05/09/2013 06:09 EDT | Updated 07/09/2013 05:12 EDT

BC Election DTES Voter ID: Pill Bottles, Puffers Accepted

VANCOUVER - Voting isn't often the first priority in a community were many residents are preoccupied with poverty, homelessness and drug addiction, but one Vancouver organization is teaming with Elections BC to ensure residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside have every chance to cast their ballot in the May 14 election.

Pill bottles, asthma inhalers and other prescriptions that contain voters' names have been be permitted as secondary pieces of identification, a move Union Gospel Mission says will "level the democratic playing field" for those who find the bureaucratic process of voting difficult.

"They're just outside the margins and they're going to slip farther into poverty, addiction or mental illness if they're not considered part of something," says Union Gospel's manager of community engagement, Derek Weiss.

His group has teamed with Elections BC to get prescription labels added to the list of allowable forms of secondary identification, something he says has already been used since Wednesday as the city's marginalized cast ballots in advanced polling.

While most voters can use secondary pieces of identification such as their utility bills, bank statements or hospital bracelets to back up their identity or prove their address, those in the Downtown Eastside often don't possess such documents.

Residents routinely say they feel left out of the election process, Weiss says, which is why Union Gospel Mission pushed for non-traditional forms of identification to make voting inclusive of all income levels.

"They didn't feel like they were part of the system," Weiss says, standing outside the advance polling station at Union Gospel Mission on East Hastings Street.

"The ongoing challenge is to help people realize that ... their voice matters just like every other British Columbian," he says. "Some of them had never voted before. Ever."

To combat this, the organization piloted a number of initiatives to make voting as easy as possible for the homeless or marginalized, including temporary registration stations that took care of residents' paperwork.

Trust can be a major issue with residents, Weiss explains, so it helps that Downtown Eastsiders could register to vote at Union Gospel, an organization that's been a fixture in the area.

Likewise, Elections BC has allowed voter registration cards to be mailed to Union Gospel Mission so those without fixed addresses can claim their cards on the way to the ballot boxes.

Weiss won't say how many residents used pill bottles or inhalers to register for voting because those numbers are kept by Elections BC.

But he says the lineup of those who wanted to use prescriptions as secondary ID stretched out the door and part way down the block — more than fifty, but not thousands.

"People were excited about it," Weiss says, adding it's not preferential treatment because people can't just walk into a polling station with their medication or puffer, without photo ID.

"We're not bending any rules and the Downtown Eastside is not getting any special consideration. Any rules that have been changed have been changed for all of the province," Weiss says.

Elections workers in the neighbourhood are used to unconventional means of voting, says Elections BC supervisor Janice Bannister.

A man ran home and returned medication in hand when he heard it was allowable as back-up ID, she adds.

"It seems to be already working today," says Bannister.

Elections BC spokesman Don Main says it is always looking for innovative ways to make voting easier and more accessible to those who might be deterred — including this new prescription initiative.

And the items listed on Elections BC's website aren't set in stone either for what can be used to vote.

"So if somebody came in with other forms that met that criteria of showing the voter's name and ... residential address, that was acceptable, then we would consider that," he says.

"We are removing administrative barriers," he says, adding the province has the most accessible voting process in Canada — including a Vote BC iPhone app that shows the closest locations of polling stations from voters' current locations via GPS and Google maps.

Jose Gomez, who's been living in the Downtown Eastside for two months, voted in the advanced poll on Wednesday.

He says he'll be using his passport and social insurance number to vote, but apart from that, he's got no other ID.

"I just want to see more support for people who are struggling on the street," Gomez says.

"We need to have ways to bring them back into society."

Gomez says though he's not struggling at the moment, he's been in tough situations in the past and knows what the marginalized go through on a daily basis.

"I was very close to struggling at that level," the man says. "I've been in recovery for 12 years and I've been struggling with addiction."

Those in the Downtown Eastside are often overlooked, Gomez says, adding it's vital they're afforded a say in government.

"I think if I put my two cents into what I think the government should do, it will help. And also it keeps me accountable," he says.

"I'm a citizen of this country and when I have something to say, I have a right to say (what I think) about good issues or bad issues."

Weiss says many Downtown Eastside residents have taken the time to educate themselves about the election issues.

"We aired the debates in our drop-in centre," Weiss says. "We allowed people to see the candidates and hear the issues."

He says Union Gospel Mission has sent questions to candidates and posted their responses for residents to view as part of a larger organization called the Vancouver Urban Core Community Workers' Association.