or just notices from students, that they’ve been turned away from voting today,” said Thorburn.

She says students in a variety of situations have been affected.

“Whether it was returning students, or students from New Brunswick that are living in residence, or returning students to campus that are living in residence again, or students who have had leases here for a couple years and are still getting turned away,” she says.

“So it’s been a bit of a hectic, hectic day trying to get confirmation on what the rules are that we thought were correct in the beginning. And just trying to solve the little path of miscommunication that it seems has been going around today.”

Thorburn says that a Liberal scrutineer contributed to the misinformation at the polls, telling her to stop telling student to come to the polls, in particular students from residence.

“They were under the impression that the letter given out by the university to returning students in residence, that confirm their address in Sackville, was not sufficient,” said Thorburn. “We have since confirmed it is.”

The Liberal scrutineer, who one student identified as Dylan Wooley-Berry, the co-campaign manager for Maxime Bourgeois, was not the only person under the impression that students should not be voting.

Elections NB workers continued to advise students not to sign the required oath throughout the afternoon, even after being advised that it was deemed legal.

Thorburn headed up the students’ union Get Out The Vote campaign this year, and say she did the research in advance.

Students, even though they may spend summers working elsewhere, are considered “ordinarily resident” in their school riding, where they spend most of the year.

Paul Harpelle, spokesperson for Elections NB, confirmed that returning students are considered residents in Sackville.

“The ruling of the Chief Electoral Officer has always been that if they are a returning student, then they have not broken their 40-day residency,” says Harpelle. “Where it becomes a bit more complicated is if you have a first year student, and they do not come here before 40 days prior to Election Day, then they do not meet the qualifications.”

Memramcook-Tantramar returning officer William Hicks seemed to understand the ruling on student residency, but had trouble convincing some of his staff people.

Hicks admitted that earlier in the day, students with letters from the university confirming their continued, multi-year presence in residence were not being accepted at the Sackville polling station. Then, he says, after checking with legal advisors, they began to accept students’ residency letters.

But shortly after I spoke with Hicks, a second year student came out of the polling station to say she had not voted because she was told that if she signed the oath she would be committing fraud.

Grace Stapleton lived in residence last year, and this year is off campus in an apartment she started paying rent for on August 1st, more than 40 days before the election. But election workers focussed on the fact that she had moved away for the summer, and returned only two weeks ago, and so told her that her August 1st lease didn’t count.

“A lot of people are saying that if you lived here last year, and had 40 days in the year 2020, that counts. Which I did,” said Stapleton. “I am a second year student. I lived in residence last year. But they just said that wasn’t allowed.”

“So I just left. But I had waited in line for 20 minutes, and this is my second time here today. I was already turned away at around two o’clock. I thought if I came back at five, three hours later, it will be sorted. But it’s still not sorted.”

Stapleton walked away from the polling station at about 6pm, still not having voted.

Molly Stott did manage to vote.

Stott is a fifth year student and arrived at the polls after class knowing she could legally vote, because she had done so in previous years.

But she arrived at the height of the midday confusion, and was told at the door that workers were trying to establish the meaning of 40 days of residency.

She decided to go home and return later in the evening. She was able to vote on her second try.

Stott pointed out that since the student vote is considered especially important to Megan Mitton’s campaign, the potential suppression of it is all the more alarming.

“From the understanding that I got talking to MASU,” said Stott, “Fredericton and Saint John didn’t have this issue. It was just Sackville.”

“So, for me, the students not being able to vote, like the fact that we couldn’t vote on campus after Mitton got in with a lot of support from students, was a little bit alarming.”

“But now that we can vote,” said Stott, “I’m pretty happy that it’s kind of resolved itself but it did take some pushing.”

Another student, Rohin Minocha-McKenney, says he tried four times to vote, and finally succeeded on his last try.

Returning student Rohin Minocha-McKenney with his letter from Mount Allison confirming his residence in Sackville.

“By the time I got into actually vote, it was still not a good experience inside the polls. They were still questioning the letter,” says Minocho-McKenney. “I still had to advocate for myself saying, yes, this works. This is my form, this shows that I’m a resident of New Brunswick, and that I can vote.”

Students’ Union VP Sydney Thorburn says that’s her big concern: that students’ negative experiences may affect more than just this election.

“Besides the frustration of the trail of misinformation that was passed between so many people,” said Thorburn, “my biggest concern is just how it’s going to discourage students from voting in the future.”

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