Open letter to Elections Canada regarding voting problems in Vancouver East

Dear Friends,

The federal election has come and gone, and I want to thank all of you who took the time out to participate in this essential act of democracy.

Many people think that voting doesn’t matter, and that their vote won’t make a difference. They’re wrong! If everyone thought that way, our country and our world would be in shambles. When we vote, we confer power on people whom we elect to make serious decisions on our behalf. They enact laws that affect our lives in a fundamental way. The economy, taxes, immigration, healthcare, crime, war, the cleanliness of our air and water, childcare – these are but a few major issues that affect all of us. Our vote absolutely makes a difference.

Change always starts at the grassroots level, and you can’t get any more grassroots than voting. However, the system of voting can be difficult. At the federal level, I know that Elections Canada has a huge and complex job of ensuring that everyone gets to vote. It is a difficult task and their system has flaws. I heard from many folks who experienced problems, and I want to share a letter that I’ve written to Elections Canada to complain about the voting process.

Sincerely,

Libby

Marc Mayrand, Chief Electoral Officer
Elections Canada
257 Slater Street
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0M6

Dear Mr. Mayrand,

I am writing to convey my concerns about the last federal election that occurred October 14, 2008. While I recognize that the electoral process is a monumental undertaking and that Elections Canada does its best to ensure that all eligible voters cast their ballot, I nonetheless found several instances worthy of complaint.

Such instances collectively add up to: 1) barriers to the voting process; and 2) a serious deficit in efficient, on-the-ground operations. In the end, I was left with doubts about the integrity of the voting process itself.

Specifically, in the riding of Vancouver East (British Columbia) I wish to bring to your attention the following select problems, among many:

1. Voter identification rules

o The new requirements are so onerous that they border on the absurd. An elderly man who had voted for over 80 years in Vancouver East, was turned away at the polls for not having the proper identification, yet one of my scrutineers knew him for over 30 years through regular visits at their local community centre. However, my scrutineer was denied the opportunity to vouch for him because he lived in the next poll. The man waited at the polling station for the next 1 ½ hours for someone from his poll to finally show up and vouch for him.

o One constituent was only able to vouch for one person who did not have identification, and although she knew another person also without identification, she was prohibited from vouching a second time.

o Apart from the egregious violation of rights to the homeless, many students, the elderly, housewives, and transient people did not have utility bills issued in their name with their address and were thusly turned away.

o Regarding Attestations of Residence, it is both unrealistic and unreasonable to expect Administrators to bear the burden of signing and submitting an Administrators list, and then make themselves available to sign Attestations of Residence throughout the whole 12-hour Election Day. Administrators of social service agencies are already incredibly busy and cannot be further encumbered by such a convoluted process.

o Long line-ups and exponentially growing frustration were the norm due to the onerous checking of identification. These instances played out all across Canada. They amount to a targeted and systematic effort to obstruct the will of the people to vote.

These measures were implemented to combat voter fraud, yet there have been no proven allegations of widespread voter deception. If anything, the real fraud is misleading people into thinking they have the right to vote.

The new identification requirements were implemented in the absence of any credible basis to justify such restrictive measures. I support any court challenge that seeks to dismantle a law that is nothing but a cynical manipulation tool to disenfranchise thousands, and thereby undermine democracy.

2. Lack of knowledge of the voting rules or inconsistent application of the rules by Elections Canada staff

o At the Ray-Cam Community Centre (920 East Hastings) my volunteer said, I was at Ray-Cam from 6:30 a.m. until all of the ballots were counted and by 9 a.m., it was obvious that the Election Canada people did not have a clue what the rules were. I took over (and the Election Canada people were thrilled). They did not know what constituted "documentation," how the "vouching" process worked or even what proof of address was. Regretably, this comment was one of similar comments made to me by volunteer inside scrutineers throughout Election Day.

o At the same polling place, a woman presented identification (a passport and Voter Information Card, which included her residential address) and was told that the documentation was insufficient. She left and returned later with the exact same documentation and another staff told her to proceed. I heard many times that the Voter Information Card was insufficient to prove name and residential address, even though it was issued by Elections Canada!

o The process of being sworn in at the polls varied not only across polling places, but also across the polls themselves inside the polling place.

o At some polling stations, staff did not know how to process newly registered voters.

3. Insufficient staffing levels

o Several polling places experienced long line-ups, more than in the past. This problem was due to the stricter identification requirements. There was not enough Elections Canada staff to deal with the crush of people during peak periods and the ever-expanding line-ups. As one of my volunteers said, If it’s going to be like this every time now, with the requirement to show ID to this degree....there should be at least two "helpers" PLUS the normal staff of two people doing reception services and checking the voters list...basically our own scrutineers provided those additional helping hands to get people through the door, past the table with the voters lists, and on to the poll box, without backing people up for half an hour just to find out if they had the right ID.
Elections Canada was ill prepared to deal with Cantonese-speaking voters both at the Advance Poll and Election Day. Many Cantonese-speaking voters were bussed en masse with the same translator for multiple groups. Much frenzied conversation took place between them and it was impossible for Elections Canada to tell what was being said. The translator could very well have been instructing these voters for whom to vote (see #4 below). In fact, at the Britannia Parking Lot (1661 Napier) Advance Poll the Returning Officer rightly kicked out one of the translators and threatened to arrest another “helper” for this very reason.

o Given that Cantonese is the most spoken language after English in Vancouver East, it should have been anticipated that Elections Canada would provide sufficient and language-appropriate staff to ensure that the voting place remained neutral.

