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Report of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada on the 37th General Election Held on November 27, 2000


Ready in the ridings

Canada's 301 returning officers opened their offices no later than four days after the election was called. Each one issued a formal public Notice of Election, "of which all persons are asked to take notice and to govern themselves accordingly and in obedience to Her Majesty's writ of election directed to me." With this ringing enjoinder, each office was open for business and ready to receive nominations from candidates.

Many returning officers
new to the job

Since the last general election, new returning officers were appointed by Order in Council for 72 ridings, some receiving their appointments not long before the election call. This meant that one in five returning officers had not previously conducted an election. We were able to schedule 25 officers for our complete 8-day training program; another 16 had time to complete our intensive 4- to 5-day program, and 19 had time only for a condensed 3-day training session.

Following the resignation of the previous incumbent, the returning officer for Nepean–Carleton, Ontario, was appointed only three days before the election was called. During the campaign, the returning officer for Cumberland–Colchester, Nova Scotia, was suddenly hospitalized, and the assistant returning officer took over. The returning officer for Nunavut was absent from the riding for six days during the election period, during which the assistant returning officer served as acting returning officer.

Returning officers

Returning officers have to be exceptionally versatile, and able to work under constant pressure. Their duties require a wide range of skills, from dealing with electors and meeting their needs, to managing human and material resources, financial planning, information technology, contract negotiation, public relations, and more.

Although the bulk of the returning officers' work was done during the 36-day election period (when they worked 12 hours a day or more, every day), they had many other responsibilities before the election. In spring 2000, for example, they conducted the first of two planning exercises to make sure that they and their assistant returning officers were ready for a possible election. They reviewed their polling division boundaries and advance polling districts, and confirmed the number of acute care hospitals and long-term care institutions in their ridings to plan for special ballot voting and for mobile polls. They updated their lists of potential polling locations, identified areas to be targeted during the revision period, consulted local representatives of political parties about their planning, prepared a plan for training their election officers, set up itineraries for staff if travel to outlying locations would be required, identified potential training officers, and recruited an automation coordinator and assistant automation coordinator.

In August, their second planning exercise included identifying potential office locations, and preparing lists of the furniture, equipment, supplies and suppliers they would need. They also contacted political party representatives who would provide the names of possible revising agents, reviewed their telephone and fax requirements, found local printers for material such as ballots and voters lists, customized the Information Manual for Local Office Staff, and reviewed their preliminary election budgets, among other tasks.

In response to recommendations made after the 1997 general election, we provided all returning officers with a new reference CD-ROM, Returning Officer's Manuals, a compendium of 17 election-related manuals and the Canada Elections Act.

Returning offices and polling sites

The task of finding an office was not always straightforward for returning officers, because they are prevented by law from signing a lease before an election is called, and because of election requirements. Offices have to be available with little advance notice, they must have level access, and they should be able to support the computer and telecommunications needs of a returning officer. The address should also be easy for electors to find and reach. Similarly, securing the 17 340 polling sites that were necessary for the election occasionally posed difficulties. Before the issue of the writs, in the Quebec ridings of Joliette, Repentigny, Jonquière, Chambly, and Beauport–Montmorency–Côte-de-Beaupré–Île-d'Orléans, the returning officers had been given verbal confirmation that they could lease sites in several schools; once the election was called, however, the parents' Comité d'établissement of the schools withheld permission, and the returning officers only had a few days to choose alternative locations. Affected by this late change were polling divisions serving some 117 875 electors. Later on in the campaign, a strike of custodians in two Ontario ridings forced the relocation of advance polls affecting 50 polling divisions, as well as a further 43 polling stations on election day.

In two ridings, one in British Columbia and the other in Ontario, the returning officers encountered a lack of suitable polling facilities in one area in each riding. In both cases, they consulted local candidates, who agreed to a polling site outside the riding boundaries but close to the majority of the electors in the area. The Chief Electoral Officer used his authority under subsection 17(1) of the Canada Elections Act to approve using polling facilities outside the boundaries of Burnaby–Douglas, British Columbia, and Mississauga Centre, Ontario. The polling site used in Burnaby–Douglas was across the street from the electoral district limits, and served three advance polls and five ordinary polls. The polling site used in Mississauga Centre was located just outside the boundaries and served five ordinary polls.

Approximately one quarter of the polling stations were located in community centres, one quarter in educational facilities, and the balance in places as varied as hospitals, fire halls and band offices, all chosen to make voting as accessible as possible.

