I don’t want to presume a verdict here, so please reserve judgement with me as I trawl through the facts and innuendo that I’ve heard so far today. I strongly suspect we’ll be hearing more in the near future. This story has the potential to be big.
The University of Guelph and Elections Canada organized a get-out-the-vote event, including a special poll where students could vote. This was a special event for the benefit of students who wouldn’t be on University property during the May 2nd election or the advance polls starting on April 22nd. This was well publicized, and involved the president of the University of Guelph, Alastair Summerlee, donning Avatar make-up to promote the event. By all accounts, the drive was a success, as students (who traditionally have a very low turnout at elections) lined up for hours for a chance to cast their ballot.
So far, so good, but things got interesting when two young men, including Michael Sona, the director of communications for Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke, entered the polling area and caused a bit of a ruckus. According to an eye-witness:
Today, while in the middle of voting, there was a big disruption at the polling station. As I was sealing my envelope to place into the ballot box, a guy came up making a huge scene stating that this polling station was illegal and tried to grab for the ballot box. He claimed that the station was not affiliated with Elections Canada and that he had talked to a representative from Elections Canada who said that the polling station was illegal. Upon trying to take the ballot box, the people working at the polling station confirmed that an elections representative was coming to check things out, and the guy got on his phone again with someone.
The guy and a couple others were asked to stop making a scene and to move off to the side while they figured everything out. A girl that was voting at the same time as me told me she had seen two of the guys at events put on by the Guelph Campus Conservatives, and once researched, it was confirmed that the guy claiming that the polling station was illegal was Michael Sona who is in fact a part of the Guelph Campus Conservatives. The other individual was wearing a blue zip up jacket/sweater, and I do not know his name.
I found this to be disruptive and disrespectful, as many students were in the line at the time to vote. It was clearly a LEGAL polling station, as there was Elections Canada, Special Ballot written on all of the documents present. I am unsure of what happened after the calls were made, so if anyone has any other information on this issue, please feel free to add on and please tag as many people as you can- I don’t know who I’ve missed!! This was ridiculous, but don’t worry Harper, WE ARE STILL VOTING!!
The allegation that Michael Sona made a grab for the ballot box — a crime under the Canada Elections Act — predictably sent the progressive blogosphere into a tizzy. The optics of it simply do not look good.
A couple of things struck me as odd, however, which I’d like to point out. I’ve worked at Elections Canada before, and the description of the voting process is a bit different than in a usual election. Notice the reference of “sealing an envelope”. You don’t do that during a regular poll, and I’ve not had to do that while participating in an advance poll. But then, as the news later revealed, this was not a regular advance poll, but a special poll set up by Elections Canada to encourage student participation.
This is perfectly legal, assuming that the special poll is set up under the guidelines established by the Canada Elections Act. You don’t have to vote on election day, or even during the advance polls. You can vote at any time during the election campaign simply by heading down to your local Elections Canada office, presenting your identification and asking for a ballot. Elections Canada has been charged with making it easier for Canadians to vote, so it makes sense to me that if you can’t go to Elections Canada to vote, sometimes Elections Canada can arrange to come to you.
Initially, I wondered if this was the source of confusion for Mr. Sona. Did he see the polling station open, put in a call to Elections Canada and ask “are you having an advance poll today?” The answer to that question would be, “No, advance polling doesn’t take place until April 22nd,” at which point he freaked and made an embarrassing scene. However, since this revelation, further allegations have come to light, which either call the entire election process into question, or suggest that Conservative operatives are attacking the election process itself.
In that subsequent telephone discussion, you once again confirmed that no polling at any university campus had been sanctioned by the CEO, and that as such, no person purporting to be on a voter’s list should have been provided a ballot under any circumstances on April 13 at any polling station which was not located within the office of a Returning Officer.
The letter, written by Arthur Hamilton, also alleges that partisan election materials were visible close to the poll area, in contravention of the Canada Election Act, although this allegation is disputed.
I have great difficulty in believing Elections Canada could flub something like this. I’ve worked with them before, and they are a bunch of dedicated individuals who have set aside partisan politics because they believe strongly in making the process work, and giving every eligible voter the opportunity to cast their ballot. I’ve rarely met a finer bunch of ordinary Canadians. The guidelines they follow are simple and clear but remarkably effective in ensuring that the process is free and fair. Ballots are carefully guarded and there are strict rules regarding how they are to be managed. Failure to meet those rules, such as accidentally leaving ballot boxes uncounted, even in amounts too small to affect the final outcome, results in charges being laid. I have great difficulty believing that Elections Canada officials could put out an unsanctioned poll, and gain access to sufficient ballots and other official materials to successfully manage that poll. I have even greater difficulty believing that they would willfully violate the Canada Elections Act.
In spite of this, the allegations made in the letter above by Arthur Hamilton are quite detailed. He claims that he was told by the person he is writing to that Elections Canada was planning no such special poll at any university campus, even though Elections Canada media advisor James Hale is cited in the Guelph Mercury stating that “this was the third election during which the University of Guelph held a special ballot on campus”. Let’s not forget that this special poll was widely publicized, with the president of the University of Guelph himself getting involved in promoting it. If this was so, why was this news to the Conservative campaign office and, allegedly, the Elections Canada official they were talking to? Why do all these questions come out now after hundreds of students have cast their ballots, and not before? Not even when all the work was begin done to set up a ballot area?
Someone here is either lying or is woefully misinformed, and this is a serious issue. Either one arm of Elections Canada is acting independently of the rest of the body (possibly in conformance with the Canada Elections Act, possibly not), or the Conservative Party is making allegations and seeking to invalidate hundreds of votes taken in an environment where, polls suggest, the Conservatives would not have fared well. Either way, the whole process has been put in disrepute. The standard by which we hold up our democracy has been achieved by the trust that Elections Canada has built as the active, effective and non-partisan organization. In shaking that trust, Canadians everywhere are being ill-served by this whole controversy.
Let’s not forget the hundreds of students who came out and voted in good faith on April 13, and who now face the prospect of having their contribution to the democratic process invalidated. If their ballots get invalidated, will they get a chance to vote again? If not, this certainly violates their charter rights (and the remedy to fix it would seem difficult to implement by May 2).
If there is any merit to the allegations being made here, and someone in Elections Canada is responsible, someone in Elections Canada should be fired. On the other hand, if there is no merit to these allegations, then one cannot overlook the fact that the Conservatives targeted an event with an eye to an outcome that could be very favourable to them. Asking individuals suspected of having ties to other parties to leave a partisan political rally is one thing; trying to undercut your opponents by preventing the opponents’ supporters from voting is quite another matter entirely. If there is any merit to the accusations here, we need that proof. These questions cannot be allowed to linger until Election Day.
Nothing less than the core of our democracy is being called into question, here. Canadians everywhere deserve answers, and they deserve them now.
P.S.: Buckets of Grey makes a good point here: “The pdf of the CPC letter to the Chief Electoral officer complains about the exclusion of a Conservative scrutineer. But if the Conservatives sent a scrutineer, doesn’t that mean that mean that they acknowledged the validity of the exercise? Or, if they had had prior concerns about the legality, wouldn’t the appropriate process be an injunction?”