Support for Returning Officers – Retrospective Report on the 44th General Election of September 20, 2021
It is the returning officer who has the primary responsibility to deliver a federal election within their electoral district according to the Chief Electoral Officer's instructions. The support of ECHQ for the returning officer is key to enabling effective service to Canadians. For the 44th general election, returning officers had to adapt to a pandemic within a very short time; this response made the support they received from ECHQ all that more critical.
The Chief Electoral Officer mandates returning officers to conduct pre-event assignments between electoral events. These include keeping files on prospective election officers and polling places up to date, maintaining contact with printing companies and party organizations, recruiting potential staff and identifying potential key staff to help meet obligations when the writ is issued.
A majority of returning officers indicated that, overall, the communications and support they received from ECHQ was effective and facilitated the delivery of the election. According to the Returning Officers' Report of Proceedings Summary for this election, 63% of returning officers agreed that the overall support from Elections Canada was satisfactory. Additionally, 79% of returning officers were satisfied that the training and information they had received prepared them for conducting the election. The report confirmed that the majority of returning officers agreed that the pre-event assignments and various training sessions in the pre-event period adequately prepared them, and their key staff, to deliver the 44th general election. Assignments were made available to returning officers in the summer leading up to the election. Of 338 electoral districts, 312 electoral districts (92%) participated in pre-event assignments.
As part of the preparations for the 44th general election, in addition to the expected outcomes from the Departmental Results Framework, Elections Canada identified a fifth outcome that it expected to achieve for Canadians:
- Returning officers are supported in the administration and delivery of the election
Objective 5: Returning officers are supported in the administration and delivery of the election
The recruitment and retention of election workers remain the biggest logistical challenges that Elections Canada faces during each election. More than 200,000 election workers need to be hired and trained in a very short period of time to serve 27 million electors in 338 electoral districts across the country. This large number of workers is required to provide adequate services at the polls, maintain compliance with polling day procedures, meet accessibility and official language requirements and, for the 44th general election, adhere to evolving health restrictions and mandates. For this election, returning officers were able to hire approximately 195,000 workers, including 18,000 office staff working in local Elections Canada offices and about 177,000 election workers assigned to polling places. This represents a decrease of approximately 37,000 compared with the 232,000 employees hired for the 43rd general election.
Elections Canada implemented several initiatives in an effort to mitigate the recruitment challenges of past elections. For example, the agency sought to gain efficiencies by adopting the single-poll-worker model. This enabled it to allocate resources optimally, thereby reducing the number of workers required to deliver in-person voting services. The agency also put in place contingency measures to support returning officers when recruited employees did not report for work; for example, returning officers and central poll supervisors were allowed to merge voting desks to enable voting to start immediately or enable the central poll supervisor or registration officers to open a poll while waiting for a standby deputy returning officer to arrive. During the 44th general election, about 14,000 poll workers failed to report for work, an increase from approximately 10,000 in the 43rd general election. Despite this increase, fewer than 0.6% of advance and election day polls opened late.
Elections Canada enhanced its recruitment campaign to address known recruitment issues and the anticipated recruitment challenges of conducting an election during a pandemic. The campaign ran from August 18 to September 18, 2021, with additional targeted campaigns in specific electoral districts that traditionally have difficulty recruiting workers. The agency also leveraged the use of social media on platforms like Snapchat, Spotify and YouTube to reach younger audiences and featured recruitment on the home page of its website for the entire election period. The recruitment campaign was aimed at raising awareness of paid working opportunities at the advance polls and on election day and encouraging potential workers to apply online. The campaign also outlined the health and safety measures that had been put in place for election workers. To ensure success, the agency tripled the campaign budget for the 44th general election so that it could target a larger audience.
To increase the agency's reach with audiences that face barriers to electoral participation, its Inspire Democracy program shared information about working in the election with community organizations and stakeholder groups. The program developed a webinar, "Working in a Federal Election," and sent information about job opportunities to a network of 619 stakeholder contacts. The youth community organizations contacted included the YMCA, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, Apathy is Boring, Institut du Nouveau Monde, Citoyenneté jeunesse and Fédération de la jeunesse canadienne française.
