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Canadian election mechanics, an immigrant engineer’s view

Posted by on 30 Sep 2021 | Tagged as: Canada, community, Democratic Reform, politics

Canada held a national election 10 days ago. I have watched and voted in US elections for 40 years — first in California, where I spent my early adulthood, and later Washington state. I have been watching elections in Canada for 15 years, since I immigrated in 2005. I first voted here in 2017, after becoming a citizen. But in this election, on 20. September 2021, I served as a poll worker for the first time. This gave me an insider’s view of how this election was run. As an engineer, I love the process and methods in use around me. I can’t resist writing down some of the differences in election mechanics, between this Canadian election, and the California and Washington election mechanics which I have experienced.

One issue. This election was about one issue: electing members to a national Parliament. There were no other races. Nothing from the province or city. By contrast, the US elections I know usually piled multiple races and initiative questions into a single election and a single ballot.

Elections Canada specimen ballot, with fictional candidate names
Sample Canadian national election ballot (Source: Elections Canada training manual)

A small, simple ballot. The ballot was a single slip of paper, slightly larger than the palm of my hand. The only issue was the general election to the Parliament. Canada’s current electoral system, the archaic “First-past-the-post” system, meant that voters at my location voted only on candidates for one electoral district. The above sample has four names, but our ballot had five names.

Very manual ballot marking. A voter filled out the ballot with a pencil or pen. They put an “X” or check-mark or solid fill-in in one of the circles. Then the voter folded the ballot back up, and (after tearing off a stub) put the ballot in the ballot box themselves. By contrast, for Washington elections the voter must fill in a space on the ballot in a way that a scanning machine can read. (The same is true for Vancouver municipal elections.) In California, I sometimes filled in scannable marks on a paper ballot, and sometimes tapped in choices on a voting machine’s computer screen.

One elections office. All the voting in this election, nationwide, was operated by a single office, Elections Canada. A separate organisation, Elections B.C., runs provincial elections, and a city department runs Vancouver municipal elections. By contrast, in both California and Washington, election operations are delegated to county-level elections offices. These offices run elections for municipal, county, statewide, and national races. In the US, I currently vote through the services of the Whatcom County Auditor’s Office.

Very specific geographical ballot boxes. Elections Canada divided the electoral districts into small, local “poll divisions”, each with a specific voting desk and ballot box. I was the Deputy Returning Officer for Poll Division 125 of Electoral District 59034 (Vancouver Centre). This corresponded to two condo towers, one on Robson Street and one on Hamilton Street. People at those addresses voted at my desk. If they waited in line, they waited with their neighbours. People at other addresses voted elsewhere. I was located in a room in the Vancouver Public Library’s main branch. Our room had perhaps 10 voting desks and 12 poll divisions. Some desks and ballot boxes embraced two poll divisions. One curious side effect of this is that some voting desks had long lines, and some had none, depending on how many neighbours turned out to vote. There was no taking the next open voting booth of several equivalents, as in California. And of course, Washington has 100% mail-in voting, so it is much different.

Very voter-friendly rules. As right-wing politicians in various US states try to set up voting rules to exclude participation by citizens they don’t want, it was refreshing to see Elections Canada operate by voter-friendly rules. Voters could register on election day. Voters who had moved but not updated themselves on our registry could update their address on the voter rolls. And in particular…

Voter ID was not evil. In the US, requiring voters to show identification is branded as a right-wing tool for voter suppression. This works by limiting the acceptable identification to a short list which the suppressed voters are less likely to have. In contrast, Elections Canada accepted documents from a long and very flexible list as identification. And, for voters who had none of those documents, they could still vote if another voter vouched for them.

Very manual ballot counting. At the end of the voting day, we closed our doors to voters, and then spent an hour counting the votes in our ballot box by hand. As Deputy Returning Officer, I cut open my corrugated cardboard ballot box, and read each ballot myself. Another poll worker, who had other duties during the day, sat beside me and tallied the votes — and provided a check that I was not misreading. We then recounted and double-checked all ballots. We packaged ballots up into a series of envelopes, by hand, and sealed then signed each. We filled out a paper form with the Statement of the Vote for our poll division, by hand, making three carbonless copies.

Very manual results aggregation. How did the results get to Elections Canada, for aggregation into overall riding results? By the supervisor of my location calling the district office of Elections Canada, then coming to my desk, reading the numbers from my Statement of the Vote form to the district office. There was shouting to be heard over background noise. There was a frustrated repeating of misheard numbers. There was nary a web-hosted tally form in sight.

