If it ain't broke ... Report from Poll #90

I am still processing the results of Monday's election and expect to have gathered my thoughts about the results shortly. Meanwhile, I want to talk about the Canadian federal election system itself — that is, how we cast our votes and how our cast votes are counted.

That system is antiquated, labour-intensive, apparently inefficient and uses technologies that, with the exception of a computer-generated print-out of the voters' list, would be completely familiar to a time-traveller from the 19th century.

I spent some 15 hours in an uncomfortable chair on Monday striking names off the voters' list with a cheap ball-point pen, then helped to count the votes. I came away from the experience with a sore back, tired eyes and a lot of appreciation for an apparently primitive system that still managed to count not far off 15 million ballots in a matter of a few hours. This ancient and cumbersome system is one that is in no need of fixing.

Cardboard, paper, pencils

In praise of primitive technologies

Canadian federal elections are run by Elections Canada, a public, non-partisan agency that reports directly to Parliament. Its sole purpose is to ensure that citizens are able to vote and that those votes are counted accurately and quickly

There are no voting machines or computers, but instead an army of temporary workers armed with cheap pens, printed lists and a cardboard box full of supplies. The box itself will later be used for ballots, as well.

Voting is usually conducted at community centres, schools, church basements or retirement homes. My poll was in a smallish public room at a Community Centre on Percy Street in downtown Ottawa. I arrived just after 8:00 o'clock on Monday morning and joined a motley group of people in setting up folding tables and unstacking plastic chairs.

My partner Ross the Deputy Returning Office for Poll #90, turned out to be a last-minute replacement. We were both rookies, but still managed to be ready when the doors opened to our fellow citizens at 9:30 sharp.

My job was simple. After Ross checked the IDs of people directed to our table, I crossed their name off the voters' list, or added them to another list for next time. I also recorded a "sequence number" for the candidates' representatives.

We had no formal breaks, but snuck off to the kitchen to put away half a sandwich when we had the chance. We were open for "business" for 12 hours, and both of us had to be present for a vote to be cast.

The other key element are the scrutineers. These are people who represent the candidates. In theory, there could have been eight scrutineers at every one of the seven or eight polling stations in that small room, each representing one of the eight candidates on the ballot.

Scrutineers are on hand primarily to observe the vote, and have the right to know who has voted. Every half-hour, I tore off eight copies of a sheet on which I'd circled the "sequence number" of the people who had voted and provided it to the scrutineers who asked for it.

At the end of that very long day, and in full view of the NDP's scrutineer (it could have been more, but wasn't), Ross sliced open the seal on the flap of the cardboard ballot box and, one by one, took out some 300 or so ballots, reading the selected names out loud while I and the scrutineer added checkmarks to our own forms.

The process took maybe a half hour, at which time the scrutineers (a Conservative and a Liberal representative watched the final part of the count) agreed the counting was fair and Ross then recounted the ballots before placing each stack into an appropriate envelope, on per candidate (plus a separate envelope for the (two) spoiled ballots).

All very simple, very primitive and very effective.

Not only are millions of votes counted in a few hours, if there is a dispute, they can easily be counted again. There is no chance that votes will disappear through the magic of a computer error, no chance that a machine will mal-function ("hanging chads" anyone?), to leave tens or hundreds, or thousands, of votes uncounted, and no chance for anyone to claim (rightly or wrongly) that electronic votes were fraudulently altered.

I love my computer and I love the internet, but new and shinier isn't always better. For something as important as the the people's right to choose their own government, stubby pencils, cardboard boxes and paper ballots work just fine. As the old saw has it, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Spread the word!