Voting and Scrutinizing in Canada

(Written in response to Tony Hirst. I don't know why I went into such detail; maybe it's because I think it's actually a pretty good system and wanted people to know how it works.)

Interesting. In Canada this is done quite differently. Each political party is allowed a scrutineer at each poll (a polling place, like a school gym or church hall will typically have 5 to 8 polls, and often a single scrutineer will handle all of them, but the number of scrutineers increases as the polling place gets busy).

Each poll is basically a table with the poll number on it. A poll may be an apartment building, a few city blocks - usually a few hundred voters. The poll clerk, who is hired by Elections Canada, and is neutral, has a list of electors - their names and addresses within the polling place. This list is created ahead of the vote by enumerators who go around knocking on doors and finding out who lives there.

This voters list is public information. It used to actually be stapled to telephone poles in the poll, but now you have to go ask for it. So each scrutineer also has a copy of the voters list (and, of course, they have master voters lists in the party office, correlated with their own lists of people).

The scrutineers sit right beside the clerk at the table. When the voter comes to vote, the scrutineer will hand them a signed and numbered ballot, then cross out or check their name, to indicate that they've voted (the voter may be asked to produce identification or present their voter's card they've been given by the enumerator).

(If your name is not on the list, then you need to produce something with your address and your name on it to prove you live in the poll, and swear (or solemnly affirm, if you're not religious) that you are who you say you are, and your name will be added to the list. The demand for identification is a formality; in fact, a person's word will be accepted at the poll. It's rare enough that any attempt to vote twice would be caught.)

The voter goes to the little cardboard shelter on another table (our entire electoral system is made up of folding-leg tables, cardboard boxes, and paper ballots). He votes and folds up the ballot. Once he returns, the scrutineer checks the number, detaches it from the ballot, puts the now anonymous ballot into the box, and stores the number.

Meanwhile, the scrutineers then cross out the voter's name on their lists, indicating that the person has voted. Runners from the political parties come in and out of the polling place to collect the sheets. Back at the party office, more workers call our otherwise round up supporters who haven't voted yet.

I've taken part in this process half a dozen times or more, as both an inside scrutineer and an outside scrutineer (runner). It is an enormously satisfying process to work in the polling place all day, to see every elector come through the hall and vote, to look at their faces, to see the cross section of a community. Polling places are always happy, uplifting places, even when the parties are bitterly opposed (there's some back and forth, but the scrutineers from different parties don't really interact, but they're not hostile to each other either).

I suppose this could be automated more - both the voting process and the scrutineer process - but I'm not sure I would want it to be. I like the fact that when you vote you are a person, not a number. I like the fact that you leave a permanent record of your vote in the ballot box. I like the fact that it takes a certain amount of effort to scrutinize an election, but at the same time that you are able to directly observe every part of the process except the actual printing of the 'x' on the ballot.

(Scrutineers remain present in the room during the counting process; for each poll, the poll clerk and the assistant poll clerk open the box and count the ballots right away, in full view of all scrutineers in the room. The number of ballots in the box must match the number of ballot numbers that have been turn off the ballots, which in turn must match the number of voters on the voters list. The tally usually takes up to an hour to produce (it takes longer if a ballot has been dropped on the floor or if a mistake was made with the voter's list (but everything you need to spot the mistakes is right there)).

I suppose now the way to do it is to give the outside scrutineer an iPad with web access to the party's central voter's list, and have him or her simply check off the names as people vote. That wouldn't be too difficult to set up, and it would feed right into the list of known supporters in the poll.

More automation than that would introduce an unwelcome layer of obscurity into the process, and make the system less reliable.


  1. Thanks for posting this...

    In the UK, access to the polling station is limited to the candidates, electoral agents, voters and the police. The tellers have to stay outside the polling station. The electoral roll is a public document; the number on the poll card relates to a numbered individual on the electoral roll.

    Inside the polling station, voters are ticked off on the electoral roll by presenting their card, in return for a ballot paper. If they don't have their card, they need to supply name and address - i.e. enough information to identify them on the electoral roll. I don't know if proof of identity is required.

    Increasing numbers of voters have a postal ballot. I don't know how or if this information is available to the candidates e.g. so that they know not to go knocking on doors trying to get people out to vote who have already voted by post.