Security through simplicity, wide delegation, and many eyes. Of the 52,039 ballots cast in Vancouver Centre, 120 were cast in my polling division’s ballot box. I know exactly how many votes each candidate got. One the three copies of the Statement of the Vote form came home with me. And, I was present in the election room all day. All the ballot boxes in the room were sealed and on public display. I have high confidence that there was no gross tampering or ballot-box stuffing at our location. (In contrast to, say, this reporter’s experience at polling places in Tatarstan during the recent Russian election.) I am confident that no voting machine misrecorded votes, because there was no voting machine. I know that voters verified what their ballot said, because the ballot is simple, and each voter controlled the marks on their own ballot. Now there are limits to my confidence. I don’t have visibility into how Elections Canada aggregated my results into the total of 52,039. I wish that I could see a preliminary report of polling division results, to check against what I wrote in my form, before the results are declared final. But overall, I could verify more of the leaf nodes of the election tree in Canada than I could in Washington or California.

A very, very long day. The flip side of simplicity is lots of manual work. The downside (one of many) to holding an election during a pandemic is that many people who would ordinarily take the poll worker job declined. Elections Canada was scrambling for poll workers. My spouse and I signed up in part because we were younger, vaccinated, and thus less at risk; we felt we had a patriotic duty to step in. But they wanted us to work the whole day. We reported at 05:30h, and weren’t released until about 22:00h. We had only one meal break, and a couple of bio breaks. It was an interesting day. It was a fulfilling day. But boy, it was a looooong day.

Two musicians, violating social distancing

Posted by on 31 Mar 2020 | Tagged as: community, music

I was annoyed! Today I caught two musicians together. They were violating social distancing. I heard them counting: one was saying “1 2 3, 1 2 3,”…; the other, “1 2 3 4 5, 1 2 3 4 5,”… Actually, their “1”s landed together, so it sounded more like “ONE two twothree fourthree five ONE…”. Anyhow, we all need to be virus police these days, so I confronted them — from a safe distance, of course. “Hey!”, I said, “There’s a pandemic. Don’t be so close together! It’s unsafe.” “No worries”, the musicians replied, “we have two meters between us.”

Macbeth

Posted by on 30 Jun 2019 | Tagged as: community, culture, music, personal, Vancouver

I’m going to be in an opera! I am in the chorus of Heroic Opera’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth on Friday 5. July and Saturday 6. July in Vancouver. It will be a marvelous show. The singers are powerful and exciting, the direction is incisive, the costumes are lavish.

Continue Reading »

Good Godless Grief Songs

Posted by on 31 May 2019 | Tagged as: community, culture, music

I am on the lookout for good songs to sing at bad times. I want songs of grief and loss, suitable for amateur musicians like me to sing at funerals and memorial services, that do not mention gods, creators, heaven, or other fables. I am looking for “Good Godless Grief Songs”.

Continue Reading »

To the children whose parent just died

Posted by on 31 Aug 2018 | Tagged as: community, personal

To K. and C.:

It is a sad, painful road you have to walk. I know, because I had to walk a similar road myself back when I was 19 years old, and my younger brothers only 17 and 16 years.

Be kind to yourselves. The grief is real. Over time it recedes, but expect it to wash in again every so often.

But your strength is also real. You are not the first to walk this road, and you will not be the last. But others have found life, consolation, and joy despite the road — and because of the road.

You will too.

You had a wonderful mother, and I say this having only ever known her back, and left shoulder, on the Orpheum stage. How much more of her wonderfulness you received.

Yours in tears and strength, step after step,
—Jim DeLaHunt

Background: Four times in the past six years, untimely death has rippled my wider circles. Twice a parent died, leaving behind teen-aged children. Once an adult child died, leaving a parent bereft. Once a father died as a young adult child was about to get married. Each time I found myself reaching back to my own grief at my father’s untimely death, when I was young myself, for words of comfort drawn from my healing.  The most recent time was a week ago. I wrote a card to the two teenagers who survived their mother’s death. It seemed fitting to capture the message, because there will probably be a fifth and a sixth time. I’m leaving out the detail of their identity, because the message stands without it.

A settler’s guide to to reading, typing, and spelling Vancouver’s new shibboleths

Posted by on 30 Jun 2018 | Tagged as: community, culture, Unicode, Vancouver

My home, Vancouver B.C., just announced new names for two public places: “šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square” and “šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn” . In contrast to just about every other name in this town, these names are not Scottish- or English-derived. Nor are they a Chinese phoneticisation of a Scottish-derived name. Instead, at long last our town asked the First Nations leaders, whose people have been here the longest by far, to contribute the names. I think it is awesome. It is a step towards reconciliation, tiny but real. I think these names will become Vancouver’s new shibboleths.

But names like these represent change, and change is unsettling. The characters are unfamiliar-looking! We don’t know how to pronounce them! There are rectangular boxes showing missing text! There is no ə key on our keyboards! Heh. We seem to have no problem expecting immigrants who grew up with Chinese or Ge’ez or Gujurati writing to learn how to write and pronounce “Granville”, but we are reluctant to step up when it’s our turn.

