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The Evolution of the Duties to be Fulfilled by Poll Staff with Regards to Registration and Voting on Polling Day and Advance Polling Days, 1920 to 2012

PART III: Assessing the Complexity of
Poll Staff Duties Then and Now

One very crude way to gauge the complexity of the duties to be fulfilled by poll staff is to count the number of operations they are expected to accomplish under the legislation, as summarized in appendices 2 and 3. This cannot be done for advance polling, because the legislation incorporates by reference operations normally carried out on polling day instead of listing all of those required for advanced polling days. For ordinary polling stations, the checklist for DROs and poll clerks with regards to receiving the votes and counting them has risen from 79 in 1920 to 98 in 2012. The number of duties to be accomplished today by registration officers is 5. When no registration officer is appointed for a polling station, such duties are accomplished by DROs, bringing the total to 103.

Granted, DROs have been relieved of some responsibilities over the years. These include appointing poll clerks and informing the returning officer accordingly, and procuring a ballot box, should the returning officer fail to provide one. They are no longer obliged to lock the ballot box and to keep the key thereof, and no longer need to number the back of the counterfoil of each ballot paper (they must still initial them, however). The pacification of the electoral process in general, and the appointment of persons in charge of maintaining order (at least in central polling places) have diminished the fear of DROs and poll clerks having to deal with disorderly scenes or violent events.

The workload of poll clerks has also been reduced, to some extent, by the elimination of the poll book for keeping track of who voted. Instead of numbering all voters successively and entering their name, address and occupation, poll clerks only need to mark the list of electors accordingly. However, they must still use the poll book to record any special incidental procedure (vouching, assisted voting, oaths, etc.). Furthermore, in advance polling stations, poll clerks must still compile a record of the names of all persons who voted at the advance polling station, in the order in which they voted, and direct the elector to sign this record opposite his or her name. Finally, having to complete a bingo card every 30 minutes is a supplementary duty, which can at times interfere with the standard duties related to dealing with voters.

The introduction of polling day registration implied transferring to poll staff duties hitherto fulfilled by enumerators and revising agents. One may assume that electors today, knowing that lists of electors are no longer closed, may neglect to ensure that their name is added to the list at revision and prefer instead to register at the polling station on polling day. The number of electors registering on polling day is far from negligible. At the 2011 election, an average of 4,773 electors in each electoral district did so in ordinary and advance polling stations.Footnote 19 True, registration officers are appointed in polling locations to take care of this, but the law still envisages that DROs may take charge of polling day registration in ordinary polling stations, and must do it in advance polling stations, though the Chief Electoral Officer has adapted the law so that registration officers are appointed for advance polling stations as well.

The most important new tasks added to the workload of polling staff over the years is, undoubtedly, checking voters' identification documents and filling out bingo cards, both introduced in 2007. These are not special procedures to be applied in exceptional cases (like assisted voting), but standard requirements to be complied with for all voters. DROs must request identification documents from voters, something that voters were not obliged to bring with them until recently. They must check whether the documents presented rank among those deemed acceptable by the Chief Electoral Officer. They must swear in voters with no identification and voters with identification who vouch for such voters. If they have reasonable doubts as to the voter's residence or qualification, they may require voters to be sworn in, and must advise oath takers of voter qualification and of the penalties for violating the Canada Elections Act. While the rationale for such precautions is sound, they have the effect of making the relationship between electors and polling staff potentially more delicate, as older voters now must bring documents that were not needed before. From the point of view of officers who must apply these requirements, there is nothing particularly pleasant in eventually telling voters they must go back home in order to get proper identification, or obliging them to find someone who will swear that they are who they say and that they live in the area included in the polling division.

Paradoxically, the increase in the number of electors voting in advance has meant that DROs and poll clerks working in ordinary polling stations may face additional problems, like being confronted with electors whose names were mistakenly crossed off the list of electors because they are believed to have voted at an advance poll. Provision is now made in the Act for such occurrences, which could not happen before 1960 because no list of electors was used.

With regards to advance polling, the elimination of certificates and affidavits has been compensated for by the introduction of new requirements. The rules introduced in 2007 with regards to the identification of electors apply to advance polls as well. DROs must no longer check certificates, but they must find the voter's name in the lists of electors of all the polling stations included in the advance polling district they work in.

The sheer number of voters dealt with at the average advance polling station remains the best argument for the view that poll staff's workload there is heavier than before. The number of hours available for dealing with voters has been multiplied by less than three, but the number of voters they actually deal with has been multiplied by almost 10, and if the trends continue, we can expect even more electors to vote in advance in the future.

Measuring and comparing the workload of election officers in polling stations today and in 1920 is admittedly a complex task. Two former Chief Electoral Officers of Canada with whom the author had the privilege of discussing this issue – Mr. Hamel and Mr. Kingsley, who have valuable knowledge dating back to the 1960s and 1990s respectively – were of the opinion that the duties are more demanding today than they were in the past. There may have been a time when positions as election officers were eagerly sought. Recent data indicate that filling them has become more difficult than it was before. A review of the evolution of these duties over almost a century, and an examination of statistical indicators, help to explain why this is so.

Footnote 19 This figure was computed by the author on the basis of statistics provided by Elections Canada. In the electoral district of Trinity–Spadina (Toronto) in 2006, almost 10,000 voters (9,921) registered on polling day.