In dealing with Elections Canada

 “In addition to the voting machine in Pennsylvania which cast a vote for Republican Mitt Romney when the voter touched the screen for Obama, the town of Covington, Virginia, has been covered in shame after its voting machines described Obama as a Republican. (The state-of-the-art machines in Virginia also said that Romney is Republican, which happens to be right). Voting officials had to scrap the machines and issued voters with old-fashioned paper ballots which correctly described the president as a Democrat, according to CNN.”

  • Electronic voting machine selects Romney even when you choose Obama, by Anne Penketh,, Tuesday 06 November 2012

So I was watching Power and Politics on Wednesday, when I heard a lot of discussion about Elections Canada. In a report that was not a surprise to anyone, we found out that Elections Canada is having trouble in carrying out its main function: running elections. On average, polling officials are said to have made about 500 serious procedural errors in each riding in the 2011 election. (Harper under fire for Elections Canada budget cuts amid rampant voting problems, by Canadian Press, published by National Post, Last Updated: 13/05/01 4:05 PM)

Now the pundits on Power and Politics were all non-partisan in their anger, while Ian Capstick was particular dismissive of the organization. However, one can hardly find fault with any of their positions. The basis of a strong democracy is having an agency that can run elections in a non-partisan fashion. We used to have one and we all – Liberal, Conservative, New Democrat, Green and Sovereigntist and other – want a return to that standard.

However, the technological prescription given by most pundits on Power and Politics is misguided. The Americans in the 1920’s started a movement toward voting machines. Yet in 2000, more than 80 years after their first use, their Supreme Court had to rule on the outcome of an election using them. For those who do not remember, “Bush v. Gore” is an important case in the US. But for Canadians, that case should serve as a warning: technology does not solve election problems.

For it was a technological problem, I would argue, that got us into this mess. For those who don’t remember, we started having election problems after the 2000 election. I will admit, most of my evidence is subjective. I have been participating in elections since 1993; consequently, much of the evidence resides in my head. However, it seems to me that there has been a remarkable degradation in the quality of the federal electoral list since the creation of the National Register of Electors in 1997. As Mr. Capstick pointed out on Power and Politics; presently, the electoral list has become a poor source of data.

The National Register of Electors was a good idea in theory. It was developed after much conversation within Elections Canada. In 1995, Elections Canada established a working group to look at the issues that could be created by establishing a permanent register. This includes technical, legal and financial issues. This culminated in a report submitted to the Chief Electoral Officer in March 1996. It “indicated that such a register would be both feasible and cost-effective, could shorten the election period by eliminating enumeration and could significantly reduce costs and duplication of effort across Canada.” (Elections Canada website, May 2, 2013)

Given that the Liberals were looking for cost reductions and more effective ways to manage government, they were onside. When many argued that there would be a degradation of the electoral list, many government members point to an older report that said that the “current approach assumes that an enumeration must be as complete as possible if voter registration is to achieve full coverage. This ignores the fact that revision and election-day registration are integral components of a comprehensive process of registration.” (Royal Commission on Electoral Reform, and Party Financing, Final Report, 1992) Or put differently, if we move to an on-going registration system, it would be as good as having an election specific system.

Additionally, the timing could not have been better. In 1995, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario had gone to the polls. British Columbia would follow in 1996; while Alberta and Prince Edward Island had elections in 1997. Given the lax nature of privacy information, at that time, one could easily see a situation where information was shared by electoral officials, provincial and federal political parties. For we were just understanding the need for privacy legislation and data was being mined by private and public organizations. With all of this being said, when Elections Canada conducted its final door-to-door enumeration, it had a lot of resources to turn to. Information was easy to get and it easy to verify. Consequently, it was not a surprise that that election occurred without a hitch.

However, it is easy to see that as the years have passed, the original data has become less valid. Life happens; People move. I know I have. I have moved five or six times. One move was an interprovincial move. The problem has been that the updating procedures have not been as effective as one might have assumed. Therefore, while the National Register of Electors was a good idea in theory, its continued relevancy is dependent on its real world implementation.

While Elections Canada has many data-sharing partners –including its provincial counterparts in British Columbia and Quebec, provincial and territorial motor vehicle and vital statistics registrars and, federally, the Canada Revenue Agency, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Canada Post – it turns out that their system has not been good enough. Therefore, for years, I had to update my election address or received postcards for people who were no longer at the address that I was living at.

