Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ballot-box blunders 'not unique,' review finds

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OTTAWA -- Confidence in Canada's voting system was further eroded last week when an independent review uncovered more than 165,000 instances of mistakes made ensuring voters were actually eligible to cast a ballot in the 2011 election.

The review, called after allegations were raised about voting improprieties in the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre, did not find evidence of actual fraud or malfeasance. What it found was the kind of clerical errors that called into question the validity of the 2011 election results in the riding were "not unique."

In fact, those same errors were found in almost every riding -- about 500 times per riding on average.

This audit was a wake-up call for Elections Canada and the agency has now made fixing these issues its top priority.

A pilot project on electronic voting, hoped to be implemented before 2015, has been swept aside, replaced instead with plans to find better ways to recruit and train poll-day workers and to streamline the process to get voters through polling stations quickly and efficiently but without leaving room for someone to dupe the system.

It's not clear yet what it will cost. Buying 20,000 computers to use digital voters' lists instead of the antiquated pen-and-paper method will set the country back a pretty penny. But if that means on voting day it's easier to ensure people are eligible to vote, and haven't voted already, it's worth it.

Diane Benson, a spokeswoman for Elections Canada, said it must be made clear this review "is not about voters doing something wrong."

But she acknowledged at any stage there are opportunities for someone to cheat if they really wanted to. The mistakes that were made came as poll workers attempted to follow procedures to make sure nothing does go wrong. It's somewhat hard to convince people an election was all on the up and up if the procedures put into place to prevent malfeasance aren't followed properly.

Sometimes the mistakes were minor, such as missing dates on forms. Other times they were more serious, such as missing signatures and names.

For the vast majority of voters, 85 per cent, everything was fine. These are the voters who are on the voters' list already, have the required ID and can go in and vote usually within a few minutes.

But there are 15 per cent of voters who must swear an oath at the polls on election day itself. Sometimes these people don't have anything that proves who they are or where they live, but can vote as long as someone who has that documentation attests to their validity.

In 42 per cent of those cases, the review found a "serious error" was made.

In part, this is because the system is incredibly complex and relies on a temporary workforce of about 23,000 people, most of whom are hired just to work on election day, and get minimal training and very little pay.

There is a further crunch put onto hiring and training by a rule that allows for the parties that finished first and second in the previous election to appoint the deputy returning officer and poll clerk for each riding. Nobody else can be hired until those people are in place, as they are supposed to do the hiring, but in 2011, fewer than one in three of those positions were actually filled by the parties.

Elections Canada cannot step in to do it themselves until 17 days before election day, which is also one week before advance polls open, so somehow Elections Canada has seven days to hire thousands of temporary workers and train them to understand complex and sometimes time-consuming compliance processes.

Is it any wonder then, mistakes are made?

It may seem easiest to simply stop allowing people to swear onto the voters' list on election day. But this is not the answer. Voting rates are already unacceptably low and many times the people not on the voters' list are among the most marginalized in our society.

Doing anything that might make it more difficult for people to vote is an unacceptable answer.

Elections Canada is doing what it can but it will take more time than we have to fix these problems before the 2015 election. Elections Canada also needs Parliament's help to change and enact laws as quickly as possible to fix the system.

Our democracy deserves no less than efficient and quick action from them both.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 6, 2013 A7

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