Elections Canada also implemented several measures targeting the recruitment of bilingual workers. These included:
- Promoting employment opportunities in official language minority communities (OLMCs).
- Creating a database, in collaboration with Canadian Heritage, of more than 400 local and regional organizations representing OLMCs, which all returning officers could access in order to recruit bilingual workers.
- Working with returning officers to increase the number of community relations officers for official language minorities; these officers are responsible for engaging with members of OLMCs and encouraging them to work at federal elections.
Recruitment efforts were also made in Indigenous communities before and during the election. Between August 5 and 19, 2021, the AFN made calls to 400 First Nations communities to promote employment opportunities with Elections Canada. Information about employment opportunities was also sent to more than 700 band offices and First Nations.
Finally, it is important to note that the new regional recruitment coordinator position gave returning officers access to additional recruitment support. According to the Returning Officers' Report of Proceedings Summary, the coordinator was an important player in the recruitment of bilingual poll workers in some electoral districts. However, some returning officers had difficulty understanding the scope of the position, and some struggled to effectively leverage and integrate it into poll operations.
Finding: Despite a range of measures in place to assist recruitment, remains major challenge.
Following the 43rd general election, Elections Canada revised the training strategy for returning officers. In collaboration with subject matter experts across the agency, approximately 40 hours of training materials were prepared and deployed through six distinct virtual training courses. The agency also updated the election worker training program to reflect and support changes to the voting process as well as procedures related to the ongoing pandemic.
The agency deployed online training modules for recruitment, finance, voting operations and planning, technology and election worker training. The online courses supported the training of a record 4,583 staff in positions at local Elections Canada offices without any reported technical issues or outages. In previous elections, training accounts for key office staff had been granted centrally by ECHQ before personnel could access the training materials. The registration process often generated errors, and these caused delays for staff wishing to access the training materials under tight time constraints. For the 44th general election, the agency gave staff direct access to these courses. This change expedited registration for the online training and enabled quick access for field workers, which, in turn, reduced the demand for ECHQ support.
According to the Survey of Election Officers, 85% of election officers said that the training they received prepared them well to undertake their tasks during the 44th federal election; the percentage in 2019 was slightly higher (88%). Additionally, 97% of election officers reported that they felt informed about the COVID-19 safety measures in place when they first went in to work at the polls.
The independent audit of the performance of the duties and functions of election officers noted that the manuals, training materials, forms and certificates developed by Elections Canada effectively supported election officers. The auditors concluded that election officers properly exercised the powers conferred on them and appropriately performed the duties imposed on them under the Canada Elections Act. footnote 7
Finding: Returning officers and election workers had the necessary training to perform their duties.
Elections Canada always strives to support election administrators and election workers to ensure that they are prepared to deliver services and information to Canadians in each electoral district. Elections Canada will continue to work with returning officers to ensure that the best supports are available. The agency will continue to develop and deploy training materials in support of all four training methods (classroom, videoconference, workbook and online). In response to the findings, Elections Canada specifically commits to:
- Leverage technology to reduce the number of election workers required to deliver an election.
- Promote the use of online training through various communication channels and explore options for increasing participation.
- Create more in-person, hands-on learning opportunities for election administrators, particularly in combination with regional and local meetings that are already being planned. While the agency plans to continue to expand the range of online, self-paced learning assets, election administrators may benefit from close discussion and collaboration with more experienced staff.
- Update returning officers' planning materials to ensure that returning officers are better informed about how to plan for splitting advance polls and adding extra deputy returning officers when they expect a high voter turnout.
Return to footnote 7 It is important to note that in-person learning and networking opportunities were significantly curtailed by the pandemic, and returning officers informally expressed regret at their inability to take advantage of them before the election.