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Tom Thumb and the paper ballot

by Dave Adsett

There are few things in life we value more than the right to vote.

The ability to freely mark a ballot is the genesis of all else in a democracy. Once that fundamental truth is acknowledged, it behooves custodians of that process to ensure the sanctity of the vote. 

This past municipal election casts doubt for us that those in charge share the same passion for privacy and freedom. Experiments with alternative voting are ongoing and each session begs the age-old question: if it wasn’t broke, why fix it?

Clerks run local elections, including the preparation of a bylaw to authorize the method of voting and associated expenditures over which local councils have the final say. It is an onerous responsibility and we respect their noble intentions to host a fair, impartial election. 

But we believe some choices to be misguided, even if entirely in keeping with municipalities across Ontario.

We have yet to hear of a passage, mandate or a regulation within the Municipal Act that charges clerks or councils with the task of improving voter turnout. This is often touted as one of the key selling points for using alternative voting methods. 

In recent years assembling a team of election workers has become more difficult. Rather than exhaust every effort to engage citizenry to help with this task, the choice was made to engage corporations to assist with elections. That has helped alleviate the staffing issue, but said another way, elections have been handed off to businesses.

Dominion Voting Systems was one such company, contracted to execute elections in 51 municipalities across Ontario. Along with tabulation machines they provided internet voting to municipalities choosing that method. Issues with the system resulted in numerous communities extending voting hours - in some cases a full 24-hour extension of the voting deadline. It blamed a third-party service provider for its problems – and yes, that is now two businesses directly affecting an election process.

Exacerbating these woes are the issue of privacy and that’s where Tom Thumb comes in.

Growing up rural and in a politically active family, voting was a big deal. My grandfather was a Liberal organizer and dad was busy with Conservative politics. Grandma Ethel, however, was her own person and when asked who she voted for the answer was always “Tom Thumb.” I wasn’t very old, but old enough to know he wasn’t on the ballot and regardless of the various ways we tried to trick a disclosure from her, she stuck to her guns. 

It was a lesson I never forgot – that people have the right to privacy with their ballot and the right to make conscious choices of their own. 

Not lost on us either, for women of our grandmother’s generation, is that the efforts of the suffrage movement meant she could vote and her opinion actually counted. One hundred short years ago, women gained equality with men and were able to vote. The right to mark a ballot was not a casual point for her and it shouldn’t be for voters today.

The secret ballot afforded voters the chance to express their will without pressure from employer, family, friend or politician. Elections Canada goes to great lengths to explain its importance - voting in Canada is by secret ballot. The security of the ballot is paramount, and the system makes it impossible to discover for which candidate a specific voter has voted. 

Furthermore, a ballot cast with a mark that could potentially allow the voter to be identified has to be rejected. This is to ensure that no electors are intimidated or bribed into voting in a particular way. Intimidation and bribery, as well as any attempt to reveal how an elector has voted or is going to vote, is an offence under the Canada Elections Act.

To date alternative voting options do not ensure secrecy of the ballot, nor do they ensure the intended voter marked the ballot themselves. No system, apart from the traditional ballot, offers the degree of security a citizen should expect or demand.

This past election, some candidates took advantage of a proviso within the Elections Act to access updated lists of voter activity. On practically a daily basis, candidates knew who voted, and conversely who didn’t, and were able to target voters they needed to win. There is something unsettling about that; so much so that one of the more astute local politicians of our time even found it too disagreeable to engage in.

There are some places the wise dare not tread. Although this process was available in limited fashion under the old system, current methods allow candidates to practically stalk their prey daily for weeks, which doesn’t seem right.

One would hope the Ministry of Municipal Affairs would busy itself with fixing up a system that is clearly broken. We won’t hold our breath, knowing from personal experience and from listening to reporter interviews trying to get definitive answers on simple issues that little is forthcoming in the form of leadership from that organization.

What we can do is appeal to incoming councils and local clerks to think long and hard about what the next election will look like. Time is currently on the side of making a wise choice. Will we return to a truly secret ballot and an event where the community pulls together to make its choice or settle for companies running our elections?

As surely as we offer this position, we expect to hear from dear souls who have benefited from the convenience of alternative voting methods. A very sincere senior wrote a nice letter to us the last time we railed against this issue. Her point was well taken, in that some people have legitimate difficulty getting a ride to the polls. Perhaps, given the time between now and the next election, a deal can be made with transit options to help seniors or the disabled in this circumstance. Few would argue with this limited expense.

As new councils get started, we can think of few statements or first steps more powerful than returning the right of a secret ballot to residents across Wellington County. 

Bring back the paper ballot!

November 2, 2018


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