Fri, Apr
15
2011

What Might Be Happening in Guelph

Guelph Ballot Box

The image on the right is of the ballot box containing ballots which the Conservative campaign in Guelph alleges are illegal and should be nullified before the May 2nd election. Note how the sign on the box reads “Special Ballot Box #2”.

When I first came upon this story, a curious thing struck in particular: how the students were handling their ballots for the Special Ballot Box was different from what I was used to, having overseen three elections, and different from what I was used to, having voted in polls (and some advance polls) in every provincial and federal election since 1990. Here’s the relevant paragraph:

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…

(link)

“As I was sealing my envelope…”

You don’t have to put ballots in sealed envelopes when you vote at polls on Election Day, or at advance polls. So, this particular poll was something different. What was it?

The answer may lie here (hat tip to commentator Mlemieux). A special ballot is a means by which voters who cannot vote in their ridings on Election Day or at any of the advanced polls, can still participate. A special ballot is different from a regular ballot in a number of ways, including:

An elector who votes under the Special Voting Rules uses a special ballot voting kit that includes:

  • in the case of an election, a blank ballot on which the elector writes the name of the candidate of his or her choice; and in the case of a referendum, a ballot on which the referendum question is printed

  • an unmarked inner envelope

  • an outer envelope identifying the elector and his or her electoral district, and a declaration that the elector must sign and date, stating that his or her name is as shown on the envelope, and that he or she has not already voted and will not attempt to vote again in the current electoral event

  • a return envelope

  • an instruction flyer

An elector may vote only once at an election. The elector is only entitled to vote for a candidate running in his or her electoral district.

(link)

Note the reference to envelopes.

And this makes perfect sense, if you think about it. There are significant complications for university students in figuring out which riding they vote in. They can only vote in the riding of their university if that is indeed the riding they reside in, but what if they head home a lot, and have an address that’s in a different riding? So, Elections Canada has provided a means for such students, as well as Canadians out of the country, Armed Forces personnel, et cetera, to essentially mail in their ballot. They can do this at any time during the election campaign, up to 6 p.m. on the Tuesday before voting day, at any Elections Canada office across the country, or at special venues that Elections Canada sets up for this purpose.

As these offices don’t have copies of every single ballot offered in every different riding, the voter declares what his or her riding is, shows proof of identification toward that fact, and is handed a list of candidates for that riding. The voter then writes down the favoured candidate’s name on the special ballot (not the party’s name!), places the ballot in the unmarked envelope (to maintain the principle of a secret ballot), before shoving that unmarked envelope in the outer envelope declaring the voter’s name and district. These ballots are then sent to the Elections Canada offices in the relevant ridings, where they are handled by the Chief Returning Officers and their deputies there.

Elections Canada officials claim that this is the third election that a special ballot poll was set up within the University of Guelph. No such poll has been organized for either Wilfred Laurier or the University of Waterloo, but then the Elections Canada office for the riding of Kitchener-Waterloo is practically across the street from the Wilfred Laurier campus. The Elections Canada office for the riding of Guelph is clear across town.

These are, essentially, mail-in ballots, which to my mind casts some doubt on the allegations made by the Conservative campaign office as to the legality of this poll. If this is a case of Elections Canada officials deciding that, if students couldn’t come down to the Elections Canada office to cast their special ballots, they’d bring the Elections Canada office to them, what’s illegal about that? I don’t see any prohibition against it in the Canada Election’s Act, and it seems little different than if student groups organized a Walk to Vote campaign to get 700-or-so students to trek across town in one group in order to visit the Elections Canada office (maybe next election, this is what they should do). What if you’re a shut-in, and can’t get out of your house to vote, but really wanted to? Wouldn’t it make sense to have Elections Canada officials come to that person’s home to provide a special ballot there?

Also, as these are mail-in ballots, what are the requirements for scruitineers? Many of these ballots are destined for ridings other than Guelph; is it possible that the proper time to scrutinize those ballots comes when those ballots are counted in their respective ridings?

There is still the allegation of partisan campaign material being present within the ballot area, although I note that this has been disputed by other eye witnesses. And I have a story here to tell: when I was a deputy returning officer in the 2004 election, and again when I was a voting clerk in 2006, I was told that I should regularly walk behind the voter shield in the poll area (when it was empty) to check and make sure that partisan material hadn’t been hidden there. Sometimes it’s a sneaky trick by various partisans to try and bend the rules, but most often it’s the careless action of individual voters who have brought campaign material with them to ensure they know the name of the candidate they are voting for and, having voted, leave that material behind rather than put it in the trash.

How much of this alleged partisan campaign material in Guelph was in the hands of individuals who had simply come to vote? How much was deliberately left behind? My inclination right now is to believe that this is an innocent matter that’s been blown out of proportion.

The actions of Michael Sona too still strike me as an innocent and honest (if rather bellicose) mistake. Reviewing what I’ve seen here, it seems to me that the Conservative campaign got confused and assumed something nefarious. I hope that Elections Canada speaks soon to clear the air, and I hope that this matter resolves amicably, and that the votes cast on April 13 are still counted.

The hundreds of students who lined up at this event designed to increase voter participation from a traditionally underrepresented group lined up and cast ballots in perfectly good faith. I see no indication that votes were suppressed during this event, nor that people were unduly influenced. I’ll wait to read more before I cast my final judgement, but it would be a crying shame if these eager participants in the democratic process were denied their opportunity to have a say in this election.


Update, 1:10 p.m.: The ballots will count, so says Elections Canada. Well, that’s a relief.


Update, 2:04 p.m.: Elections Canada’s official response can be found here. Basically, they found that the voting that took place violated no laws under the Canada Elections Act, and that the votes will count. However, they did find that the provision of a special place to drop off special ballots was not sanctioned by Elections Canada itself, and was the result of a “well intentioned returning officer” taking an initiative that he perhaps should not have. Fortunately, he followed Elections Canada guidelines, so the ballots count. Unfortunately, it looks like similar events will not happen in the future.

Well, fair enough. Something like this should really be codified from the beginning, and accepted by all the parties beforehand. However, nothing prevents students from walking into an Elections Canada office and following the procedures there to request a special ballot and vote accordingly. With this in mind, I would suggest that next election, activist groups seeking to get out the student vote should instead organize “Walk to Vote” events, bringing students to the local Elections Canada offices instead, as a big parade celebrating the democratic process.


Update: 4:11 p.m.: Probably should also correct the record, here: according to Elections Canada, 241 special ballots were cast at the University of Guelph.


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