We can aspire to the very minimum that the law requires and we can feel that we're meeting our legal obligations, but that's not the Hamilton I know and love.
By Cameron Kroetsch
Published November 19, 2018
The City of Hamilton controls how, when, and where elections are conducted. This means that they have a big part to play when it comes to voter turnout, dissatisfaction, and confusion. I heard a lot about these things over the course of the campaign and I want to outline some of those concerns, in detail, so that you have a sense of what to expect and what to prepare for if you decide to run in the next election.
What I'm about to say should make one thing really clear: the City isn't prepared to run its elections properly. In the aspects that matter most including hiring and training staff for the polls, choosing poll locations, deciding on voting technology, and interpreting the Municipal Elections Act (MEA), the City did not do enough and they rarely got it right.
The best solution to this problem is for City Council to insist on a complete overhaul of its elections. The bar has been set incredibly low and it needs to be raised, right up over our heads. Council should immediately introduce ranked balloting and then make sure they hire a new external City Manager who can drag everyone, along with their kicking and screaming, into the twenty first century.
I say this because it's not just that the City didn't do things properly, it's that they went out of their way to make it hard. They measured out their answers to questions in 1/8 teaspoons and used silence as a constant and chilling reminder of their complete authority. And, at the writing of this article, they're still at it.
But before I rip into this, I want to pause to thank a few people at the City who made this experience bearable. To the newer front-line elections staff, who I won't name, thank you. You gave me straightforward answers to my simple questions and got back to me in record time even when you needed to do more research. You were patient, educational, and fun to talk to. Also, a huge thank you to the people who work behind the various desks in the lobby and customer service areas at City Hall. You were lighthearted, funny, and sweet. Believe me, I needed every bit of it.
May 1 was a breeze. I was helped by front-line elections staff and they were super courteous. They processed my nomination, chatted me through some stuff, and even provided me with a couple of forms I had overlooked. My initial contact information went up quickly and was accurate. When there was a mistake it was corrected without a hassle.
I should unpack that process a bit. The forms that we had been given initially had places for us to indicate an address, phone number, and website. There wasn't space for social media handles or other things like that so we assumed they weren't permitted.
It wasn't until the campaign got going that a couple folks on Twitter reported that one candidate had a social media link on their City website profile. What I didn't know, but learned, was that all we had to do was ask to have our social media handles added and they would be. So I did, and they were. Great, right?
No. This was the first example in an excruciatingly long list of "in the know" things that the forms, documents, and guides we were given didn't indicate in any way. This is one of the things that the City gets to decide. The MEA doesn't tell the City what contact information to publish.
I appreciate that the City permitted candidates to include a wide range of contact information to reach more voters, but this kind of information should be communicated to every candidate and should be on the forms that we're given. I think I was one of the only candidates to discover that I could have Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram handles on the city's web profile, and that's not a good thing.
There were lots of these "in the know" things. As a candidate, if you happened to stumble on something by accident, or ask the right quirky question to the right person, you were suddenly seeing a bunch of what I can only describe as election Easter eggs. Because I had a team of fierce egg hunters, I found quite a few of them.
I also figured out, through some sleuthing, what the two main election extensions were for reaching front-line staff at City Hall so I could get questions answered quickly. This led us to learn about the times and dates for advance polling way ahead of everyone else, in time to get them on our early literature even (they had been buried on a form for hiring election staff).
Better than this, and only because we asked, we found out that the date for putting up election signs was actually 1 day earlier than everyone else had expected it to be, based on the sign bylaw.
The point: none of this information (and much more that I'm not mentioning) was made clear to anyone or written down anywhere. Why? Because that's just how we do things during elections in Hamilton, as I was told so often and so casually. That's why I'm suggesting that the people entrusted with our elections be forced to wield their authority in ways that are balanced, open, transparent, accountable, and democratic.
I can't tell you the number of times it was implied that I needed to ask to find something out. Think that through with me: I'm required to ask about something I have no way to know exists in order to find out that it exists. Good grief.
And how was I able to find all of these Easter eggs and dodge around the various barriers thrown up in my way? One word: privilege. Most candidates would not have been in a position to do this fighting and, to my point, no candidate should ever have to be. I had the time, energy, knowledge, and access to navigate complex systems and to break them down into their edible pieces. I also had a dream team of people committed to fair elections helping me along the way.