4. Campaigning at the polling place

o On Election Day at Strathcona Elementary (592 East Pender), a Cantonese-speaking translator was allowed repeatedly to help people vote, yet he was not sworn in each time as required. I was told by my volunteer that he was also campaigning and telling voters for whom to vote. It improved in the afternoon when Elections Canada finally provided an official translator for the balance of the day, but the problem should have been anticipated given the ethnic composition of this particular neighbourhood. To a lesser extent this same problem occurred at other polling places throughout the day, but the most egregious examples took place at Strathcona Elementary.

o At the Salvation Army Harbour Light (119 East Cordova) during the Advnace Poll, the ballot box was stationed by a window, and people on the outside of the window were telling voters at the ballot box for whom to vote.

5. Poor preparation

o On Election Day at about two hours before the polls closed, the Returning Officer informed my election staff that he was worried about fire codes and crowding because of the large line-ups at some polling places. He therefore informed us that people in the line at 7:00pm (closing time) would be turned away if he considered the crowds too large. Some of the line-ups at 7:00pm were extensive, and the campaign manager personally saw well over 100 people in the line-up at Laura Secord School (2500 Lakewood). He was pleased that the Poll Supervisor allowed them to vote by adopting an honour system for those in line at that location, but I am concerned that at all polling places there is little supervision of huge lines, especially at the time of the closing of the polls.

o On Election Day at several polling places, voters were being bounced between two different places. They would go to the place indicated on the Voter Information Card, only to be told they were at the wrong place and sent elsewhere. When they arrived at the new place, they were told to go back to the original location. This situation got so bad that the Returning Officer rightly allowed transfer ballots later in the day. However, many staff were not made aware of this decree and many voters were still sent elsewhere. In one instance, a woman was denied the right to vote altogether because Elections Canada staff bounced her between Britannia Centre (1661 Napier) and Templeton (727 Templeton) and they couldn’t agree between them where she should vote!

o At the Advance Poll at the Britannia Parking Lot (1661 Napier) many people were going through the cumbersome process of getting registered, while people who were registered had to wait behind them and they got frustrated as the line grew slower and longer. There should have been 2 separate lines, for registered and not registered voters. Also, this location was not wheelchair accessible (the ramp provided was too steep) and there was no room for a wheelchair inside.

o On Election Day at the Britannia Centre (1661 Napier) there were no maps with polling divisions provided. Consequently, people who were supposed to be voting elsewhere could not have been directed to the appropriate polling place.

o At the same place, there was only one Voters List and more were needed.

o Many Elections Canada staff needed poll keys that were not provided. My volunteers provided some to your staff, but the staff still needed instruction on how to use them.

o At the Chinese Cultural Centre (50 East Pender) on both the Advance Poll and Election Day, signage was poor. At Templeton Secondary School (727 Templeton Drive) on Election Day, signage was also poor.

o The Aboriginal Friendship Centre (1607 East Hastings) was opened late on Election Day.

o Simon Fraser Elementary (100 West 15th Avenue) should not be a polling place as it is located outside the riding of Vancouver East. A better location is Mount Pleasant Community Centre, which is still outside the riding but at least a more logical choice as it sits directly on the border between Vancouver East and Vancouver Centre.

On a positive note, I found the distribution of tally sheets of those who voted at regular intervals to be highly helpful, and would recommend that this practice be continued.

Further, I wish to emphasize that I appreciated tremendously the opportunity to work with the local Elections Canada office to resolve problems during the election period. By working together, we can foresee and prevent problems, plus better ensure that the voting process is fair, accessible and smooth. For the most part, the Vancouver East office was responsive. However, we did contact the Returning Officer multiple times throughout Election Day to highlight problems as soon as I learned of them, as there was only a finite amount of time to resolve them. However, he hung up on my staff, and stopped taking our calls altogether. We can only assume that he was overwhelmed by the volume and scope of the problems, which lends credence to the need for more and better-trained support.

Moreover, I’m enclosing a letter from my constituents and Election Day volunteers, which describes in great detail the problems they experienced for your further review.

Post-election, many constituents who worked for Elections Canada on Election Day were, astonishingly, only paid last week, 2 months after the election. Before they eventually got their pay, they had rightly come to me with their complaints as they were experiencing financial hardship. Yet my calls and emails on their behalf to the Returning Officer were unanswered.

The intention of my letter is to provide constructive feedback on the conduct of the election, in the hope of making improvements for future contests for the benefit of the voters in particular, and all the participating political parties in general. Whether it be the limitations of the voter identification requirements, or the logistical crucible that is Election Day, changes must be made.

Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to your reply.

Yours Sincerely,

Libby Davies, MP (Vancouver East)

This Open Letter to Ministers & Public Officials was posted on December 16, 2008