Monday, July 15, 2024

Scanners, internet, telephone voting: elections are now a “giant leap of faith”

Elections in Ontario have undergone drastic change, with barely a comment or complaint from anyone. Image: RWN

While we pause briefly between the June 2nd Ontario general election and the October 24th municipal elections, it seems as good a time as any to address the idea that without Scrutineers, these elections have now become “a giant leap of faith,” to quote one Elections Ontario official.

By “Scrutineers,” I mean those who volunteer at elections events to stand and watch as ballots are counted by paid election workers.

In elections past, Scrutineers representing each of the campaigns watched as the ballot boxes were emptied, ballots unfolded by officials and sorted into piles according to candidate. A few might be ruined or questionably marked, and in those cases the Returning Officer would show them to all of us so that we could discuss how it should be dealt with, even if only to make note of the fact that it had been challenged.

Personally, I have never challenged a ballot, but I know that sometimes Scrutineers do. After the 1995 Quebec referendum, there was some discussion about the idea that it was only the aggressive challenging of questionably “ruined” ballots that saved Canada in the 50.58 per cent to 49.42 per cent vote. I cannot confirm this is true, but it certainly provides a dramatic example of the importance of the job Scrutineers do in close elections.

In June 2022, I volunteered to Scrutineer for my local candidate at both the Advance Poll count and on Election Day. Both were disturbing events, as I learned that kind of questioning or challenging done by Scrutineers from any Ontario party is a thing of the past.

When I showed up 20 minutes before the scheduled “Advance Ballot Counting” on May 31, I was surprised to find that the ballot boxes had already been opened, the ballots already opened and sorted. I was allowed to watch, from six feet away, as the Elections Officers counted and wrote down the number of votes. I could not see what was marked on the ballot; I could not have challenged anything even if I wanted to. I really had to count on those Election Officers to be on their honour; I hope they were. They seemed like nice ladies.

On Election Day, June 2nd, I turned up early again to Scrutineer the counting of the Special Ballots which included ballots sent in by mail or by hospital visit. This time, I didn’t see any ballots at all.

This time, the Election Ontario officers were each armed with a black machine about the size of large book. From this machine, they printed a paper receipt that had a number on it. The EO officer then showed me the number, and wrote it down on a paper form which contained the numbers that had been printed off earlier.

The sweet gentleman explaining this demonstrated that when he hit “total” on the machine, the “total” printed out on the machine’s paper receipt was the same as the total on his hand-written page. He was pretty pleased about this.

“What does that mean?” I asked, mystified. “How would I know that the numbers you have printed off correspond to ballots that have been cast? I never saw any of the ballots.”

“Well, each of these numbers is the number of the ballots we totalled on all of the other nights we counted. They add up to the same total the machine is printing here!” he said proudly.

I sighed. “We used to watch you guys count the ballots. Now, I’m seeing numbers printed on a paper. You could have typed those in yourself, for all I know; the whole idea of Scrutineering now seems to have become…something of a leap of faith.”

The Elections Ontario officer at the next table, a senior woman, nodded her head in agreement and repeated emphatically: “That’s exactly what it is now: a leap of faith. A giant leap of faith.”

Epilogue: about six hours after I finished writing the column above, I received this email from my local municipal government:

Rita Smith

“You are receiving this email because you currently sit on one of our Boards or Committees. The 2022 Clarington Municipal Elections are being held electronically by internet and telephone this October and we are looking for your help to make the election a success! This is a great opportunity to learn new skills and be involved in the election process.”

I don’t remember voting for internet voting. This isn’t even “a leap of faith.” It’s just a flying leap, into the vast unknown.