(Long post alert! Sorry!)
Regular readers will know all about my passion for politics, a passion that was dampened only slightly by seven years of voteless pre-citizenship residence in Canada and that has ramped up again recently thanks to a federal election and Harper’s ongoing shenanigans. I vowed on May 2nd that I would put my money where my mouth is and do more than just vote (and blog about it) next time; I took my first opportunity at Saturday’s municipal elections.
Vancouver’s incumbent mayor, Gregor Robertson, and his Vision Vancouver party are the one bright spot on my political horizon right now. I have serious differences of opinion with both the federal and the BC provincial government, but have found more common ground with Vision than with any other political party at any level of government and in any country. Robertson’s been a somewhat divisive figure, but those of us who like him like him a LOT, for his leadership on environmental issues and homelessness in particular but on other topics too1. Signing up as a Vision Vancouver Volunteer was therefore a no-brainer.
I was offered a range of options, but as a campaign virgin I just didn’t feel comfortable knocking on people’s doors or calling them up. I therefore opted for the “Inside Scrutineer” role on election day itself, and signed up for the 10am – 4pm shift. I voted at one of the advance polls so that I’d be free all day on the 19th, attended a one-hour orientation last Wednesday evening, and received my polling station assignment on Friday – I’d requested somewhere close to home, and was glad to be sent to a nearby elementary school only a few minutes away by bus.
Saturday dawned cold and bright, so I wrapped up warm and headed to my station. I was lucky enough to arrive at a quiet time; I presented my form (signed by one of Vision’s candidates) to the presiding officer, received my scrutineer badge, and got signed in (I was offered a choice of either a religious oath stating that I would not attempt to view or influence anyone’s vote, or a legally equivalent secular affirmation stating the same thing, and chose the latter). I introduced myself to the four women who were cross-checking registered voters against the list for that district and handing out the ballot papers, and to the two women greeting and validating unregistered voters, and took up my station behind the first four women. They asked where the doughnuts were, and upon learning that it was my first time and that no-one at Vision HQ had specified doughnuts, they joked that they’d be gentle with me this time, but I’d better make damn sure to bring doughnuts in 2014. I quickly learned that all six women, the presiding officer, and the greeter knew each other well, having run this polling station together for the last three or four elections. Several of them had even gone to that very school and still lived just down the street!
My role was to keep Vision’s volunteer coordinators updated with the 1-4 digit voter number of everyone who’d come through my polling station; I entered the numbers in batches of five into a secure web app via my iPhone and pinged them straight to HQ, giving them real-time information on which people who’d promised to vote Vision had already voted and should therefore be left alone, and which people hadn’t shown up yet and should be called or visited to remind them to vote. This allowed them to make the best use of their other volunteers’ time. I did a lot of dashing around between the four women to see which number they’d just crossed off in the massive thick paper registers, but luckily it took a while for them to explain the rather complicated ballot to each person so it wasn’t too frantic. It also seemed that huge queues of people with alphabetically similar names kept forming at one or other of the four desks, while the other three people had nothing to do. It’d be interesting to model this phenomenon mathematically! There were also peaks and troughs in the total activity, with the lulls leaving me time to make lots of cups of tea for everyone (the presiding officer assured me that this definitely did not constitute bribery of an electoral official. Besides, they were providing the tea bags, milk, and sugar).
The whole thing was very educational, interesting, and even fun (well, fun for a politics geek like me, anyway). It was fascinating to observe the demographics of the voters (not many young people, alas), and delightful to see whole families showing up together (my parents always took us with them when they went to vote, too). In several cases Canadian-born kids were translating some of the trickier details for first-generation immigrant parents; I was also incredibly impressed to see that these four white, Canadian-born women were able to communicate that you voted for one candidate for mayor, up to ten for council, up to nine for school board, and up to seven for park board in Mandarin, Cantonese, and at least one other language. The man in charge of the ballot-accepting machine was also able to translate some of the trickier information about the capital spending plan plebiscite. Overall there was a great atmosphere of people helping each other, and everyone seemed very cheery and polite; I didn’t hear one single cross word all day, even when long lines started to form. It reaffirmed my belief in democracy, so it did.