Level access

Under the Act, every polling station is required to have level access. If returning officers are unable to obtain suitable premises equipped with level access, they may (but only with the Chief Electoral Officer's prior approval) locate a polling station in premises without such access. Accessibility was indicated on the voter information card, sent to every registered elector. Transfer certificates were available up to the Friday before election day to allow electors with disabilities to use other polling stations with level access, if their polling stations did not provide such access.

We have modified buildings and offices used during elections everywhere in Canada to provide level access; most of these modifications are permanent. By arranging to have ramps built, returning officers in 85 ridings modified 239 facilities to provide level access. The facilities served 36 advance polls and 1 069 ordinary polls. Of the 17 340 polling sites used on election day, only 89 (0.5 percent) did not provide level access, compared to 406 (2.3 percent) at the 1997 general election.

Accessibility

Elections Canada has worked to remove the obstacles electors may encounter at the polls by making continuing improvements to administrative practices. Parliamentary committees that have reviewed the Canada Elections Act over the years have made additional recommendations. Amendments to the legislation in 1992, 1993, 1996 and 2000 have produced services that are better adapted to the needs of Canadian voters, particularly persons with disabilities. Returning officers received accessibility training and awareness sessions, to help them recognize the needs of persons with disabilities in their ridings.

Mobile polls

The Act provides for establishing mobile polling stations to collect the votes of elderly or disabled persons residing in institutions. Mobile polls served polling divisions with two or more health care institutions; the ballot boxes were carried by election officers who travelled from one institution to the next, and the mobile poll remained open at each place only as long as it took for the residents to vote. From coast to coast, 883 mobile polling stations serving 2 543 institutions were established in 256 ridings.

Accessible voting

Voting has been made more accessible by allowing electors to register at the advance polls as well as on election day, when the polls were open for 12 hours. The special ballot allowed Canadians to vote by mail or in person at the office of a returning officer; while all electors could use the special ballot, it was particularly useful to persons with disabilities who would have difficulty reaching a polling station.

An elector who was registered for a special ballot, who could not go to the office of the returning officer, and who could not mark the ballot because of a disability, could vote at home in the presence of an election officer and a witness.

At the advance polls and on election day, any person with a visual impairment could ask the returning officer for a voting template, and assistance in marking the ballot was available.

Hiring and training local staff

As in the past, deputy returning officers, poll clerks and registration officers were nominated in each riding by the candidates representing the two registered political parties whose candidates came first (the deputy returning officer and half the registration officers) and second (poll clerks and half the registration officers) in the previous election in the riding. This system typically meant that each of these two candidates would have had to provide the names of as many as 300 qualified people.

Getting enough names from the candidates and parties has always presented problems for returning officers, who have had to develop their own contingency lists over time. Moreover, new returning officers do not always obtain those lists of personnel from their predecessors. The problem is compounded when people who have been trained for these positions do not turn up for work on election day for various reasons.

This election was no exception. Because some candidates did not supply the names of enough workers, the Chief Electoral Officer gave special authorization for those returning officers to recruit from outside their ridings. They had to advertise for election day workers in some ridings, and were occasionally swamped with applicants at the last minute. Nevertheless, the returning officers were successful in finding some 166 000 election workers without insurmountable problems.

This was the first election at which returning officers were authorized to appoint liaison officers to work with special needs communities in their ridings. They appointed 22 officers for the homeless, 7 for ethnocultural communities, and 52 for Aboriginal communities. Also new for this election were three other positions: an assistant automation coordinator, made necessary by the increased sophistication and automation of the local office; a training officer, to provide training sessions for poll officers; and in more populated ridings, a recruitment officer to help recruit the hundreds of poll officers required.

The electronic office

The number of office systems relying on electronic data transmission increased after 1997, when the Event Management System, the Election Payment System, ECAPLE (the Elections Canada Automated Production of Lists of Electors system) and the Event Results System were the main systems providing electronic data to Elections Canada. In 2000, REVISE (which replaced ECAPLE) and the Returning Officers Payment System (which replaced the Election Payment System) were added in local offices. REVISE transmitted daily revision counts (the number of changes made to the preliminary voters lists) that improved revision monitoring and analysis at Elections Canada. It also sent final voters list data electronically after the election. As a result of the new payment system and excellent co-operation from staff in the local offices, we were able to pay some 95 percent of election day workers and landlords within four weeks of election day compared to six weeks after the 1997 election.

The Returning Office Technology Centre at Elections Canada in Ottawa could download electronic files or retrieve data from each of the 301 ridings' local area network servers across Canada. The telecommunication system proved robust enough to allow Elections Canada to receive most of the data promptly by modem line, although there were isolated cases of transmission failure. If retrieving the data was critical, we could gain access to the file server through the modem line.