Never fear. I’m a software engineer specialising in internationalisation and Unicode. Let me explain how to read, type, and spell these names.  It’s really very interesting. Continue Reading »

We are sponsoring a refugee family

Posted by on 31 Mar 2018 | Tagged as: Canada, community, government, personal, Vancouver

A month ago, three human beings were in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Now they are in Canada, and I am part of the team helping to take care of them. It has been wonderful to watch Canada welcome them. Continue Reading »

The Radiogram Game

Posted by on 30 Jun 2017 | Tagged as: community, radio, Vancouver

This is a description of the Radiogram Game, a skill-building activity for amateur radio emergency preparedness groups to conduct on their radio nets.

Many amateur radio operators love us our emergency preparedness. The Canda-based Radio Association of Canada (RAC) has an Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) activity. The US-based Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) has an entire National Traffic System™, a structure of procedures and organisations and schedules and routings. I personally am a member of VECTOR, a amateur radio group affiliated with the city of Vancouver, B.C.. VECTOR operates a weekly radio net. It operates according to formal radio procedures of the sort we would use in an disaster, so just checking in following the right procedure is good training. But the organisation is looking for more ways to train its members. Anytime you can turn training into a game, it makes people more eager to participate. The Radiogram game is a skill-building activity disguised as a fun game.

A radiogram is a structure for short messages, designed to be sent by amateur radio volunteers during a disaster, when other communication links are down. Knowing how to hear a radiogram message over the air, and transcribe it correctly, and use the right forms and handling instructions, is a useful skill for the emergency preparedness volunteer. The ARRL’s National Traffic System publishes a radiogram form (fillable PDF, 2-up letter size, 71kB). (There is also a simpler but bulkier 1-up radiogram form; PDF, 442kB). See the NTS’s manual for instructions on how to use it as part of the NTS, especially in chapter 1, The ARRL Message Format, of the NTS Methods and Practices Guidlines.

Here’s how the game works.

The club announces the game to its members in advance. At the radio net on such and such a date, a radiogram will be sent. Any member of the club is encouraged to transcribe the radiogram, and submit it back to the club for points. Draw up a scoring list: so many points for transcribing the message, with deductions for errors; so many points for correct routing information; so many points for submitting it in person at the next club meeting, and so on.  See below for a possible scoring list. It helps to award points for both fun and amusing activities as part of the scoring; maybe you want to award points for the best dramatic reading of the radiogram at the next club meeting.  Designate the proper way to turn in completed radiograms (in person?  by email?). Don’t forget to designate the deadline.

The club picks someone to be the radiogram author and reader. The challenge for the author is to make the message concise but interesting and amusing. Maybe embed a joke or puzzle in the message. Maybe have the message parody local events.  The goal is both to help the participant learn a bit more about radiogram use, and reward them with a chuckle.

It might be nice for the club to clear with the operator of the radio net that the radiogram game will be played, so that they aren’t surprised by it!

During the radionet, at the appointed stage in the proceedings, Net Control turns the frequency over to the game’s reader. The reader sends the radiogram using correct methods and practices, getting the listeners accustomed to hearing radiogram delivery in its full glory. Listeners who care to participate by transcribing the message, and submitting it as directed. The reader reminds listeners of what those directions are, and what is the deadline for submission.

The ringleader for the radiogram game collects the submitted radiograms, and awards points.  The winner can be announced at the next club meeting. All participants should be thanked for taking part, and given their score. Personally I think they should be notified by email even if they aren’t at the meeting in person. This interaction is also a great time for a more experienced member to coach the participant on how well they did, and to answer questions. The interaction then also becomes a touch point which builds relationships within the club.

The game will be more effective with repetition over time. At first, many people won’t hear about the game in advance. They won’t be prepared. They won’t know what to make of it. But over time, especially if it sounds fun, more and more people should take part.

Here’s a sample message: TWO HAMS MARRIED X COMBINED THEIR ANTENNAS X CEREMONY WASNT MUCH BUT RECEPTION WAS SPECTACULAR . Sure, it’s a lame joke. But it fits in the radiogram form, and will give people a chuckle.

Here’s a sample scoring list:

Message body: 50 points if fully correct, 1 point off for each wrong word.

Handling: total 10 points, 5 points if handling information fully correct. 5 points for the receiving station’s information.

Procedures: 20 points for recording message on an ARRL Radiogram form (printed from ARRL web site OK). 10 points for writing it legibly on any other medium. (The point being to make people familiar with the radiogram form.)
Delivery: 10 points for submitting message by correct method, on time.  6 points if method is nearly correct, or missed deadline by less than 72 hours.

Having fun with it: 10 points for best dramatic reading of the radiogram at the next club meeting. 5 points for others who try the dramatic reading.

Total: 100 points.

Judges can award bonus points for any variation which makes the game more fun or more educational.

I have come up with a message for the radiogram game. I can’t wait to try it out on my club.  The above are the guidelines I came up with. I have no doubt that others will improve them. I wouldn’t be surprised to find I’ve reinvented something someone else has already done.  If you try this game, please comment below about how it went for you!