Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My election day

I woke at 7:00 a.m. to the clock-radio I'd set the night before. I had to be at the church in Montreal West but first I had to hustle Child One out of bed (the other two kids had no school) and shower. I thought about shaving, but I didn't put my contacts in. I can't see to shave the right side of my face without the contact lens in my right eye and once I was in the water I wasn't getting out.

The trainer Saturday had warned us that we needed food for the whole day. The polls schedule no breaks. That meant lunch, supper, and snacks. Monday night, I built myself a sandwich of turkey, mayo, and pepper jelly on a whole-wheat baguette. I also packed two cans of Coke Zero, two apples, two snack bars, a tube of yogurt, and a small container of sweet-potato casserole. I needed to use two lunch bags. I also took the Gazette, three books, a notebook, and an iPod - for the slow periods.

I lifted my shoulder bag with my food and entertainment, picked up the ballot box stuffed with poll supplies, and went to my van in the driveway. I'm positive that I left the cardboard voting screen print side down in the back seat since picking it up Saturday, and that I hadn't used the van since, but the screen now rested on the floor and sported a few dirty shoe prints. I'm still stumped. My car was locked. On one occasion when I'd forgotten to lock the car, it had been ransacked and some spare change stolen, but that was obvious: open compartments, drawers, etc., and the car was unlocked. I have no idea who pushed the screen off the back seat but otherwise left my interior pristine - and locked the doors behind them.

I puzzled over that for minute, then drove to the church in Montreal West to work.

Despite the two hours of training and that I did indeed familiarize myself with the materials the night before, as required, I still felt the slight uneasiness of someone doing something for the first time as I set up Poll Station 130, which is a prideful name for two guys and two pieces of elaborately folded cardboard. My poll clerk had done this before, which helped, but this was my kingdom for the day.

Canadians know the process. The deputy returning officer (DRO; that's me) greets you and asks for ID, which can be a single piece with address and photo or two pieces, one with an address. The poll clerk looks up the voter (which we officially call an elector) by name on the electoral list and normally, name and address on the list match the ID. If they do, the DRO approves the elector for a vote and hands over a folded ballot. The elector goes behind the screen, unfolds the ballot, votes, folds it up again, and brings the ballot to the DRO, who rips off a stub with that ballot's serial number (called a counterfoil). The DRO hands the ballot to the elector, who drops it in the ballot box. The DRO keeps all the counterfoils in a plastic bag as a double check on the ballot count.

Polls opened at 9:30 and by noon, 60 people had voted at our station. We'd already encountered most of the typical problems. We had people who hadn't registered to vote but filled out a form that would let them. We had people without sufficient ID, who were able to vote after another elector eligible to vote at our station took an oath that they were eligible (and were in formed of the penal consequences of a false oath). We had folks who had misspelled names, or IDs with maiden names and voting registration with a married name. Some voters had transfer forms, indicating that they could vote at my station even though they were registered somewhere else in the riding.

It wasn't too tough, but it wasn't mind-numbing work either. We had stretches of time with nothing to do, so we read my paper or went to the bathroom. We couldn't go far, because the poll station cannot operate with only one worker present, and we never knew when an elector or six would show up.

Our church polling site had six polling stations set up. The flow for each varied by more than you'd imagine. Some were busy in the afternoon while we had it easier. Our big rush started at 5:30 and lasted more than an hour.

Some voters are quick. They go behind the booth, you hear them slam the pencil down, and they're handing you the ballot ten seconds later. Others think more back there, but none took more than, oh, 45 seconds. The process at best was taking about three minutes per standard transaction, and the bottleneck was finding the elector on the list. Of course, non-standard situations took longer, and some of these people have been waiting in line for a quarter hour or more during busy parts of the day.

All in all, we had a successful day. Of the 239 electors to visit my station, four left with corrections to their voter registration (I could have filled out more if I'd been more diligent), six registered on-site, six required another elector to vouch for them, and two had transfer forms. All but two left without raising their voices. But those two....

The first unhappy customer was listed on our poll list as having voted in an advance poll. There's nothing I can do in that case. He simply cannot vote, even if the list is in error - which he vociferously argued it was. He left, mumbling that another vote for Marlene Jennings (the Liberal candidate) wasn't going to make a difference.

Our second angry man was a father in his 30s, I guess, who had come with his wife and baby. The wife voted first, and her ID was fine. They had only recently moved, however, and this man had no ID with his current address. I had already handed him his ballot - a poor assumption on my part that if his wife checked out, he would, too. When I told him he couldn't yet vote, he got mad. I tried to explain that he could vote once he and his wife took an oath, but he said it was a waste of time and tore up his ballot in rage. (Elvi's chuckling now because I once got similarly mad at a customs agent who wouldn't let me inform my father-in-law that our bags were missing and we'd be late out of the baggage claim. I crumpled or tore something - tickets, or a customs form maybe.)

The man stormed out. I retrieved his torn ballot and put it in my spoiled-ballot envelope.

Both upset customers were right about their votes lacking impact. Our riding has voted Liberal for 50 years, and it did again yesterday by a healthy margin.

Our poll closed at 9:30 p.m. and we cleared our table. I counted the ballots as my poll clerk tallied my count. He got it wrong, so I recounted twice more.

Once we had a definite count, we had to check the number of ballots cast against the combined total of electors crossed off the poll list plus votes from transfers and new registrations. It didn't match, which is a big no-no.

With the miscounted tally in mind, I double-checked my clerk's count of the poll list. I got a different number. I did it again, and got a third number. It was late and we were fried. I counted the counterfoils and was one short with those, but I knew there had been two electors who hadn't given me the chance to remove them and I'd only found one during my ballot counting. Just about the next ballot I touched was the one with the counterfoil I'd missed, thankfully.

The only place we could have an error was in our poll list, counting the electors crossed off for voting. We combed through that poll list about five times before we became consistent in our count, but by the end of that, about 11:30 p.m., we were kosher. All our counts added up properly.

It took another 20 minutes to pack everything into the proper envelopes and the ballot box and you know what time I got home.

It's a long day. I wolfed down my sandwich, two Cokes, yogurt tube, and one granola bar in light periods, but it's amazing that each poll is staffed by the same folks for all 12 hours of voting. That's something you don't realize on the elector's side of the table.

I tried to keep it light. If I thought an elector could appreciate the joke, I'd say goodbye with "Thanks, and come again soon." I got a few delayed laughs.

The pay is pathetic, and unfortunately attracts the quality of people who would spend 24 hours in total for less than $10 an hour. Elections Canada should double that rate and make the jobs attractive to bright students, although the current system seems to work.

One man in the morning complained that the system of paper ballots is archaic, but I think it's repeatable and extraordinarily hard to cheat. We have no hanging or dented chads or software bugs or memory glitches. Our ballots are simple and easy to count. Even the count at our station, which took longer than it could have although which was not the last station to close at our site, had discrepancies not in the ballots but in the cross-checking.

Our poll station's results followed the riding more or less, with the Liberals taking 151 of the 238 ballots. The only fun result was that for us the Green candidate topped the NDP candidate for third place (behind the Conservative candidate). I can't tell who cast the two votes for the Marxist-Leninist candidate, but I have my suspicions.


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