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All elections need clear rules

Wednesday, October 14, 2020 @ 10:09 AM | By Stéphanie Plante


Stephanie Plante %>
Stephanie Plante
With all the focus on the upcoming U.S. elections, it seems like everyone is having conversations about mail-in ballots, voter registration, poll worker recruitment and potential delays in reporting results. Canada also has provincial elections coming up in Saskatchewan (Oct. 26) and British Columbia (Oct. 24) and by-elections in Toronto Centre and York Centre. A global health crisis will not slow down the democratic franchise.

Small and micro elections happen every day, all over the world. Sports leagues, shareholder meetings, school councils, student groups, boards of directors, First Nations band councils, hobby groups, non-profit and volunteer associations, professional societies, co-operatives, church and cultural groups and pretty much any decision-making body will have an election of some kind.

What you thought was just a matter reserved for federal, provincial and municipal franchise is more like a daily exercise that likely takes place by show of hands, by consulting Roberts Rules of Order or on virtual platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

I recently was caught up in an electoral tsunami when I decided to run for the parents’ council of my son’s school. Normally this is done in-person at a normal council meeting but due to the pandemic the principal made some changes to the format, which she naively announced at the last minute. No one can fault a school principal for forgetting to revamp election procedures alongside preparing her students and staff for a pandemic back-to-school, but the ensuing fallout is a cautionary tale for anyone thinking they can take what is normally a by-the-book uneventful process to an on-the-fly one.

When the results of the elections were announced (and yours truly was —  ahem — elected co-president) one disgruntled parent e-mailed our school trustee to claim there was “election fraud.” Another unsuccessful candidate responded demanding answers to the “irregularities in the use of administrative resources,” claiming I had an unfair advantage because my name had appeared at the top of the ballot. A third parent e-mailed me to assure me that I had “a coalition of supporters” ready to back up these spurious claims and ready to circulate a petition or e-mail our minister of Education.

I was not sure if I should roll up my sleeves and get to work ameliorating school fundraising efforts to buy top-of-the-line ventilators or gather the same legal team who argued Bush v. Gore.

While we may see these small elections as tedious and often quite frustrating, having administrative procedures in place to ensure they go smoothly is probably as important, if not more important, than having election laws at the political level. Why? Well, first of all, women and minorities tend to be very active in these smaller organizations. Having rules and frameworks to ensure that they are run smoothly can give them the confidence and experience to run for political office.

Second, these small or micro elections add up! Think of them as the gateway drug to decide what your community’s priorities are in the important areas of your life.

Micro elections can affect school funding decisions, riding association candidacies, property taxes, zoning, law enforcement, educational curriculum, city parks and recreation commitments, road closures, local businesses priorities, waste collection, sports arenas, public health campaigns, charity outreach, religious leadership, business zoning, marijuana laws and many more aspects of our daily lives. Thus, it is very important the rules of engagement are clear and unequivocal, given their importance in a democratic society and as an essential component of a successful democracy.

How can you ensure that your community association, mosque or local hockey league is playing by the rules?

Well, first you need to find out what they are! If you are reading this and cringing at how decisions may have been made in the past, it might be helpful to hire a third party or consult with a lawyer specialized in the writing, consulting and implementing of the operating and decision-making principles of your organization.

If your organization does not have a governance framework or is short on cash, don’t feel shy about asking a neighbouring organization for a copy of their framework and seeing what can be applied to your situation.

We live in uncertain and unprecedented times. More than ever, we need to remove the inconsistencies, overlaps and gaps in the decision-making and empower local organizations. Otherwise, you could find yourself top of the ballot and unprepared for the fallout!

Stéphanie Plante is former 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 the director of the Centre for Security, Intelligence, and Defence Studies and project co-ordinator for the Canadian Defence and Security Network at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University and the francophone liaison for Take Me Outside and Twice Upon a Time. 

Photo credit /  Головина Ксения Александровна ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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