Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Whether error or ill will, voting system needs fix

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OTTAWA -- The Supreme Court is normally a pretty sleepy place in July.

The fact it is convening for a special hearing this Tuesday should alone be enough to suggest the importance of the subject matter.

It is the first time the country's top court is being asked to intervene in a case involving the results of an election.

Regardless of what the court finds, the issues remind us why we shouldn't be smug about our democratic process.

This case has nothing to do with robocalls, the buzzword of politics in Canada in 2012. This involves the legitimacy of more than six dozen ballots cast in the western Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre.

In May 2011, Conservative Ted Opitz defeated incumbent Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj by just 26 votes. It was the second-closest contest in the federal election.

But Wrzesnewskyj began to hear about problems at some polling stations, and after he and his team reviewed the situation, they went to court claiming 180 ballots cast in the riding should be declared void because of problems with the polling records. The problems included people who voted without proper identification, improper records kept by poll workers, and questions some voters showed up to vote in the wrong riding.

On May 18, Ontario Superior Court Justice Thomas Lederer overturned the election results after agreeing 79 of the 180 ballots in question could not be authenticated. His concerns were mainly with votes cast by people whose registration certificates declaring them eligible to vote were either not signed or missing entirely.

Wrzesnewskyj called it a victory for democracy. "It restores people's confidence in the integrity of our electoral processes," he said.

In fact, it did the exact opposite. It proved our system is not infallible and in fact may have gaping holes people with bad intentions could drive a truck through.

We love to believe ourselves one of the greatest democracies in the world, a country where voting is a right with which we can do what we want. Every Canadian gets to vote if he or she wants to do so, no matter the person's income or social status, big, tall, fat or small, regardless of race or religion or education level.

One person, one vote, is the mantra we live by, the foundation of the legitimacy given to every government we elect.

But if that's not actually happening -- if the process we've set up to ensure our democracy is protected has failed -- it shouldn't be dismissed. Opitz argued that to overturn these ballots would let regulation and technicalities erode individuals' right to vote.

Elections Canada head Marc Mayrand argued in court that these types of "irregularities" are common and that overturning a ballot should not be a decision made lightly.

But if these problems actually happen regularly, shouldn't we be concerned about the impact it may have on the whole vote?

On Friday, months after the court case and just days before the Supreme Court hears the appeal, Elections Canada came forward with information saying it can show 44 of the 79 electors whose ballots were thrown out are in fact on the national list of electors, although questions remain about whether they lived in the riding on election day.

If Elections Canada can show many of the voters are Canadians, that's great. Maybe they can prove in the end that everyone's ballot was valid.

These may be clerical errors. There may have been no ill will on anyone's part. But this isn't the only riding where it was questioned if people being sworn in to vote on election day were doing so legitimately, and the concerns shouldn't be taken lightly.

This isn't about Liberal versus Conservative. The results of this one riding won't change a thing even if the Liberals or NDP were to win it in a byelection instead of the Conservatives.

The Supreme Court decision could tell us what the courts say is more important -- the right of an individual to have his or her vote counted regardless of the rules, or the right of our system to ensure the results are valid.

Regardless of what the court finds, Elections Canada should immediately do whatever it takes to prevent these mistakes from happening again.

That's the only way voters and the system will both win.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 9, 2012 A6

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