Sunday, November 27, 2016

Findings from the Recount Process

I spent most of last Wednesday at the Court of Queen's Bench, participating in the recount process.  I had asked for the recount for a couple of reasons.  One was that the number of ballots considered as uncounted was greater than the difference in votes for Ward Three councillor; the other was the various concerns that I raised in my last posting that I wanted to be sure the City Clerk was aware of, and hopefully takes action on before the next election.  What I wasn't expecting was to find even more issues that should be taken care of.

The result wasn't the happy ending that I was hoping for, although the margin is now smaller, but I did think that it was a useful exercise in underlining the gaps in the process.  And people should be aware - the problems identified in the recount for Ward Three are probably similar all across the city.

Most of the ballots that were considered uncounted were unreadable by the electronic system.  What we found was that these ballots had been marked, but in the old-fashioned way, by people putting an X next to their preferred candidate.  Voting rules are that if the indication is clear, the vote must be counted, even if it wasn't marked as instructed.  Part of the problem is that people weren't instructed on the new, fill-in-the- blank oval system; part of the problem is that not everybody has the same literacy level so may not have been able to read the new instructions; and part of the problem is likely that someone who has been voting for many elections and wasn't informed of the new system would likely just continue doing it as they've always been doing.  In any case, far more detailed instructions for how to mark the ballot are essential, or else ballots should be counted by hand.  I didn't find the electronic system that much faster than hand counting on election night, so I'm not sure how much time was saved.

The judge overseeing the recount pointed out a number of security issues.  The number of ballots that came from the printer wasn't confirmed, unmarked ballots were left unsecured in boxes, the number of ballots sent to each poll wasn't confirmed, and possibly most worrisome, the deputy returning officer had pre-initialed a large number of ballots, essentially authorizing the validity of a vote on an unmarked ballot.  When asked why, the response was that it was done to save time.  One would hope that after the Mike Duffy trial pointed out the folly of authorizing something before it's actually done would have warned against this, but apparently not.  Saving time for workers should not be our main goal.  Our goal should be to have the vote count as accurate as possible, and to ensure that the process was fair for everyone - the voter as well as the candidates.  While I'm not suggesting that any wrong-doing took place, each of these errors is an opportunity for ballots to be marked after the process, and that isn't acceptable.

The result of the election is still the same, so why does this matter?  Well, I think that if someone takes the effort to go out and vote, their vote should be counted - it's that simple.  I also think that the new system works against the less fortunate in our city - those who already have fewer advantages than those who grew up writing exams electronically (like my kids).  It also works against seniors, another group in our city that deserves to have their voice heard.  We need to do everything possible to ensure that the voting playing field is level.

Having a transparent, fair voting system is the basis of democracy.  I've done what I can to raise the issues - let's just hope that the loopholes are tightened before the next election.

"It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting." - Tom Stoppard

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Voting Process - Are There Loopholes That Should be Closed?

As you may have noticed, the recent election was run differently than previous elections, due to changes in provincial legislation.  As with all new processes, these changes led to some confusion in the process, and may have left openings for voter fraud that were not intentional, but should be tightened before the next election rolls around.

The most noticeable difference was that there was no voters' list.  In previous elections, you may recall, the polling clerk had a list of voters eligible to vote in whichever poll area they resided within. The list was usually made up from the previous election, and you could always get added to it either before the election or at the polling station, provided that you had adequate identification. When you voted, the clerk used a ruler and pencil to cross you off the list.  Very low tech, but effective.  At the last election, all voters were required to provide voter identification, which helped to prevent someone walking in a claiming to be someone else, and voting in their place.

This time, with no voters' list, you had to fill out a form identifying yourself and your address, and sign it in front of the poll clerk.  The form was then put into an envelope, and not looked at again. I know, because I asked. Another change - this time you could vote at one of several polls - not just at an advance poll or the poll in your neighbourhood, but there were also two super polls.  And with no master list where your name is crossed off once you've voted, that's where the opportunity for slipping through a loophole is.

For instance, you could fill out the form, and vote at the advance poll.  There were several opportunities to do that, and nothing stopping you from voting more than once.  On election day itself, you could vote at the polls in your ward, if there were more than one, then drop in at each super poll and vote again.

