Sunday, March 2, 2014

Canada Moving Toward US Style Partisan Administered Elections

I am by no means well read on the nitty gritty of Canadian federal elections, but this strikes me as an incredibly bad idea:
[Former B.C. Chief Electoral Officer Harry Neufeld] says Section 44 of the government’s new legislation would allow all central polling supervisors to be appointed by a riding's incumbent candidate or the candidate's party.
"It’s completely inappropriate in a democracy, " said Neufeld.

Under current legislation, central poll supervisors are appointed by returning officers, who are hired by Elections Canada. The supervisors are put in place at polling stations to make sure voting unfolds smoothly.

What could possiblay go wrong with such a well conceived scheme?  The government's answer? 
But a spokeswoman for the minister of state for democratic reform says the Elections Act already allows for candidates and parties to appoint other polling station officers.

"This is the case for revising agents in s.33, deputy returning officers in s.34, poll clerks in s.35 and registration officers in s.39 of the existing Canada Elections Act," said Gabrielle Renaud-Mattey.

Renaud-Mattey also points out that the idea was recommended by the Commons procedure and House affairs committee and that the returning officer can refuse to appoint the central polling supervisor recommended by the candidate or party.
Nowhere in here do we see an actual reason for doing this.  That other elections officers might be picked in a similar manner doesn't tell us whether this is a good idea.  The CPS is the chief official at each polling facility, overseeing however many deputy returning officers (who run each individual "poll") there are, as well as more general issues to that site.  Whatever the merits of letting the incumbent party pick the DROs, having the whole operation overseen by a non-partisan appointee who reports to Elections Canada (and owes nothing to the local incumbent party) is self-evidently wise.

That a commons committee dominated by Conservative MPs recommended this is similarly unpersuasive.

The bizarre thing is that the appointment power of Central Poll Supervisors was not among the issues raised by anyone to the government or the Commons' committee on Procedure & House Affairs.  It is a solution in search of a problem.  Even if you delve into the actual Committee report on matter, it really appears like Elections Canada asked to solve a different problem (not enough Elections officers supervising) and the Committee just interjected "Great, how about we also let the parties pick these people?"  Section I.3:
The Chief Electoral Officer proposes to amend the Act to authorize returning officers to hire additional election officers in situations where the Act does not grant this power. In the last general election, the CEO used his power of adaptation of the Act to enable returning officers to hire additional election officers including poll clerks, registration officers, information officers and central poll supervisors. These additional election officers were required mainly for advance polling stations. The authority to hire additional election officials has been necessitated in recent years by the increasing voter turnout at advance polling stations.


The Committee, however, raised a related issue in the course of its consideration of this recommendation: permitting candidates or electoral district associations to nominate those individuals who may be selected by returning officers to perform the functions of central poll supervisors, given the important role played by these officials.
Wait, what?  What is the argle bargle reasoning here?  It's almost completely non-sequitur to the issue Elections Canada raised (the need for more officials), and the logic is baffling: "given the important role played by these officials."  Yes, the role is important, why does that make partisan control a good idea?

The whole raison d'etre of having a thing like Elections Canada is to ensure the government of the day cannot easily manipulate election outcomes. Everything that moves away from that goal must be viewed with extreme skepticism. This isn't quite Katherine Harris giving the 2000 election to George Bush, but it's a couple steps in that direction.

It is true the Returns Officers (still picked by Elections Canada) can reject particular nominees under the proposed changes, but that puts the onus on Elections Canada to find reason to reject specific individuals.  The practical reality is this won't happen very often, as most partisan shenanigans will tend to fly under the radar, and is entirely reactive to people who have behaved in sufficiently egregiously partisan ways while acting in election oversight capacities. 

Even relatively honest people so appointed are now aware their role as CPS is a result of the incumbent party picking them, so their loyalty goes that way, rather than to Elections Canada.  If they want to be picked again (or have other ambitions in that party) they will need to do a "good" job by the party's reckoning.  I realize nearly everyone working on elections has personal opinions and many may be loyal party members, but that is still materially different from getting your election job as a result of partisan loyalty.  It's safe to assume the people picked will not be picked because of their ability to run a clean election as the top criteria.

In what I am sure is an unrelated matter, the Committee supports increasing the pay rates for Elections workers & officers. 

What's doubly alarming is that neither the NDP or Liberals, who have representation on this committee dissented over this point.  The NDP's report only disputes 3 unrelated issues, and the Liberals didn't seem to even issue a dissent.

I hope I am missing some great countervailing control that makes partisan manipulation of election conduct still a very difficult and risky proposition but I'm not seeing any merits in this. At the very least it just creates a system of partisan patronage, even if the people picked do their jobs with reasonable honesty, the prospect for graft is real. 

I doubt most Canadians will know that when they go to vote in 2015, all the leading officials at their polling place are partisan picks.  It certainly changes how I view the process of voting, and undermines confidence in the system.

1 comment:

  1. This is exactly my fear, that the conservative government has taken control of the polling process. They have also taken control of investigations into irregularities - taken that function away from Elections Canada, which reports to Parliament, and given it to a new officer under the Director of Public Prosecutions, who reports to Cabinet.

    It seems to me that the non-conservative political parties need to recruit an army of scrutineers to be at all the polling stations and watch for any irregularities, making careful notes and being prepared to defend them should court cases come up.