Scrutiny on the count, eh?

(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!

To summarise:

Step 1: volunteer at a municipal election

Step 2: ???

Step 3: be elected as a city councilor or member of parliament

Step 4: ???

Step 5: Profit! Global domination!


1. He also looks great in a kilt. I’m just sayin’. But not as good as Mr E Man, obviously).

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!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
This entry was posted in Canada, current affairs, environment, personal, politics, technology, Uncategorized, Vancouver. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Scrutiny on the count, eh?

  1. Mel says:

    Hey, I never got an election guide!!! But I did get my voter card AND voted 🙂
    Apparently in Richmond you could vote at any one of the polling stations, you didn’t have to go to a specific local one. Don’t know if they got significantly higher voter turnout because of it though and I imagine it makes things way more complicated!

    • Well, according to that most prestigious of newspapers (24H), “In Richmond, just over 30,000 people cast their votes, a slight increase from the last election in 2008 when just 27,709 of more than 125,000 registered electors came out to vote.

      Richmond’s increase was largely thanks to the city’s new Vote Anywhere initiative and Santa’s arrival at the Lansdowne Centre drawing multi-tasking parents.”

      Although I’m not sure that hypothesis of causation would hold up to testing.

  2. Grant says:

    Long post alert!

    Indeed. I’ll have to read it tomorrow! 😉 (It’s 1am here and if I keep going my head will end up crashing into my keyboard before long…)

    [Warning: wee-hours-of-the-morning babble.]

    Well, I did do a very quick skim.

    Thought I’d mention NZ is having national elections at the moment. Still have to find time to get myself to a polling booth. (Still a few days to go.) Lousy campaign, IMHO. Way too much nonsense and nearly impossible to see the actual policies. My impression is that they’re avoiding them and will set up a second agenda after the election – for all the stuff that’s hard to “sell”. Sigh.

    As for the ‘voting for me’ thing, some people actually liked my idea of a NZ Science Party! Maybe next elections… I’m allowed to dream, aren’t I?

    I have to ask – how can a juice not be biodegradable. Also, wouldn’t that mean the drinker couldn’t “degrade” (digest) it either??

    • Ah, I see – they’re running on a vague platform and will then claim once elected that they have a mandate from the people to do all kinds of very specific and unpopular things? 🙂

      I do like the idea of a science party, although I think that the best-case scenario for such an organisation would get one or two MPs elected, rather than to form a government. It’s analogous to the Green Party, IMHO – I don’t believe that their ultimate goal is to form a government, but rather to bring the issues they care about into the political mainstream. They’ve definitely been successful to some extent; all major parties now have to at a very minimum pay lip service to environmental issues, while others have gone much further and have developed really rather sensible policies. Unfortunately this hasn’t factored into a Canadian election result for a while (former Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion’s Green Shift not getting him anywhere other than out on his ear, sadly), but if you look at what the Australian government is doing now, for example, with their carbon tax, you can see the impact. Similarly, the existence of a Science Party could force the major parties to rethink and hopefully improve their own science policies, which would be a worthy aim in its own right IMHO.

      Of course, a first past the post system makes all of the above much more difficult for “special issue” parties to achieve.

      On your last point, I fear that your 1am reading may have led you to misread footnote 3… the juice was biodegradable (well, hopefully), but it wasn’t provided by the mayor’s former juice company 😉

      • footnote 2, not footnote 3. Pre-caffeine commenting 🙂

        • Grant says:

          Pre-caffeine commenting 🙂

          I think I read ‘from Happy Planet’ as a subclause (i.e. as an aside), e.g.

          ‘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”!’


          At least I the critical judgement part of me recognised something wasn’t right I suppose.

          You’re right about just getting an MP in for a Science Party; the big two (National, Labour) have long roots. Mind you with MMP, what we have, the smaller parties can wind up in ‘king maker’ roles sometimes, with parties having to negotiate after the election to form a collation that forms a majority. National are currently leaning towards ACT to cover this if the need arises. If there is an anti-science party in NZ, it’s ACT… Not that any of the other smaller parties are without issues.

          I have to admit I’d like to see a number of changes to encourage campaigns to be about the policies. One loose thought has been that parties should pay down nominated policy areas, say, six weeks out so that there is time for those with expertise to get into them and bring out what’s the full story, etc. (The media aren’t doing a very good job of it.)

          • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

            I like that idea of at least six weeks for policy platform releases – although like you said the MSM would have to step up their game too!

            Is the MMR system pretty popular in NZ? I loved it in Scotland (where smaller parties also got to play “King maker”, as you said), and hope we can introduce it or some other form of electoral reform in Canada soon. Harper got a “majority” government at the federal level with 40% of the popular vote on a 60% turnout… I’m sorry but 24% is NOT a majority in my book!

            We are the 76%!!!1!!1

          • Grant says:

            In reply to “November 24, 2011 at 10:12 pm” (not quite sure if this will appear after it!) –

            “I like that idea of at least six weeks for policy platform releases”

            It’s partly based on something I decided before the last elections – that if a party hasn’t got their policy out a month ahead of time, then either they don’t really have one, are disorganised, or are deliberately leaving it too late for people to properly check out this making the pitch a ‘sound bite’ rather than substantive.

            Being cynical at times—*wink*—I’m leaning on the latter opinion this year. It’s a pity our blogs tend to be fairly tightly tied to science or I’d write about it. I should really find time to get my stand-alone blog in shape, but I can never find time…

            “although like you said the MSM would have to step up their game too!”

            That too. My thought, though, was it’d give time for those with expertise to ‘push’ any issues. MSM can respond to stories ‘fed’ to them.

            “Is the MMR system pretty popular in NZ?”

            This is bad time to ask me! 🙂

            A referendum on keeping MMP is being run alongside the election. Personally I’d like to see it stay, but I feel it needs a few tweaks (e.g. to suit a small country).

            FWIW, I’m not convinced that the referendum voting form—a voting scheme being used to vote on a voting scheme—is the best! Now there’s an irony, eh?

            Harper got a “majority” government at the federal level with 40% of the popular vote on a 60% turnout…

            Nor sure what Canada is using, but FPTP can do that. I’m pretty sure NZ has had something similar in the past.

            Re your mention of ‘Vote Anywhere’ earlier – is this a scheme to let people vote wherever they choose? We can vote at any polling booth. In my case there is one ~150m down the road so I’ve used that (it’s election day here), but I could have used ones in town if I happened to be there.

  3. Laurence Cox says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed your first taste of political activity. It sounds like they do things slightly differently in Canada from the way we do in the UK. Your “inside scrutineer” sounds like a cross between what we would call a “teller” (who takes the voters’ identification numbers) and polling agent (who is the only category of person other than the candidate and agent allowed into the room where voting takes place). Did your orientation specify whether you could challenge a potential voter (this is the specific role of the polling agent in the UK, but it almost never occurs because personation at polling stations is, thankfully, rare).

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      That wasn’t mentioned at the orientation – they just wanted us to send them the voter numbers. They did say that if there were any problems we should call them for advice, and the presiding officer did also mention that I should listen to how the ballots were being explained to voters to make sure the instructions were being worded neutrally. So my role may well have come with other responsibilities other than what I was asked to focus on!

  4. cromercrox says:

    Good for you – I think that if we have the opportunity to engage in political activity, even at the level of a footsoldier, then we should do so. As I keep telling the kids, there are so, so many places in the world where people don’t have that opportunity, or are persecuted for trying to exercise that right. My feet still hurt at the memory of leafleting an entire village on behalf of my local Tory candidate before the general election just gone – but I am glad I did it (not that it made any difference, though.)

    • Thanks Henry!

      We are a politically active bunch at OT, aren’t we? Did you take your daughters with you when you went out delivering leaflets? When I was a kid I used to go out with my Dad (voluntarily!) when he delivered Labour party leaflets – a similarly futile exercise (one person even pointed and laughed through his living room window before ripping the leaflet up in front of us), but one that he and I both agreed was important!

  5. cromercrox says:

    I did take Crox Minor, who looked very winsome on her scooter. We were working opposite sides of the same street, but because she had her scooter, and I was walking, she was a little ahead of me. So, as I was slogging along in the heat, a crusty old codger shouted at me from the opposite side of the street that the campaigner on his side of the street was a lot better looking than me.

  6. Nina says:

    The mayor is the happy planet inventor???? Tell me again why I am not living in Vancouver yet.

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  9. I don’t know, Nina, but I expect you to fix it

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