Lessons from the voting poll

Election voting place lawn sign

Yesterday, in polls all across British Columbia, roughly 45% of the population entered a voting booth and cast two ballots: one asking whether to change the political system, and the other for the choice of a candidate to represent their interests in the BC legislature.

“There were no men with machine guns, no security searches and no suicide bombers at today’s voting center. We’re lucky people.” — Travis Smith

I worked one of said voting places yesterday – so when they say that every vote counts, and is counted, and is counted again, I know because I did the counting, with (at times) four pairs of watchful eyes getting my back. I was not harassed, threatened, or offered bribes. Instead, I was just really tired at the end of (what turned out for me to be) a 14-hour day, and glad I did a good job. (I may also have left with a cold, but that’s just my own fault for not working the hand sanitizer more diligently.)

I’m only now starting, after a good night’s sleep, not to have momentary flashbacks of sitting at the voting station, but these are some of my takeaways.

Voter mood and attitudes

Our station was fairly quiet before 3 o’clock — a small rush when we opened at 8, another brief rush around lunch, and quite slow all in between. This station was situated directly on one of Vancouver’s busiest streets, but also not far from some medium-density mid-rise residential areas, and close to quite a bit of transit for people going to or leaving work (presumably downtown). It wasn’t until about 4:30 that the steady lines came, and about 60% of our station’s total voting (including advanced votes but not counting absentee ballots) came within those last few hours. As the line for our table stretched to three or four people, the voters were understandably a little more sour by the time they were showing us their ID, having had to wait in a poorly-ventilated room with no windows. Very few people (say, maximum 5) expressed actual joy at exercising their right to vote. The people who expressed the most enjoyment to me were scrutineers. The people who expressed anxiety to me were my fellow election officers.

“Are you up on the referendum question?”

As the voting officer handling ballots, this was the first thing I said to people as they got ready to vote. I did this mostly because there was a poster at the back of the room describing the two systems, and I felt it was important to give people one last chance to get some reading in on it and to be sure they were aware of the wording of the question. A few people did take a look; a few others still chose to spoil their ballot and to not choose at all.

Elections BC training and the voting process

I can say that at 8am on election day, I had no clue what I was doing. By 10am, it was a little better, but it’s certainly a little nerve-wracking to feel that any slip-up on my part (or on that of my partner, who had a bit of the nerves) could cause people’s votes to be rejected and not counted. I did later find out, during the initial count reconciliation (and while a scrutineer tsked-tsked over my shoulder) that there were some things we did that we weren’t supposed to. Luckily, the super-wide paper trail – for new voter registrations, for voter list updates, even voter mail cards – meant that the math all worked out in the end, even if that meant a scribble or two on the carbon paper.

At the end of the day, one of my scrutineers, a congenial, older gentleman, noted while watching me struggle with folded paper ballots, that I didn’t have a thumb-technique from card-playing that would have made the ballot counting go slightly faster. I replied, “Yeah, I have thumbs for playing video games.”

Not only do I have the thumbs for playing video games, I have a mind weaned on learning from them. That means I am more interested in understanding the system and the spirit and purpose of my role, and learning by doing and trial-and-error, than I simply am in memorizing the procedures involved in properly executing it. (I don’t speak for a generation here, just me.) This is the understanding I was lacking at 8am on election day. If I knew why I had to do certain things, and if that was emphasized in the training material I received, I probably would have had an easier time in the onboarding process — instead of stumbling into it.

The training material even had scenarios available for role-playing exercises (for both working the booth and the initial count), which we never actually did during the training. I can say without a doubt that I would have found those immeasurably more helpful than the DVD I was struggling to see from the back of the training room, and that my two-hour training session barely scratched the surface of what I needed to know. Granted, I don’t think I did too badly in spite of these setbacks, which speaks to the robustness and fail-proofness of the process.

I also think it speaks of the paper-basedness of the whole thing. I think there are probably ways to preserve the accountability of paper without having it be such a manual process. My station was the absolute last one to leave the voting place – maybe we were just overly thorough. (I did also get to hear the supervisor screaming while on the phone with head office at some of the weird counts she received from other stations.) I definitely believe in letting the machines shine where I don’t – namely, that I or my partner can stumble in counting, and we get tired – while letting me shine at what I am good at – such as remembering the particular details of a case where someone signed our voting book without actually voting at our station. Maybe some crazy scanning and OCR action?

Would I do this again? Probably not if I have other things to do, but it was certainly worth the experience of doing it this first time.

Now, tell us what you really think

As for how I feel politically? I think Derek’s mostly got it covered in his summation of the election results, though I’m not sure lazy and chickenshit are the right words for it. I can’t exactly say that I’m more optimistic — I saw the faces of the people leaving the voting station. It’s not a happy activity, not something that people generally feel hopeful or optimistic about – more comparable, perhaps, to going to the bathroom than anything else.

I’m going to perhaps go even one step further from Derek’s interpretation, which was…

That half of eligible voters didn’t even bother, and that of those who did, a significant majority thought our current skewed system is just fine[…]

…and say that not only did they say that it’s just fine, but that they prefer that the system is disengaging, that there is such a wide disparity in values between the polarities of our province (urban and rural, older and younger, rich and poor, and, a new one I submit for your consideration, resource-exploitative and resource-innovative). They may not own up to this preference when confronted (though some certainly will, and loudly so), and they may not be consciously aware of it, but it’s the only way I can reconcile the fact that the Liberal government has and continually talks about off-shore oil exploration and freeway building, with what I hear (admittedly, in a self-selected fashion) from the people around me.

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