I'll be honest: I expected all of these shenanigans and came to this election ready to defend my rights. Part of the success I had in getting answers and finding things came from insisting on being the one to execute the final steps. A good lesson for every would-be candidate: you're the only one who has the full power of your candidacy. You can get someone else to do the preliminary work, but no one will get answers like a candidate showing up at City Hall to ask for them in person. Don't forget this.
Partway through the campaign, on September 4 to be exact, we were given access to a "candidate portal". At first blush, it was pretty useful. It contained not only the voters' list but also information about our maximums, polling location maps, and other information including a user's guide.
There were some interesting quirks, however, that made it a real challenge. First, there was no way to tell when it had been updated. You had to just go in every day to ensure there had been no changes. In Ward 2, for instance, the voters' list contained about 20,000 electors, which made it impossible to cross-check everything on a daily basis.
More interesting was that the people who were supporting us in the elections office didn't have access to the portal. That's right - they'd never actually used the system we were dealing with. They had to refer to a third-party support employee who would have to look into it and relay the information back to the elections official, who would then relay it back to us.
The process of just trying to get a single question answered was stretched out over days because the people on the front line had no access to the system we were using.
In a world where staff were properly trained, this would never have been the case. Setting administrative usernames and passwords for elections officials should have been done by default.
We were able to gather all of the data, anecdotal and otherwise, for this article because we had a small army of tenacious scrutineers. I'm still amazed by the work they did and grateful for the hours they put it. If it wasn't for them, I'd have had no clue where to look, what to ask, and where to press for more information.
To emphasize my point, we learned from elections staff, and our own observations, that almost no other campaign in Hamilton had the amount of scrutineer coverage we had at the advance and election day polls. In Ward 2, most candidates had none. We were extremely lucky.
We decided to use the advance polls, those other voting days that fall before the official "election day", to test out our plans and to make sure our election day scrutineers were ready.
For those of you not in the know, most wards, if not all, have both an "advance poll" (AP, at one fixed location) and a bunch of "special advance polls" (SAPs) scattered around the ward. In Ward 2, the AP was stationed at City Hall for five days and seven SAPs, most in CityHousing Hamilton buildings, were set up on October 10.
Getting information about who voted in the advance polls was really difficult to understand and very cumbersome. The number of questions that I needed to ask elections officials in order to figure out who voted, and when, was beyond what's reasonable for a campaign to do.
Here are a few highlights from the advance polls which I think you should know about and which should encourage you to have a scrutineer at every advance poll:
A voter came in to the AP declaring that they were a permanent resident. They were told by elections staff that they were eligible to vote (only Canadian citizens are permitted to vote). They then left and came back with 10-15 friends, who were also permanent residents, and they all cast ballots in the election.
The scrutineer (our fault) and elections staff (City's fault) didn't know that this was contrary to the MEA. For the record, I think it's a ridiculous rule (tenancy should govern municipal voting, not citizenship), but all of the rules should be applied equally.
At one point during my time scrutineering at the AP, a member of the current Ward 2 Councillors' staff sauntered into the polling station to "say hi" to some of the volunteers they knew there. I was a bit astonished since this interaction lasted for minutes, not seconds, without anyone batting an eye about it.
Eventually, and to the credit of elections staff, they agreed that this was inappropriate and the polling station staff were instructed to make sure that there was no one in the poll who didn't have official business there. If I hadn't been there and recognized this, behaviour of this nature may have continued. That I had to argue the point at all was completely incredible.
Being as kind as I can be, the advance polls were a cake walk compared to election day. It's obvious that we must train our election staff better and that we need to recruit and train them more closely to election day. Almost every volunteer I spoke with told me that their training was weeks prior and that they didn't remember most of what they learned.
