Sunday, May 31, 2009

Vote Clerking at Mt. Pleasant Neighbourhood House

Voting personnel in the May 12 Provincial election had to work about a 14 hour or more day. There were about 8 voting boxes at the Mt. Pleaseant Neighbourhood House, and each one had a table with officials at it. There was also a table for people to register if they were not on the rolls at all, and another table for people to vote absentee if they were not at their own polling place.

There was a voter book for each voting box, and if people had voted in advance polling that was already marked into the book, so they couldn't vote a second time.

I was just a voting clerk, at the table for Box 100. People came into the room and were met by one of two very young and smiling women who stood on their feet the whole time the polls were open, greeting people and directing them to the right table. Box 100 had the most traffic of any of the boxes, or so it seemed. My job was to look at people's i.d.'s, find their names on the voting list, have them sign beside their names, affirming that they had the right to vote and were only voting once; and then I gave their voter number to the person sitting next to me. She was the boss of our table. She had to write the voter number on each of two stubs for each of the two ballots (the election ballot and the referendum ballot). One stub stayed in the book and the other stub was torn off along with the ballot.

People took their ballots and went behind a screen at the end of the table and marked them. If they asked us questions about what was on the ballots, we weren't allowed to tell them anything, except that they should mark one X or check on each ballot, and if they didn't want to mark the ballot they didn't have to. If they had questions, all we could do was refer them to information posted on the wall, which included the text of the referendum in a number of languages.

Judging by the names and conversations, there were people from a very large variety of ethnic groups voting in our location.

When the people brought their ballots back to the voting captain at our table, she tore off the numbered stub from each ballot and gave them back to the voter to put their now-anonymous ballots into the ballot box. Some people were in a hurry and left us to put the ballots in, but most did it themselves. Most people were friendly and fairly patient. The lines never got terribly long - people arrived in waves, starting with early-birds before work and the people who had just dropped their kids off at daycare, and peaking again at lunchtime, picking up again around 3 when shiftworkers got off, and then another big rush right near 8 pm when the polls closed. Of course most of the people who arrived at the very last minute had problems to solve, like needing name changes or address changes. This was very hard on the people at the table that handled that, and they started making mistakes that will probably come back to haunt at the next provincial election, in the form of incorrect voting cards getting mailed out. But five years from now a lot of more people will have changed their names and moved.

There were a lot of steps to the ritual, especially in the case of new or changed registrations, that could throw the voting clerks off. I myself made two mistakes, that I caught later. One was not realizing that a voter had failed to sign the book. The other one was not noticing the last newly-registered voter's sign-in on the next page, and so giving an incorrect total for the ballot count. Eventually, when the number of ballots didn't match up the count, we kept going over it until I found my mistake. This made our table the last to finish. Luckily we had assistance from a young man who had really studied the system carefully and had experience of a previous election. We were all very patient and good-natured. If you follow all the steps during the counting process, the procedure is designed to be sure you catch all the mistakes.

Less than half the number of voters registered for Box 100 actually voted. There were about 173 on the voter list, and about 11 new registrants on voting day, but only 82 actually voted.

When we did the count, we first had to separate the election ballots from the referendum ballots. We had a set of grids to mark down the votes for each candidate, then we separated each candidate's votes into a separate pile. Each time it looked as if a candidate had 25 votes, we rubber-banded that pile of ballots, and re-counted that group to be sure we had marked them correctly. Jenny Kwan had far and away the majority of the ballots. The Liberal candidate had about half as many, the Green candidate had only 16, and in our box the Communist candidate got none. No other parties were running candidates in Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant. Of those who actually marked their ballots for the referendum, BC-STV passed in our box by 62%.

Each party is allowed to have a scrutineer at each ballot box. We ended up with only one, I'm not even sure what party she was from. There are processes for scrutineers who are there at the start of the day to see that the ballot box starts out empty before it is sealed, and is fully emptied at the end of the election. Ours didn't arrive til our count had started, and she watched us do the count. We didn't have any ballots that were strangely marked in our box, but if we had, there wss a list for us to use to decide if it was possible to ascertain the intent of the voter or not.

The count done at the actual box is reported to the head of the polling place and that's the first information that goes to the press. Then we had to take our box to the polling headquarters downtown, where the ballots would be re-counted. The absentee votes cast at each polling place are not counted on the spot, but they are counted about a week later. In some districts, this can mean a change of the final result.

Having seen how the votes were counted, and how difficult it is and what failsafes are in place, I have to admit that a changeover to a system like BC-STV would have meant a lot of work figuring out, learning and teaching a new ballot-counting method. Instead of getting finished at 10 pm, counts might well have gone into the wee hours. My experience showed me how easy it is to make mistakes even in a simple system. Back when I was promoting STV, I remember one older women from the neighbourhood telling me she was against it "because I think they would screw it up." Maybe that's a realistic assessment.

What I would still support in the way of election reform for BC would be instant runoff voting. This is where people's first choices are counted and if there is no winner that has a majority then there is a runoff among the top two candidates. Anyone who didn't vote for one of the top two, their ballot then goes towards their second choice. This would eliminate the problem of vote-splitting by third and fourth parties resulting in a government formed by a party that never received a majority of the votes. I think that would be not too difficult a modification of our current system, and maybe only add an hour or so to the counting job.

For my actually 15 hours of work on voting day, plus my two hours of training time, I received about $270 in pay. That's about $15.88 an hour, which is almost twice the minimum wage.