I was the only scrutineer present for the first couple of hours, but then another Vision volunteer showed up; he’d been due to start at 2pm, but apparently the numbers I was sending indicated an unusually high turnout and they called to ask him to start a little early. Our first counterpart for the opposition didn’t show up until around 1:45 pm, and started frantically writing voter numbers onto a piece of paper; his party were sending runners around all the stations every hour or so, driving the papers back to HQ, and entering them into their computer system manually. During a break in the action, when there were no voters at our table, he asked if we were using our phones to relay real-time information – we said yes, and he looked sad. “Vision’s pretty awesome, eh?” I said; he did not reply. He also seemed jealous that someone from Vision had delivered lunches for their volunteers – in biodegradable containers, no less!2
A third Vision volunteer showed up at about 2:30pm, and since both of the other two scrutineers were set to stay until the polls closed at 8pm they said that I could leave if I wanted. I had another hour and a half to go, so I called HQ and asked if there was anywhere else they’d like to send me. I was redeployed to a polling station a block from our old apartment on Commercial Drive, so I said goodbye to everyone and hopped on a SkyTrain and then a bus, where I finally warmed up (the school gym where I’d been was unheated and it was about -1C outside. Brrrrr). I walked into a completely packed and slightly chaotic room, with a noticeably younger demographic than where I’d come from; lots of people had come down to Commercial to shop / eat / drink, seen the “VOTING PLACE” signs, and walked in, only to be told that if they weren’t local they had to vote in their own polling station close to home, not the one that happened to be next to the shops and restaurants they were visiting. Some people seemed slightly peeved by this information, but c’mon, it’s printed right onto the voter registration cards and the election guide that came in the mail weeks ahead of time!
Once I’d introduced myself I was told that there were two other Vision scrutineers there already and another new arrival standing right behind me, they had no more ID badges for us, and besides there was already someone there representing the candidate who’d signed my second form (they gave us two each, signed by two different candidates, but I’d already given up my first one). I conferred with the other volunteers, decided it wasn’t really worth my while staying, and moved on to the day’s other activities instead.
I’d been invited to the official Vision results party downtown, but had to (very) reluctantly decline due to two prior commitments. But I kept a very close eye on the results as they came in, and was absolutely delighted that every single Vision candidate was elected to office! Way to go Vancouver! Now let’s work on that dismal turnout next time… an increase from 31% to 34% is nothing to celebrate.
About that next time…
Running for office is on my bucket list, whether it’s for city council or federal parliament3. I think I’d love the job, and be good at it – not to mention the fact that more scientists are needed at every level of government. Two of Vision’s seven council candidates are scientifically trained, which is far better than the average, but I think it’s at the federal level, where national policy on issues like stem cell research is set, that scientists can make the biggest difference. I think I’ll be getting in touch with both Vision and my local MP (a good egg, who replied promptly the only time I ever wrote to him and who I also met briefly when he threw a party for all new citizens in his constituency) to see what kind of help they might need in between elections. See what’s what, get some experience, make some contacts, take on a bigger role in the next couple of campaigns…
…watch this space!
Step 1: volunteer at a municipal election
Step 2: ???
Step 3: be elected as a city councilor or member of parliament
Step 4: ???
Profit! Global domination!
2. The pens they gave us at the orientation session were also biodegradable. But I was astonished that the juice we got with lunch wasn’t from Happy Planet – the company the mayor started, hence his nickname “The Juiceman”!
3. Several people said they’d vote for me when I mentioned this on Twitter and at Saturday night’s party! One of them even lives in my constituency! Well, he lives in my house, but hey, you gotta start somewhere!