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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.

Texas pro-life whistleblower website

Posted by on 31 Aug 2021 | Tagged as: culture, politics, robobait, USA

Bless their heart, people in Texas have set up a pro-life whistleblower web site to try and persuade Texas to anonymously report each other for personal medical decisions about abortion.

These folks, “Texas Right to Life”, say they want to enforce the Texas Heartbeat Act, which claims to let people sue each other based on reports like this. This is the same faction which claims personal choice over a medical decision like wearing a mask or getting a shot to prevent unnecessary deaths, but then forbids choice when it comes to abortion.

The good news is, someone has set up a similarly-named, but good, web site: https://www.prolifewhistleblower.net/ . Go to that web site to find out about detectable heartbeats and standard medical practice and why abortions should not be illegal. Maybe, some people looking for the snitch website will find the good website instead. Let’s hope the good website is the first result search engines return for a search like “report abortions in Texas” — and that the bad website is waaaay down in the search results.

But how internet search engines come up with the order of search results? By looking at what other web pages link to each website. My blog is small, but the links on these pages will help in their small way to push the good result up in the search results. Do you have a web site or blog? You could link to the good web site also.

Now, another thing people are doing is gumming up the bad web site with spurious reports. I won’t link to the bad site here, but it has the same URL as the good web site, except use “.com” instead of “.net”. You currently can’t connect to the bad site except from an internet address inside the USA. You can’t see the anonymous report form except from an internet address within Texas. But there (V) are (P) ways (N) to arrange to have a Texas internet address.

To fill out a report, have the following information: How do you think the law has been violated (500 chars), How did you obtain this evidence (200 chars), Clinic or Doctor this evidence relates to (20 chars), City (30 chars), State (30 chars), Zip (30 chars). You must answer, Are you currently elected to public office? with Yes or No, and check “I am not a robot”. Now, I read that many people are submitting reports with false information. I hope they are being careful. Sites with report forms like this can easily filter out clearly bogus reports (e.g. state is not Texas, or Zip does not match City, or it mentions someone famous who is not an abortionist). It is harder to filter out plausible-sounding reports. Some anti-abortionist will have to spend effort to check them out. The more effort they waste, the less this bad website helps them.

Of course, this being the internet, someone has made another website, https://prolifewhistleblower.fun/ , to have “fun” with the bad web site by automatically generating false reports and submitting them via your internet address. I found it interesting and worthwhile.

Search engines, hear my keywords, and raise up my links! Texas Heartbeat Act! Prolife Whistleblower Web site!

To my MP: vote in favour of Electoral Reform Committee report

Posted by on 31 May 2017 | Tagged as: Canada, Democratic Reform, government, politics

Today, 31. May, 2017, the Parliament of Canada held a vote which was last hope for national electoral reform for now. The vote was formally to “concur in” the report of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE). A Yes vote would have meant that Parliament supported the ERRE recommendations, which included proportional representation (PR) in national elections.

As it turns out, that vote went against electoral reform: Yeas 146, Nays 159. I don’t yet know how my MP voted. I expect that the Parliamentary records will make it clear on 1. June or shortly after.

But, for the record, here is what I wrote to my MP, Dr Hedy Fry:

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Submission to the Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE)

Posted by on 08 Oct 2016 | Tagged as: Canada, Democratic Reform, government, politics

I just submitted a brief to Canada’s Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform, or ERRE. I expect it will show up on their docket in due course, but you can read it here first. There are many briefs, some very good, but this one is mine. Continue Reading »

Town Hall on Electoral Reform, Dr Hedy Fry MP in Vancouver Centre, 15 Aug 2016

Posted by on 31 Aug 2016 | Tagged as: Canada, government, meetings and conferences, politics, Vancouver

I favour electoral reform. I am a newly-minted Canadian, who deeply hopes my first vote for Parliament will not be conducted under the current, archaic, unfair First-Past-the-Post system. So, when my MP convened a Town Hall meeting on electoral reform, I made a point of attending. Here are some notes on the event. I hope they are helpful documentation for other democratic reform advocates.

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Copyright, Competition, and Investment

Posted by on 30 Nov 2009 | Tagged as: Canada, culture, politics

During July-Sept 2009, the Government of Canada held public copyright consultations, with an eye to writing new copyright law. They asked for submissions addressing five topics.  Here’s one of my submissions, on “Competition and Investment“. It’s hard to tell what will become of these consultations. My submission did eventually show up on the official submissions page, but I still want to publish it for the record on my own blog.  I have two more submissions, “Copyright and you (me)” and “Copyright and the test of time“, which I published in recent weeks.