I did enjoy the experience of being part of the process and getting to see my neighbours performing their civic duty. I don't know how much the Neighbourhood House made off the deal. They were very nice to us, including I got a free carton of chocolate soymilk that was there for giveaway.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

You can vote anywhere in provincial election May 12

Unlike the Federal election, for the May 12 provincial election you can vote at any polling place in the province on election day. So, if there's a polling place across from your house or your workplace, for example, that is not your assigned location, you can vote there. Be sure to bring an official i.d. that shows your address, like a driver's license - or, one picture i.d. and one thing like a utility bill, for example, that shows your residential address. Persons lacking such things can bring a letter of attestation from a facilities manager, such as a shelter manager. Work on getting those letters has been underway on the Downtown East Side already.

The provincial electoral commission is nonpartisan, and they seem to be really working to help as many people to vote as possible. Poll workers have been instructed to err in favour of the voter - unlike the Federal election, where people were sent home. If you forgot your proper i.d., a neighbour can vouch for you - but a voter can only vouch for one other person.

There will be two ballots this time. One to vote for your choice for a Member of the Legislative Assembly, and one to vote on the Referendum.

The Referendum is asking if you agree to changing our voting system, or if you want to keep First Past the Post. As mentioned, I support the change to Single Transferable Vote. That will allow you to, for example, vote for the Green candidate first and the NDP second, so that if your first choice candidate doesn't win you haven't inadvertently helped the Liberals get a majority. Because adjacent ridings will be merged, you'll have more choices of candidates, so you can help elect more MLAs, but in the end the number of MLAs will be exactly the same. [The opposition is implying that there will be fewer MLAs under BC-STV. Not so!]

The STV is heavily supported by young people, and I don't think we should disappoint them. A review after three elections has been recommended by the Citizens Assembly; and the legislature is still allowed to change the system at any time.

Kingsgate Mall Sold?

This is just gossip at present, from one of the aunties whose nephew works in construction. She says he said that Kingsgate Mall has finally been sold, that the buyer is Jimmy Pattison, and that he is going to change the Buy-Low there to a Save-on-Foods.

My research online shows that that Pattison group includes both Buy-Low and Save-On-Foods, as well as several other named chains. Their site says that they put different stores in different locations, depending on which best suits the conditions in the neighbourhood. So, why would Buy-Low be switched over to Save-On? Maybe the demographic of the neighbourhood going up has something to do with it. Buy-Low has already added a deli section, which is not at all cheap, and a few other hi-end items. Their prices are also higher than the smaller local stores for fruits and vegetables. [They also compete with the downstairs Shoppers Drug for loss-leader grocery items (be sure to check ice cream prices in both stores before deciding where to buy).] I'm wondering if Save-On-Foods is designed for a richer demographic than Buy-Low.

At least it's not an IGA!

Saturday Tai Chi at Mt. Pleasant School

Dr. Lyla Yip's Tai Chi class is meeting outdoors at the Mt. Pleasant School on Saturdays now at 1 pm. We're still working on Chi Gong exercises, plus the Yang style 24 steps, plus have recently started following along and getting idea of a Chen style 24 steps that has larger, looser movements. We are mostly older women, and we have a very pleasant and relaxed time while improving our balance, limberness, strength and grace. Come join! We are each giving Lyla $10 a month.

Bus service "improvement" for whom?

Translink kindly puts out a tiny newsletter for bus riders. The headline for the April 10 edition, the last I picked up, says "Better bus service starts April 20." The article begins with "Bus service is getting better ... All over Metro Vancouver we'll be making improvements to bus routes and service for the summer. Read on to find out what bus services will be improved in your area."

So, reading on I find that service on the 9, the 84, and the 99-B, which serve our area, are among 14 routes on which "services will be adjusted to reflect lower summer ridership." In other words, bus service will be reduced!

No details on how long we'll have to wait for the bus now.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Why I'm Voting for BC-STV May 12 - NUANCES

Of all the reasons given for supporting the proposed new electoral system for British Columbia, I haven't heard much at all about my favourite. It is voter self-expression.

Under First Past the Post (our current system), you get to vote for one choice for an MLA, and if you want to be a strategic voter, then you are always honour bound to vote for the candidate you think can beat the candidate you fear or mistrust the most. So, say you don't want the Liberals to get in again, you think well I have to vote for the NDP because if I vote for a weaker party, I'll be throwing away my vote.

If you're not a strategic voter, under first past the post, you can express that you really resonate to the message of the Work Less Party, for example, and devil-take the results. But if you're one of only maybe 300 people who vote for that party, you'll feel really marginalized - you'll have no way to know how many voters love the idea of reducing the work week and spreading the jobs around more. And neither will any of the political parties.

Strategic or unstrategic, in either case, you're going to have some cognitive dissonance; and to resolve that, you basically have one choice - to become more cynical. Because you have to choose between voting your feelings and being "practical." And being practical means you have to choose a party you are not very enthusiastic about just at the moment, to keep a party you dislike from getting in.

If you get cynical enough, then you have one more choice. You can stay home from the polls altogether, and a lot of people do that. And then everyone says "look, the public doesn't even care who gets chosen - they're not interested in politics."

But say we actually pass the BC-STV. Opponents say that in countries where it's used, the major parties still win just about all the seats all the time, so it doesn't make any difference. But what they're not looking at is the information that the voters can pass on to the people who do get elected, and to each other, through the voting process.

If you were to choose a Workless Party candidate first, and a Marijuana Party candidate second, and an NDP candidate third and the Green Party candidate 4th, for example, you'd be contributing to a statistical record with nuances. It could could show if there's a public inclination towards cutting the work week and legalising pot; yet, because neither of those candidates would get elected (not soon, anyway), your vote would still roll over to support organised labour against the free-traders. You could even vote for most or all the NDP candidates running in your riding and if the NDP got more than enough votes to elect their candidates then part of your vote would still be left over to help elect the first Green to the provincial legislature. Strategic voting would be really strategic then, in more ways than one.