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.


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