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Valentine to democracy’s frontline soldiers | Stéphanie Plante

Friday, February 14, 2020 @ 10:30 AM | By Stéphanie Plante

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Stéphanie Plante %>
Stéphanie Plante
Poll clerk, voting day worker, precinct officer, scrutineer, ballot inspector, results tabulator, whatever you want to call them, it’s time for the local election officials, or, the “street level bureaucrats” of our election world, as coined by academic Michael Lipsky stand up and get the respect and administration they deserve on this Valentine’s Day and every day.

While you were probably thinking of buying a dozen roses for your spouse today, consider, instead, the level of complexity and detail involved in local election planning and delivery: ensuring elector lists are up to date; buying and maintaining voting, polling station and office equipment; registering voters; printing ballots; hiring, training and placing election workers; choosing and renting polling places; attending to electors on military bases, in hospitals, prisons and Canadians living abroad; as well as accepting nomination forms of candidates.

Don’t those who tirelessly serve the nuts and bolts of our democractic system deserve some candy and cards too?

Without a doubt, election day workers are the unsung heroes of our democracy.

They have to put in exceptionally long days for very minimal pay. They need to be able to grasp and administer complex procedures. They have to make split second decisions when there are long lineups and frustrated electors, all while standing on their feet with minimal breaks and under the gazing eyes of candidates’ representatives.

In the 2011 general election, a member of Parliament who lost his seat contested the election results claiming there were “administrative errors” done by poll workers which should annul the election results. While no election day is perfect, and clerical errors can happen, the Supreme Court upheld the election results and ruled in Opitz v. Wrzesnewsky [2012] 3 S.C.R. 76 that “In recognizing that mistakes are inevitable, this court does not condone any relaxation of training and procedures. [Elections Canada has] an obligation to ensure, as far as reasonably possible, that procedures are followed. Failure to live up to this mandate would shake the public’s confidence in the election system as a whole and render it vulnerable to abuse and manipulation.”

Furthermore, academic studies have shown that the public’s interactions with election workers is key to a functioning healthy democracy. Surveys in the United States show that in election after election, poll workers play a major role in the way voters feel about their voting experience.

Electors were asked about their voting experience by assessing wait times, feelings of privacy while voting, poll worker training, proximity of the voting location to their home, confidence in the tabulation procedures, etc. The results found that voters who felt good about their interactions with poll workers, had better overall attitudes about their voting experience and more confident about the electoral system.

When you consider the list of tasks a poll worker must do on election day: assuring applications to vote are accurately completed, verifying the voter’s identity, issuing correct ballots, recording voter number and ballot number, tearing off the perforated ballot number tab before the voter inserts their ballot in the tabulator or ballot bot, helping the voter when the tabulator rejects their ballot, assuring voter secrecy is maintained, referring to the supervisor when an unusual situation arises, providing excellent customer service, as well as holding babies and dog leashes while electors go behind the voting screens, perhaps consider buying a dozen roses of appreciation for those on the front lines of Canada’s democracy and consider it long overdue.

Stéphanie Plante is executive director with the International Commission of Jurists-Canada and an election consultant who has provided services and expertise in jurisdictions across Canada and around the world. She is currently the francophone liaison for Take Me Outside and Twice Upon a Time. E-mail her at

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