For this election, returning officers had a new software application for the voter information cards. The program gave returning officers their complete database of polling sites, drawn from the national database, and allowed them to update the database if polling locations changed after the issue of the writ. The program then produced the different versions of the voter information cards, ready for the printers, saving approximately three days' work. The updated databases were also transmitted to the national database at Elections Canada, where Enquiries Unit staff could respond to electors who asked where they could vote.

For the first time, returning officers received nearly 50 forms in electronic format, rather than myriad paper copies. This saved printing, handling and shipping costs as well as storage space.

Support for local offices

An accident and a theft
call for swift action

Before the advance polls, one tragic incident temporarily affected the distribution of ballot paper to 58 ridings. On November 2, a Canada Post tractor-trailer was involved in a serious accident east of Kenora, Ontario, that killed the two drivers. The truck was carrying ballot paper that was destroyed in the ensuing fire. Within 10 hours, our Distribution Centre dispatched a second shipment, and the paper arrived in the ridings in time for the ballots to be printed after the close of nominations.

Returning officers reported only one instance of equipment theft: computer equipment stolen during a break-in on October 29 from the office of the returning officer in the riding of Stoney Creek, Ontario. Once the police allowed the office to reopen, our supplier installed new equipment and software within 48 hours; no private elector information was stolen.

To assist returning officers and their staff, a new Elections Canada Support Network was set up in Ottawa, with seven different help desks: for election coordination, computer applications, elector registration and revision, Special Voting Rules, finance, computer and telephone equipment, and general network support. With one toll-free telephone number and an interactive voice response system, callers could get swift assistance for any issue that came up. Three levels of expertise were available from 70 advisors, 18 hours a day from Monday to Friday, 15 hours on Saturdays, and 9˝ hours on Sundays. The service answered an average of 1 332 calls a day.

Contingency plans for emergencies

In the ridings, each assistant returning officer was responsible for dealing with security-related situations, including the possibility of closing the office because of a weather emergency, fire, gas leaks, heating system breakdowns, and so forth. Each office had complete security plans covering the safety of the staff and electors, and procedures for keeping the office's information, information technology equipment and premises secure. For the first time, returning officers were authorized to install an alarm system or to have a uniformed security guard on site throughout the election period. On election day, every local office had a uniformed security guard on duty to control the flow of traffic and control access to restricted areas.

Elections Canada prepared a contingency plan in case the Chief Electoral Officer had to use his discretionary powers under sections 17 and 59 of the Canada Elections Act. Section 17 covers an emergency, an unusual or unforeseen circumstance or an error that makes it necessary for the Chief Electoral Officer to adapt any provision of the Act. Section 59 covers fire, flood or any other disaster that requires the Governor in Council to withdraw the writ in a riding – that is, to stop the election in that riding. We called on the expertise of Emergency Preparedness Canada for help in preparing the plan, and obtained a list of contacts for a variety of urgent situations.

One of those situations was the possibility of a snowstorm that could affect the opening of polling stations. In our daily reports, we included a review of national weather forecasts. Only one weather emergency arose, when a snowstorm in the riding of Erie–Lincoln, Ontario, threatened to shut down three advance polls. Although the mayor of Fort Erie declared a state of emergency, the returning officer was able to keep the polls open despite the storm. Section 59 has never been used.

The Chief Electoral Officer used section 17 several times during the election, mainly to add registration officers at advance polls; this occurred in 51 ridings. On one occasion in Vancouver East, British Columbia, a candidate decided to bring busloads of people to vote at the advance polls; invoking section 17, the Chief Electoral Officer authorized the returning officer to add a deputy returning officer and teams of poll clerks at the polling site. He used section 17 for this purpose in two ridings. Under subsection 22(5) of the Act, the Chief Electoral Officer also authorized a number of returning officers to hire election officers from outside their ridings, and to hire election officers between the ages of 16 and 18.

Ready in remote areas

Special delivery for special ballots

Getting special ballot kits in and out of Eureka in Nunavut was an example of the lengths to which returning officers had to go to serve all electors in their ridings. Seven electors worked at the weather station on Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic – the jump-off point for adventurers heading for the North Pole, with the coldest average annual temperature in Canada. Scheduled commercial flights only go as far as Resolute, so the returning officer for the riding of Nunavut had to charter a plane to carry the supplies to Eureka.

Distributing election supplies in remote areas, principally in the North, is a challenge that we now take in stride. In some ridings, the absence of roads and the foggy and snowy weather made delivery of supplies by air somewhat uncertain. Thanks to the efforts of regional Canada Post officers, the Department of National Defence, and (in one case) the captain of a ferry that crosses the Mackenzie River, ballot boxes and other supplies finally reached eight northern communities that had been briefly cut off.