Q: What sorts of copyright changes do you believe would best foster competition and investment in Canada?

A: Three changes:

  1. relinquish Crown Copyright
  2. create legal structures for free culture, and industries based on it
  3. don’t take on the job of defending obsolete business models

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Copyright and the test of time

Posted by on 31 Oct 2009 | Tagged as: Canada, culture, history, politics

During July-Sept 2009, the Government of Canada held public copyright consultations, with an eye to writing new copyright law. They asked for submissions addressing five topics.  Here’s one of my submissions, on the “test of time“. It’s hard to tell what will become of these consultations, because the government may fall (again) before Parliament gets a chance to pass a new bill. My submission did eventually show up on the official submissions page, but I still want to publish it for the record on my own blog.  I have two more submissions, one on “Copyright and you (me)” which I published last month, and one which I’ll dribble out in the coming days.

Q: Based on Canadian values and interests, how should copyright changes be made in order to withstand the test of time?

A: The largest single dynamic is the change in delivery of cultural works from physical containers (paper books, CD disks, celluloid film) to digital information (ebooks, music files, computer networks).

Physical containers are:

  1. either immediately accessible by humans (books), or accessible via limited machines which did not copy the container.
  2. expensive to duplicate, and expensive to transport. Continue Reading »

Copyright and you (me)

Posted by on 30 Sep 2009 | Tagged as: Canada, culture, politics

During July-Sept 2009, the Government of Canada held public copyright consultations, with an eye to writing new copyright law. They asked for submissions addressing five topics.  Here’s one of my submissions, on “Copyright and you“. It’s hard to tell what will become of these consultations, because the government may fall (again) before Parliament gets a chance to pass a new bill. My submission may eventually show up on the official submissions page. Until then, here it is, for the record.  I have two more submissions which I’ll dribble out in the coming days.

Q: How do Canada’s copyright laws affect you? How should existing laws be modernized?

A: This topic should not just be about copyright, it should also be about culture. I absorb culture, some of it through copyrighted works, some through public domain or non-copyrighted works. I also create works: essays, blog posts, musical performances, even submissions to government consultations. Thus I am *both* a producer and a consumer.

All culture is built by mixing and innovating based on previous culture. Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” was based on German folks tales written down a few centuries before.

The purpose of copyright is to strike a balance: to allow a limited right to prevent copying, in exchange for a larger social and cultural good. In today’s Canada, this balance has been greatly distorted, in favour of the publisher and the corporation, against the vast majority of artists, against the public, and against the culture. Digital technology, extra-long copyright terms, and aggressive policies by industry groups mean that publishers have greatly expanded their power to prevent copying. The public interest and the culture are harmed.
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In support of BC-STV and electoral reform

Posted by on 12 May 2009 | Tagged as: British Columbia, politics

Vote for BC-STVToday is the day. Voters in British Columbia elect a provincial Legislative Assembly. I don’t hear many people who are happy about the choices on offer.  You can vote for the candidate of major party #1 or #2, but you probably didn’t get a say in choosing either one from the pool of possible candidates. You don’t get a way to say “yes” to the party but “no” to the candidate, or vice versa. You can be pretty confident that, whichever is elected, they will go to Victoria with no particular incentive to stand up for your riding to their party leadership. They are more likely to stand up for their leadership against you. You can vote for the candidate of minor party #3 or #4, or an independent, with a sinking feeling that you are throwing away your vote — or worse yet, splitting your side of the vote so that the party you dislike the most walks away with victory.

Chances are, the number of seats elected won’t match the proportion of votes cast. Chances are, as many as 60% of voters will find out they have no-one in Victoria who got their votes and answers to them.

There are better ways to run a democracy than this. The improvement on offer now is called BC-STV. It will be easy for voters to use, and gives a way out of the problems with the current system. Today is the day when British Columbia voters can adopt it, in the Referendum on Electoral Reform being held today.

I support BC-STV. I hope that you will support it too — either by voting for it today, if you can, or by helping make a reform like BC-STV happen in your own jurisdiction.

Merry Christmas

Posted by on 20 Jan 2009 | Tagged as: politics, USA

“My country, ’tis of thee”, Aretha Franklin. Image by DianthusMoon at flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0I remember that Christmas was such an exciting time for me as a kid. There was such anticipation. I was thrilled to be getting something I really, really, realllly wanted. I couldn’t wait to get started with the gift-unwrapping early on Christmas morning.

The adults didn’t seem to be nearly as eager to get up and get going. And later in life, I recognised that, when I was more eager to sleep in than to open gifts on Christmas morning, it was another sign I was no longer a child.
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