A View From The Inside The 2019 Canadian Federal Election: Everyone Can Vote

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Election 2019 Trudeau Scheer May faces mapFor the October 21st 2019 Federal Election I applied for and was offered the position of Central Poll Supervisor in a small city near Calgary, Alberta.  I was surprised by several things you may find interesting.

In particular I was surprised at Elections Canada’s drive to ensure every Canadian votes.  You might think that an odd finding but Elections Canada is a Government department and many of those are not known for their singular concern about the public.

My seven years in Ottawa and lifetime dealing with mid-level bureaucrats and politicians has taught me that most government departments are staffed by people who just want to keep their job.  Many consider themselves to be ‘public controllers’ not ‘public servants’.  It was quite refreshing to see a focus on accuracy, accountability and accessibility.

DID YOU KNOW:

  • you can vote WEEKS in advance at ANY Elections Canada office, including the 500-ish temporary locations that were open from 9am to 9pm seven days a week
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  • you no longer need an excuse (i.e. traveling, medical issues…) to vote early
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  • Elections Canada provided hundreds of ‘mobile polls’ for those in hospitals and nursing homes that were unlikely to be able to vote.  Elections officials go room to room and building to building to ensure everyone can vote with relative ease
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  • Elections Canada opened many more temporary offices this election compared to previous elections, to increase access
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  • you can vote with absolutely no identification as long as you are willing to sign a form stating you are a Canadian citizen, over the age of 18 and have not already voted, as long as someone else with identification will “vouch” for you (and yes, they are required to fill out a form that gets reviewed after the election).
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  • Elections Canada hired a staggering 300,000 election workers to keep line ups short and moving fast
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  • you can be hired as an elections official at the age of 16.  That’s correct; 16 and 17 year olds can get involved directly in the election as Information Officers (the people that give you direction when you first arrive at a poll) and as Poll Clerks (the ones that manage the voter lists when you actually vote)

ELECTION NIGHT RESULTS ARE NOT OFFICIAL:

Election night tallies are completed right at each ‘polling place’ (building) by the Deputy Returning Officer and Poll Clerk (the two people sitting behind the ballot box).  Each ballot box, is unsealed, emptied and counted by the DRO and PC as soon as the poll is closed.  The results of each ballot box are simply phoned into the Elections Canada central office the minute they are determined.  Elections Canada quickly updates their publicly visible database which the media relies on.  However, these results are not official as they require an audit that takes place in the days and weeks after election night.

This differs from places like the United Kingdom in which after the polls close, the still sealed ballot boxes are taken to a central location and counted by “Returning Officers”.  It is quite normal for UK election results to be announced between 1am and 3am.

WHY CAN’T YOU VOTE AT ANOTHER LINE:

elections canada poll line ups inside poling placeWhen you enter a polling place (building) there are many polls; some with long lines and others with no lines at all.  So you may have wondered why you can’t just walk to a different line and vote.

The reason is each ballot box is staffed with a Poll Clerk (PC) and a Deputy Returning Officer (DRO) which are assigned 350 to 700 voters and ballots.  The PC has a book of registered voters that they must manage.  When you arrive at the poll, the PC will draw a line through your name on that list and after you put your ballot in the box, the PC will add an additional mark showing you have voted.  At the end of the day, the PC counts the number of people scratched off their list compare that it to the number of ballots used by the DRO.  Those numbers must be the same.

If you were to go to a different poll (ballot box) in the same polling place (building), the Poll Clerk would not be able to find your name in their voter list.  If the DRO issued you a ballot anyway, that team would not be able “balance” at the end of the night.

This balancing of ballots substantially reduces the possibility of election fraud.

TRAINING:

Most officials in our ‘polling place’ and most of the people in my training course, were first timers.  The training I and others received was sufficient for a one day job but for those that take it seriously, which unfortunately is not everyone, it is highly stressful.

The amount of information, number of forms and odd processes to be learned is substantial and no one wants to perform badly in front of their friends and neighbors on election day.  As always however, there was a cohort that just saw this as a one day job they could blow off.  Some people slept or spent the time on their cell’s rather than paying attention to the training.

Canada wide, many thousands subsequently refused the work after being paid for training.  In my riding I was told we went through more than 400 backup staff.  For the 7 polls that I was responsible for, one person ‘quit’ on the Friday before the Election Monday and another called me at 4am on Election Monday explaining that a family medical emergency would prevent her from attending.

On the bright side, there were some absolutely stellar performers in the bunch.  One of my last minute replacement workers was paired with a nice but nearly useless worker; theirs was by far the busiest poll and after a few hours my replacement worker just took over as her counterpart wilted under the pressure.  She was amazing.  To keep everyone calm, I simply kept encouraging both workers and explained to voters in their line how we were tweaking the system to reduce their wait times.

elections canada training videosAs a Central Poll Supervisor (CPS), I received CPS training along with required training for all other positions:

The training was a combination of paper manuals, PowerPoint presentations, online videos and interactive discussion with a trainer.  It was by no means exhaustive but did cover more than 99.8% of the situations elections officials would face on election day.  We processed several thousand ballots so that meant we had about five situations requiring further clarification and there was an excellent ‘call into the Elections Canada office’ support system that worked.

HOW FAR WILL ELECTIONS CANADA GO TO ENSURE YOU VOTE:

mobile voting at hospitalIn a word, ‘far’.

Beyond allowing voting in many hundreds of temporary polling places and at extended advance polls, you could be served a ballot in your car if you are unable to access the building.  In my case we had a very sick elderly person who was living in a private residence with family.  While the polling place building had excellent accessibility it was just too much for this person to leave the car so we sent out their Poll Clerk and Deputy Returning Officer to get their vote.

It is important to note that while this was highly unusual, it was one of the scenarios we were trained for and is official Elections Canada policy, not some crazy exception.

A friend of mine received her Canadian citizenship on Friday (former Iranian) and Elections Canada called her at home on Saturday to tell her she should vote on Monday even though she had no formal government ID proving her Canadian citizenship.  She simply needed to go to the poll with two pieces of identification and sign a form saying she was Canadian.

The strangest situation I faced was a couple who’s daughter was being stalked so they had obfuscated their address.  Their voter cards and drivers licenses pointed to post office box in another city and they were not on our voter list.  They did not want to complete a voter information correction form because they wanted all official documentation to show they lived somewhere else in an effort to keep their girl safe.  After a quick call to Elections Canada office, the decision was made to have them complete a form stating that they were over 18, were Canadian citizens and had not voted elsewhere… and then we gave them their ballots.

OVERALL:

While nearly everyone I worked with was new, including our trainer, we learned all we needed to know.  The many simplistic two minute online training videos were extremely helpful and by the time I arrived at 6:20am to get the polls ready to open at 7:30am, I was confident we could get through the day efficiently.

The logic behind Elections Canada’s rules and procedures was not explained but it became apparent that they were prepared to tolerate a very small amount of voter fraud if it meant that valid voters were not blocked.  During training many of us questioned this but when it came to election day, I am happy to report that not a single person was turned away and as a Central Poll Supervisor, I did not see a single person I thought was abusing the system (although a few did require additional investigation).

I was very impressed with Elections Canada’s inclusiveness and strong desire to remove voting friction.  Everyone that wanted to vote, could easily vote.

It was a very long and challenging 16.5 hour day that did not pay very well, but I considered it an honor to serve my country in this very small but important way.

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