When a friend of mine pointed this out to an election official the response was disappointing, if predictable - was the suggestion being made that people would cheat in an election?  I'm sure that most people won't, just as I'm sure that most people won't steal my car.  But I still lock my car, because there are those people who will, given the opportunity.

And the solution is simple - have a master voters' list, and cross off someone's name as soon as they vote.

Another issue occurred with poll clerks telling people that they lived in a different ward.  I've had more than one person tell me that they told the clerk what ward they were in, pointed on the map, and the clerk then told them that they lived in a different ward, and sent them there.  In these cases, the clerk was wrong, the individual was right, but assumed that the clerk's training was better than their own knowledge.  Which it wasn't.

And finally, the ballot itself.  For the first time, it wasn't using a pencil to make an X, it was filling out an oval by the appropriate name.  What wasn't communicated to all voters was that you had to use the pen provided at the polling station, not the one in your pocket.  I almost used the pen in my pocket, then thought that perhaps I should use the one provided, and I know that some people will automatically use their own pen as a way of avoiding germs.  This has led to an unusually high number of ballots being recorded as blank - hard to believe that someone would go to the trouble of going to a poll and then not voting.

I don't believe that any of these potential loopholes were intentional, but I know that the first time trying new processes, in this case several new tweaks to the system, is bound to show weaknesses that should be fixed.  I only hope that our elected officials review the processes, and close off the loopholes, before the next election.

"I wish I could shut up, but I can't, so I won't." - Desmond Tutu

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

After 16 years, I'm no longer representing Ward 3 on City Council.  I'm disappointed, of course.  It's like being fired.  It's as though some residents of Ward 3 said "It's not like you've done a bad job, we're just wanting a change."  Perhaps some thought that I'm past my best before date.  That's the thing about democracy - voters get to decide, which is how it should be.  I know that every defeated candidate feels that they had something valuable to offer.  And every candidate deserves kudos for being willing to put themselves out there, because as soon as you do, you become a target.

There are those who say that being on council is a thankless job.  They're wrong.  I'm quite gratified with the phone calls, emails and conversations I've had with people since last Wednesday, and before, saying thank you for my years of work, and recognizing that I always did  my best to remain true to what I see as the fundamentals of the job - standing up for the people who live in Ward 3, and trying to get more of the benefits for residents of the ward that other city residents take for granted - for example, it took seven years to get recyling bins for Ward 3, even though they were paying for them, but it finally happened.

I did have several people comment on how frustrating it must have been to deal with administration at times.  Where there are many good people at City Hall, I could never get a good explanation as to why my inquiries went unanswered for weeks, months, and in some cases years, when other members of council got much quicker service.  I could not seem to get across the message that these inquiries came from tax-payers who were having trouble getting answers, and that not answering my questions on their behalf was disrespectful to the people who pay the salaries of every individual at city hall.

Are there things that I won't miss?  Of course.  The petty politics that have nothing to do with the job would astound people I'm sure.  You would not believe how some members of council worry about where they sit in meetings - at times it seemed like kindergarten.  I won't miss pancake breakfasts - I don't like pancakes, but so many good initiatives in the community use these breakfasts as a way of increasing visibility and raising money, and as a councillor, you're invited to them all.  I won't miss the anonymous comments on local news websites -  for me, if you can't be bothered to contact me directly about your concerns, your contributions are just so much hot air.

I never minded being the only vote for or against a proposal.  My first time standing alone on a vote was in my first few months.  A group home for parolees, legal under the guidelines at the time, became an issue when neighbours found out, when a resident was accidentally dropped off at the wrong place.  The home had been in existence for more than two years with no problems, providing a service desperately needed in this community, but a council chamber full of emotional people was enough to sway the votes of everyone else.  I didn't get it, but the bylaw was soon amended, and we still turn down group home zoning if it's in the "wrong" neighbourhood - the most recent being a  home for high-school students that was turned down on the imaginary but politically correct reason of concerns about parking.  Thinking back on that original vote, how much would having secure, supervised housing for parolees help with crime rates?  You have new and returning members of council who talk about being concerned about crime in the city - will they take action, or just keep on talking.