On election day, there were a chilling number of mistakes, issues of outright discrimination, and the significant mismanagement of the elections process. The following are some of the things that happened on elections day that I think are significant enough to point out:
The hours were changed at four of the "institutional" election day polls (cue the anger and rage I feel for no city-wide polls at McMaster University, Redeemer College, or Mohawk College). They were open either from 9:00 AM - 12:00 PM or 1:00 PM - 4:00 PM as opposed to the election day hours for every other poll which were 10:00 AM - 8:00 PM. We were given no notice of this so had people showing up to closed polls and no one there in time for the poll that opened at 9:00 AM. It wasn't just that our team showed up at the wrong times, residents did too. From what we heard from residents, they were not made aware of the times that voting would take place and were expecting to be able to vote at the same times as everyone else.
Approximately 25-50 percent of all Ward 2 voters did not have voter cards. This is probably one of the most serious concerns I have. Many of the people I've spoken with since the election who voted in the previous election (2014) said that, though they hadn't moved, they didn't receive a voter card this time around but had in 2014. The City, rightfully so under the law, can ascribe this blame to the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC). That aside, we need a City-side process under the MEA to audit what MPAC sends us, not to rely blindly on a provincial body to know who the voters are in our wards (incidentally, MPAC usually only tracks reliable information for "homeowners").
There was no voters' list for voter registration at the Caroline Place Retirement Residence. This means that every single voter had to fill out an amendment to the voters' list, a form that is extremely difficult to fill out for anyone who has a disability of any kind (including many of the residents at this "retirement facility", which I visited in person during the election). Considering that the hours for voting were cut in half at this poll, it may have discouraged many from casting ballots at all.
At Queen's Garden Long Term Care residence, the staff at the facility gave a list to elections staff of people they deemed "incapable of voting" because they "didn't have the capacity" (i.e. they may have had Alzheimer's disease, or a similar degenerative condition). Thankfully, our scrutineer intervened and insisted that this was discriminatory and an announcement was made through the building's communication system that all were allowed to vote. This scrutineer remains my personal heroine.
For at least part of the day, the locked doors at Dr. Davey Elementary School were not properly staffed. There was only one person in charge of watching 2 entrances (on opposite sides of the building). One of our volunteers noticed several people try a door, realize it was locked, and leave. It wasn't until another volunteer then went to the polling station (later) and requested that a second person be assigned to watch the other door and let people in, that someone was assigned to staff both doors.
No polling station was equipped with a ward or polling station map. This means that voters could vote at any polling station because there was no way to verify whether they lived within the area covered by that polling station. Because there were no maps, when a voter came into the polling station, as long as they said they lived in Ward 2, they were allowed to vote. This means that voters could vote multiple times by simply visiting different polling stations.
There were really long lines. As a result, a few people left the polling station before voting and others left angry because of how long it took to vote during peak periods. Elections staff were forced to share unstapled and unnumbered lists which quickly fell out of sequence. Staff were clearly unprepared for most of the simple questions that came their way. While I was able to get in and out really quickly, and had a very pleasant experience, we received a number of complaints from voters and scrutineers about this.
Almost everything was manual or done with paper. It was lists, forms, ballots, pens, and pencils. There's no way to coordinate or network between polls or wards when everything is done this way. The only exception was the ballot counting machines that the paper ballots were fed into.
The polling stations did not have enough Deputy Returning Officers (DROs). This had serious implications for our ability to actually verify who voted in the election. One of the jobs of a scrutineer is to be able to check the voters' list to see who has voted. This was only permitted, however, when a DRO was not busy. With DROs being continually busy, it meant there were very small windows in which to review the list and record the information. This is done by the DRO flipping the pages of the list and the scrutineer reading and recording the names of the voters. Compare this with the system that was used in 2014 for provincial elections: each voter was assigned a number and the DROs gave those numbers to the scrutineers every 30-60 minutes on a list. As of 2018, that information is now sent to each provincial party and updated in their electronic systems internally. On the surface, it's obvious that provincial elections officials are going out of their way to work with parties to make information available. There's no good reason for the antique system we're forced to endure at the municipal level in Hamilton.
Managing Deputy Returning Officers (MDROs), essentially the people in charge of running an entire poll, were often senior members of City staff. Pause on that with me: senior members of City staff, who may or may not have a vested interest in the outcome of the election, were put in charge of managing election polls. While this is a far cry from the situation in Georgia where a candidate was also in charge of running the elections, it's still a pretty ridiculous conflict. From a purely human resources interpretation, this is ludicrous. The City Manager, who supervises the City Clerk who in turn supervises the election was now completely sequestered at a Ward 1 polling station and under the supervision of the very City Clerk that reported directly to him.