Or ask political party volunteers, we have a visceral understanding that something is wrong.  Why else would former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj have launched a court case? I would argue that he knew something was wrong. Why else would he have gone on a legal adventure through the Ontario Superior Court and the Supreme Court of Canada? He knew that his team would be able to find dozens of votes that were cast without proper paperwork. Given that he lost by 26 votes, it is clear why the Ontario Superior Court found reason to overturn the election.

However, we all know how that story ends. The Supreme Court of Canada castigated the election officials but overturned the lower court decision. So we are here trying to figure out what is wrong. As a Liberal, I will turn to the report ordered by Chief Electoral Officer Mayrand and discussed by the pundits on CBC’s Power and Politics.

The Elections Canada report found widespread administrative problems in the last election, largely caused by out-dated legislation.  It noted “that Elections Canada has system-wide problems with the roughly 15 per cent of voters who show up to vote without being properly registered.”  (Elections Canada report on voting problems likely to delay election reform legislation, By Stephen Maher, National Post, May 1, 2013).  In fact, the report says “the 200,000 workers who run elections across the country struggle to administer the complex rules for dealing with problem registrations as laid out in legislation”. But this is only the start.

While the report recommends that Elections Canada moves to an electronic registry, I would argue that that would only compound the issue. For the change assumes three things. Firstly, it assumes that all Canadians have access to computers. Secondly, it assumes that all Canadians would be familiar with the particular database created. And thirdly, it assumes that most Canadians are aware of all the ins and outs of Canadian Political Life. Just given my friendships with every day Canadians, I know that those three assumptions are false ones. In talking to my poorer or non-political friends, I know that there are citizens who cannot afford the data plans that come with cellphones, let alone having a separate computer. Therefore, poorer Canadians would have trouble accessing this new electronic registry. Furthermore, in talking with my non-political friends, I know that they would not be interested enough to verify that their information on some database is okay. On top of that, any system would have to have a way of identify citizens on a national basis. To date, we have no such national system. The closest proxy might be the federal Social Insurance Card System. However, that system includes many people who are under the voting age and/or people who are not citizens. Therefore, the federal Government would have to create a specific system for registering people. Given that the Gun Registry was the last attempt, I would suggest that an online voter registration system is a waste of both time and money.

My argument is simple. We need to go back to verifying every citizen before each election; we need to go back to hiring enumerators. In learning about election database management, one thing has been made clear to me time and time again: garbage in, garbage out. Or put differently, if Elections Canada through its data-sharing process is collecting bad information, there is no way one can produce a solid voter’s list. For, within the process of data sharing, there is likely no way to verify the quality of the data. For the system in question depends on quality control.

In the old days, the quality control happened at the doors. Enumerators would come to your door and register you. Given that the person at the door would likely be the resident, one could see the advantages to an enumeration system. This is especially true if the enumerator asked for ID. While, if a person had to register on election day, they would have to prove their identity. This system meant that the list was strong. IF there was a mistake, it could be changed at the polling station at the time of voting. This meant the system was strong and secure. However, the elimination of the enumerators has meant that they system has no quality control.

Therefore, let us bring back enumerators. Enumerators could incorporate 21st century tools. Like Political Parties, they could use smartphones, tablet or laptop computers to input data. However, having a human hand go door to door would allow for a quality control mechanism to ensure that there are fewer errors. For, an enumerator would know that a house has been missed. An enumerator could correct names in high turnover areas. True, this would lengthen elections; but it would also mean that politicians would have to talk about substantive issues and not try to demonize the other. Adding enumerators back into the system is worth both the time and money spent.

Before, one might say I am crazy; this type of solution is no unheard of. A number of different jurisdictions still do it. For example, I received the notice from Calgary’s City Clerk’s Office. They have hire enumerators that do a census and verify the quality of their election list. I would argue it is the solution for the Federal Government.

For, enumeration is an objectively better system that ensures the quality of a democratic tool. Enumeration would allow the best possible outcome for all Canadian Elections, without limiting the freedom of individuals. It would apply the right tool to the problem and that is what Liberals are supposed to do. So to the pundits, and Mr. Capstick, the human touch, and not technology, is the proper answer to the issue at hand.

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