  2. Wrong on a couple of points, Stephen. Firstly, Elections Canada does not do door-to-door enumeration and hasn't since the creation of the Permanent List of Electors (Register) in the 1990s. The Register is updated using the following sources: provincial and territorial motor vehicle registrars; Canada Revenue Agency; Citizenship and Immigration Canada;provincial and territorial vital statistics registrars, and provincial electoral agencies with permanent lists of electors (e.g. Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Quebec; information supplied by electors when they register to vote or revise their information during and between federal electoral events;proven electoral lists from other Canadian jurisdictions.

    The list is not public and is covered by Canada's Privacy laws.

    In federal elections, identification is no longer "a formality." It is a requirement.

    I agree with the remainder of your comments, particularly regarding the atmosphere in which the election is conducted.

    For more information,

    Dana Phillip Doiron
    Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia

  3. You're quite right, I had forgotten about the permanent list of electors (I still get voting cards, these must come in the mail? I thought they were coming from enumerators.)

    The voters lists are not 'public' in the sense that they are in the public domain, but they are public in that political parties and candidates can get them and use them to communicate with people and get them out for the vote. The lists are not secret documents.

    That said, you're quite right to say they are protected by legislation. They can only be used for election purposes. As described here:

    I still kind of miss the days when they were stapled to telephone poles (and covered in plastic to protect them from rain) but certainly understand the more modern privacy provisions.

    > identification is no longer "a formality." It is a requirement.

    Well, that's what a 'formality' means - a requirement. But it is a 'mere' formality in the sense that, even though it is a requirement, sometimes people are added to the list without being asked for documented proof (it's a small city, you can pretty much tell who belongs, there's no doubt about the authenticity of it, and anyways, I had the documentation in my pocket, I just wasn't asked for it).

  4. I've been an election judge (the Maryland term for "precinct worker"). Like you, I think there's value to the human element of the system.

    Maryland precincts (like your poll) are staffed by volunteer election judges in various roles. The practice is to have at least at least two people in each role, and if only two, not registered to the same political party. Thus, two chief judges (with equal authority); if one's a Democrat, the other will be registered to another party, or independent.

    Voters register with the county board of elections. Registration by party is optional, except for voting in primaries. (Maryland has a closed primary: you have to be registered as a Republican to vote in the Republican primary, though it's easy to switch registration ahead of the primary if you wish.) No party affiliation is required for a general election.

    The biggest innovation is the electronic poll book. Previously each precinct had computer printouts, and the check-in judge had to look you up manually. Now the electronic poll book not only has the precinct's voters; it has all the voters in the state, so that if you show up at the wrong place, the check-in judge can tell you where you should be.

    If you prefer to cast your vote in the "wrong" location, you can via a "provisional ballot" on paper. The poll book will be updated to show you cast a ballot.

    Official parties and other groups can designate poll-watchers and challengers, something like your scrutineer, though in five elections and primaries I only saw two such people. They can challenge a person's eligibility to vote, but the final decision rests with the election judge. The board of elections, and state law, set guidelines for what is and is not acceptable proof of eligibility.

    Poll-watchers may not converse with or assist any voter; they are entitled to be positioned so that they can hear each voter as he or she checks in. (The voter must state name and address, aloud.) They are allowed to have lists of registered voters and to take the lists outside the polling place. No one except an election judge is allowed to use a cell phone in a polling place.

    Poll-watchers are entitled to observe the vote tallying from the electronic voting machines, which are taken by pairs of judges not registered to the same party. (Provisional and absentee ballots are counted at the local board of elections, a process I've never seen, but I assume poll-watchers observe that as well.)

    One problem is that the overwhelming majority of precinct workers are essentially volunteers (there's a modest stipend for them), and many are not young. The supervisor of elections for Baltimore County once quipped that the average age of her precinct workers was "deceased."

    Another is the sheer size of an election. My county of one million people has more than a sixth of Maryland's population. There are some 250 voting precincts in the county, and thus a need for more than 3,000 election judges, two times (primary and general election) every other year.

    One concern with the electronic voting machines (as opposed to the poll books) is that there's no real voter-to-vote reconciliation. When you read about recounts, what's usually happening is they ask the machine again, "How many votes for governor?" It's not like they can tally the individual bytes.

    That's one reason for the move to optical-scan paper ballots.


Post a Comment

Your comments will be moderated. Sorry, but it's not a nice world out there.

Popular Posts