Charles in Toronto

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Part of the democratic process

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I signed up to work for Elections Canada for a few reasons. One was that I needed some income to tide me over while looking for steadier work. But I also was curious to step inside the democratic process and be a part of it. So I eagerly approached the Vancouver East electoral office and grabbed a Deputy Returning Officer position for election day.

Let me toss out some terminology before going any further. Even though the votes in my Vancouver East riding are all counted equally, you can’t vote just anywhere. Little bite-sized pieces called “polling districts” get mapped out with a few hundred voters each.  A number of districts are then assigned to a nearby polling place. Inside the polling place, each district is represented by a table with a ballot box on top, a privacy shield on a table behind it, and two workers – the DRO and poll clerk. Together we are responsible for distributing ballots, recording paperwork for special cases, collecting and counting votes. Our particular district consisted of two small blocks containing a couple low rise buildings and a small number of houses.

The first thing I had to ask from any voter was identification. Elections Canada requires some sort of proof of current address. Most often this was a driver’s licence or BCID card, but sometimes the address was not up to date. Voters without either type of card had to bring a piece of mail from a utility company or government institution to go with their ID. Counterintuitively, the Voter Information Card (VIC) that EC sends to every voter *does not qualify* as mail from a government institution. Moreover, the ID requirements were sent to voters in a separate mailing that many voters missed, and the VIC doesn’t very clearly state that it can’t be used as proof of address. A voter without proper ID can also be “vouched for” by someone living in the same little district, usually a neighbour, if they both recite some oaths and we jot their names down for record-keeping.

These identification requirements came into effect in 2007 and first went into action for the 2008 federal election. Many groups were concerned about possible disenfranchisement as a result of these requirements to have proof of address. Special exceptions include that voters with no fixed address can get a letter from homeless shelters, soup kitchens and so forth, attesting that they reside at that address for the purpose of an election. Although my riding of Vancouver East includes the city’s largest homeless population, I cannot speak to their experience as my own table’s voting district consisted of two residential blocks in the Grandview-Woodlands neighbourhood.

The apartment buildings included in this voting district included a Baptist seniors facility, as well as a few other locations with a large fraction of elderly residents. Many of these citizens had voted in every election for decades, since before I was even born, and were understandably indignant at the idea that they would have to prove themselves. A common scene that played out was that I would apologize that we need to see proof of address, and the voter would then start rifling through everything in their wallet – ultimately futile because the only wallet-sized ID with address in BC is the driver’s licence or BCID – and then go back to waving the VIC and asking why they couldn’t use it. This is where I was glad to have a central poll supervisor who could mediate the situation and allow the remaining voters to proceed.

So who was likely to be disenfranchised in my district? The first broad category had to do with mobility. Many of these seniors explained to me that went to significant efforts to get themselves out of the door, through the rain, to the polling place 4-5 blocks away. They were proud to do their civic duty and vote, but once they found out they lacked proper ID, it became a question of whether they had the energy to make it home, retrieve a document, return to the polling place, and return home again. Some voters were wonderfully persistent and came back, while others angrily departed and did not return.

The second broad category was anyone with a significant language barrier. One of our information officers was able to converse in Mandarin and Cantonese, and he was very useful in explaining the ID requirements to seniors who typically did not have driver’s licences and were confused as to why they could not vote the same way as usual.

However, we were completely at a loss for words when an elderly Korean-speaking couple of approached us without proof of address. Despite the promise that Elections Canada could provide translators over the phone, this did not pan out in reality. The poll clerk and I were not able to feel confident that anything we said to this couple was understood. I did manage to write on this information card the words “proof of address”, which was enough for them to depart and return a few hours later with a hydro bill in the husband’s name. I was therefore able to issue him a ballot, but I still didn’t have anything that would allow me to issue his wife a ballot. Legally I could allow him to vouch for her, but this would have required that they take an oath, and my supervisor confirmed that I could not legitimately have them take oaths without understanding the content.

My supervisor told me at one point that I seemed to be getting all the textbook “problem cases” – people whose ID I wasn’t allowed to accept, ladies shouting voting instructions to their elderly mothers, voters who could not understand the choices on the ballot, voters who were accidentally removed from the list, and many more. It was frustrating to be representing a bureaucracy where nothing had a simple answer that didn’t involve filling out more paperwork. I genuinely wanted everyone at our table to vote, and yet it was my job to make sure they followed a list of strict rules. But I’m still glad that I took the job. I had plenty of moments throughout the day that reminded me of how good it feels to be useful, and how people notice when I take initiative.

So this is my little glimpse into the democratic process. Even if my stomach churned at the results of this election, I couldn’t help but have respect for the other people like me – I’m guessing at least 150,000 of them nationwide! – who spent the day making sure that proud voters would get to cast a ballot.


Written by Charles in Toronto

May 8, 2011 at 12:29 PM

Posted in Elections

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