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Precedent-setting change in voter registration bring democracy, dignity, and a voice to the Downtown Eastside community

When Union Gospel Mission (UGM) first contacted Elections BC to find out how they could  support voting within the Downtown Eastside (DTES) community, employees weren’t expecting the outcome to be a precedent-setting change in voter regulations—but that’s exactly what happened. Voters can now use pill bottles and inhalers as secondary ID on voting day. And while this change many not impact every BC voter, for the DTES community, many of whom struggle with lost or stolen ID, the effects can be profound. 
Thanks to the coordinated effort, local resident Gary Smith is voting for the first time in 15 years. He is one of many now finding their voice. Gary ended up at UGM during April’s voter registration drive. These drives resolve a critical obstacle for those who are homeless or under-housed. First, those without a fixed address can have their voter card mailed to UGM for pickup. Second, the voter card acts as primary ID, thus only one further piece of ID is required on Election Day. 
When Gary first arrived at UGM, voting was the furthest thing from his mind. “I was in survival mode,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about voting.” But as outreach workers resolved his basic needs, Gary relaxed out of an emergency state and became aware of his surroundings. “I watched everyone in the drop-in centre for a day, thinking, ‘I don’t have my ID. I can’t vote.’” The next day he had a thought. “I realized I didn’t have a pill bottle or a BC ID, but I did have my birth certificate.” Gary registered himself, and is now set up to vote on May 14. 
Until recently, a lack of proper ID has prevented many DTES voices from being heard. Without ID, tasks like finding safe housing, opening a bank account, cashing cheques, or even the most basic right to vote, become nearly impossible. While historically, voters have been permitted to use non-traditional forms of ID like a utility bill or a college transcript, these options often don’t benefit members of the DTES.
“People were showing up to vote on Election Day and getting turned away because they didn’t have the proper two pieces of ID required,” explains Jeff Baergen, UGM Community Engagement Coordinator. “We all thought, ‘well, this isn’t right. Voting is supposed to be a fundamental right for all Canadians, despite their circumstances.’” 
Baergen sat down with Peter Walton, Vancouver Mount Pleasant’s District Electoral Officer for Elections BC, and they discussed possible solutions. The result was a progressive proposal to the Elections BC’s Chief Electoral Officer to consider recognizing prescription pill bottles as valid ID. It was accepted. 
UGM went right to work with Elections BC, aggressively promoting to the DTES community how, when and where to register and to vote, yielding positive returns with many locals getting themselves registered.
Some citizens, however, without the full picture of how the ID works, wrongly assumed that this change would lead to voter fraud. 
“Pill bottles and inhalers are secondary ID,” explains Baergen. “There has been some confusion with people thinking that that’s all voters need to vote.  They still need two pieces, which means government approved picture ID or the BC voter card. Essentially, all that has happened now is that a pill bottle is recognized as being just as permissible to use as a college transcript or a utility bill—both of which have existed as acceptable ID for decades. What’s important is that the governing bodies have vetted the policy, and do not have concerns. We are pleased that Elections BC considers all citizens when considering making voting reasonably available.” 
Elections BC has further enabled opportunities in the DTES community by creating employment. Approximately 1,400 hours of employment revenue will benefit the community as they get hired for short contracts of work with Elections BC. 
Gary, who benefitted from the push to register, describes his newfound understanding of the vital role services in the DTES play in supporting the lives of many. “The world is full of haves and have-nots. I was once a ‘have’, but my addiction brought me to a place of lack. But it also taught me a great deal. Now that I’m here, I realize I need these services just like a lot of people do. I get that I have a voice, and I can speak up for what I believe should be fought for.” Gary plans on doing his research and making an informed decision when he votes at the upcoming provincial election on May 14.
Union Gospel Mission has been feeding hope and changing the lives of men, women, and children for over 70 years. Through its 8 locations in Metro Vancouver and the city of Mission, UGM provides counseling, education, safe housing, and alcohol and drug recovery to those struggling with poverty, homelessness, and addiction. The heart of the mission is to demonstrate God’s transforming love, ease the burden of the most vulnerable, rebuild the lives of the broken, and offer dignity to those who feel cast aside. To find out more, visit
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