Also in my first term on council I voted against third reading on a bylaw that would increase water rates.  That earned me a public dressing down from the mayor at the time, accusing me of costing the city money and ignoring the fact that according to the Cities Act, any member of council is free to vote against third reading of a bylaw in the first meeting.  It wasn't the last time a mayor tried to intimidate me through public shaming - fortunately I'm fairly familiar with the Cities Act, as all members of council should be (but aren't).  Sadly, council still piles increases into water bills, promising to review the proposed increases before they come to pass, but not doing so when the time comes.

I do have some suggestions for the new council - don't be afraid to stand up if you think that something stinks.  I got tired of hearing from other members of council that we should all vote together on contentious things, because then no individuals could be blamed.  Or that we should all vote together because we're a team, or because that's what the mayor wants.  As far as I'm concerned, if you see a problem, you're obligated to the people who elected you, not to covering the butts of the other people around the table, or who work for the city.  In fact, if you'll look around the room, you'll realize that none of your colleagues voted for you - they voted for themselves.

Your council colleagues are not your friends.  You should have civil relationships, but that doesn't mean that you're friends.  I'm lucky - after 16 years on council, I've had three colleagues whom I consider as friends.  Where you will make new friends is by meeting constituents through council work - I've been lucky that way too.

Stand up for what you think is right, and be ready to explain yourself.  I started this blog as a way of doing that, and I've received innumerable comments about how knowing more of the background was really helpful.

Ask the hard questions.  Too often members of council suggest that having something discussed in public might be embarrassing to individuals.  I'm sorry, embarrassment isn't one of the reasons in the Cities Act for keeping things confidential.  Again, your responsibility is to the residents of the city as a whole, and you won't be doing your job if you just let things slide, even though it might make meetings more pleasant.

Accomplishments that I'm proud of - I raised the issue of lead water service connections, and some improvement has happened.  You might not remember, but at the time other members of council called me a fear-monger, and suggested that we should wait until it was proven that lead in water was a health hazard.  Yes, sadly, there's no requirement for the mayor or councillors to be well-informed.  As I mentioned earlier, I got recycling bins in place across the city, although I wasn't done - I was still fighting for all homes to have individual bins, and not have to rely on huge dumpsters in alleys.  I raised issues at budget time that often succeeded in having proposed expenditures brought into the public view - for example, most of council was fine with having the Borealis bail-out hidden in the budget.  We still ended up losing that fight, but at least it was in the open.  I succeeded in getting a tax exemption for the Recycle Store - something that helps to build more houses through Habitat for Humanity, focused on providing affordable housing for those in lower income brackets.  This is a cause that I've supported since before my time on council, because I know that it  makes a real difference to people without a lot of resources.

Some of the calls I've had since the election have been with people second-guessing what I could have done differently.  After one such call, Andrea asked me "Would you have changed anything you did?"  And I have to say that no, considering all the factors, I still would have done the same thing.  Perhaps it comes down to what Andrea has said consistently over the last sixteen years - I'm a good councillor, but not so good as a politician.  Which is how it should be.

I appreciate all the support I received during the election - having people call and ask for lawn signs, or spend a morning hammering them in, was quite heart-warming.  My invaluable media consultant provides advice that I could never afford to pay for.  I appreciate those who were available for conversations  - having that support, from people who are still supportive after the election, is another illustration of what true friendship is.

As always, the support from my family was and is unwavering.  Ingrid helped with my first campaign - she couldn't vote, but she helped fold flyers, which got her some civic marks in her history class.  Guthrie has been able to vote for me a few times, and told Andrea that the best thing that he's learned over the past sixteen years is the importance of standing up for what you think is right.  That makes me feel good.  And Andrea, whose continuous optimism and cheerfulness balances my more pessimistic outlook, is the reason why this blog comes out free of grammar and spelling errors.

Several people have asked that the blog continue, as they value the additional information and insight that it provides.  So when an issue catches my interest, I'll post something.  Even after 317 posts, I still have things to say.  And if it helps to bring issues to light, all the better.  Just as when I was a councillor, I'll do my best for the residents of Ward 3.  After all, I still live here.

"Truth is stranger than any fiction I've seen." - Hunter S. Thompson