I could go on, really, but I think you get the picture.
Having said all of that, the three MDROs I interacted with were pretty great. When they didn't know the rules they deferred to me and then checked on them to make sure I was right and when I didn't know how something worked they took the time to explain it to me in detail. My experiences were with people who genuinely seemed to care about participating in the electoral process and it was fun to hang out with them. Systemically though, this stuff should scare the hell out of everyone who reads it.
All of this should also scream out "poor planning" and "toxic City Hall culture" to everyone who is reading it.
For anyone who watched the election online or on TV, the results for Ward 2 kept coming in with glitches and refresh problems. Thankfully, I had scrutineers at every single polling station right at the end of the day in order to get the results to our team as soon as possible so I knew quite quickly (within about 20 minutes).
Even with that, there's still no way to verify, to a candidate's satisfaction, the results of an election in Hamilton. No way at all. The City's elections officials hide behind vague clauses in the MEA that continue to prevent our campaign from being able to verify who did and did not vote in the election. We don't get to see a final voters' list to confirm that the number of votes correspond to the number of people who were recorded as voting. I still haven't seen a record of spoiled ballots, ballots with no vote for councillor, or any other kind of information that would allow us to confirm that the results of the election are accurate.
I'm just supposed to trust the City of Hamilton. Well, I don't.
The best example, and really the only example for which I have data, are the results of the advance poll so I'll unpack that in detail.
The City's "Official Results" say that there were 1,059 votes cast between the AP and the SAPs. When we add up the numbers from the documents provided to us by the City, we can see that only 979 people actually voted.
Despite having someone from the City walk me through all of the steps to gather the information on the phone, I still didn't get it all. I've been asking for it now for more than three weeks and I still don't have it. Maybe it's coming, who knows.
The only information I have been provided just makes the situation all the more confusing. A senior elections official told me that I was missing information from the SAPs. When I asked for this information, and was refused it, the official replied saying that there were 91 additional voters from the SAPs that I didn't have and that's where the discrepancy was.
I was even more confused by that revelation and then, as I thought about it, pretty concerned because, if that's true, that would make matters worse, not better. It would mean that, of those additional 91 voters, a staggering 12 percent didn't vote for a ward councillor at all. If that can be relied on as any sort of accurate statistical average of a similar phenomenon across all voting in Ward 2, then we'd need 1,186 voters to produce 1,059 votes. So, where I thought we might be missing information for 80 voters, we might instead be missing information for more than 200.
This discrepancy, as I'm sure you can imagine, has caused me to have serious doubts about the recorded results of this election so I also asked for the same information for the other polls on election day. The City refused to provide that information because the MEA doesn't require them to do it. While there's nothing stopping them from providing this information to me, they're determined to set the bar incredibly low and only do what the law compels them to do.
I really don't know what to think at the moment. It's my understanding that the MEA doesn't prohibit the City from providing the information I've asked for, but since it doesn't force them to, they'll keep holding that bar nice and low. Why? Because they're running on fumes and totally winging it.
Not only does City Council need to take responsibility for all of this and get me the information I asked for they need to put steps in place to ensure that this never happens again. We cannot continue to be the democratic laughingstock of this province. This means opening up the City of Hamilton so that people can have access to its information and it means, next time around, putting on one hell of a campaign to get the vote out.
For Ward 2, it means recognizing that most of the almost 20,000 electors who live here do it in apartments and condominiums.
We need to increase voter turnout beyond 35 percent and see numbers that demonstrate that a majority of Hamiltonians feel that their vote matters. That's the way we're going to see change in this City.
It also means raising the bar. Yes, it's true, we can aspire to the very minimum that the law requires and we can feel that we're meeting our legal obligations, but that's not the Hamilton I know and love. It's the City Hall I know though, bang on.
I get it though, sadly. There's no advantage for incumbent Councillors to make these kinds of changes. This very low bar lets them cross the finish line without having to lift a finger. All of this is within our power to change and I hope that our new Council will take every bit of it more seriously.
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