An election day training session at North York Civic Centre.
“It truly is the city’s largest event,” says Colin MacLean, the manager responsible for training at Toronto Election Services. “When you look at it on paper in the planning stage—and I wouldn’t say I thought it can’t be done—but it’s just wow, that’s so much.”
Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to disagree. In the run up to the big day, Election Services has printed more than two million ballots, prepared fifteen hundred voting places, and trained, over the course of seven hundred sessions, between ten and eleven thousand election workers [PDF]. Simply put: running an election in a city the size of Toronto is a colossal undertaking.
To better understand the scope of this task, and the people behind it, we visited an election training session at North York Civic Centre last week, and spoke with MacLean and elections coordinator Elly McCarrol, along with two election day workers, Ruban Jeyarajah and Danny Rebello.
As it turns out, elections are a never-ending process. On Tuesday, after all the ballots are counted and tallied, and the final vote is confirmed (hopefully), Toronto Elections Services will start getting ready for 2014. “After this election, we’re starting right away with the preparation for the next one,” says MacLean. The whole process—from start to finish, including inventory, feedback, analysis, reports to council, planning, and logistics—adds McCarrol, “takes us the better part of four years.”
One of the most challenging and time-consuming parts of the process is training the thousands of election day workers necessary to operate the polls. To prepare, Election Services has to first recruit workers (this year, about a hundred) from other City departments and then instruct them on how to run the training sessions. Usually, the workers are seasoned trainers with past experience, but after four years, even they need a refresher course. Then, in the weeks leading up to the election, they’re sent out across the city to run the hundreds of training sessions needed to teach election day staff.
“In our portfolio, the most difficult thing on election day is ensuring that we have enough staff in our voting places,” says MacLean. “We receive many cancellations.” Most of which, he continues, are filled by standby workers.
And while cancellations are a problem, this year there was no shortage of willing workers.
“We were overwhelmed with calls,” explains MacLean. “We ended up organizing a wait-list as far back as June…By far, there was far more interest this year. I would say that has to do with the economy, but we also have an outreach and communications team for this election. We’ve never had a dedicated team for that before, so they have to get some of the credit for getting the message out to the public.”
A screenshot from a Toronto Elections Services training video.
In total, there are ten different election day staff positions—about half of which operate behind the scenes, helping to answer calls and manage voting locations. The most visible operators, and the ones present at every voting station, are the Ballot Officers (BO) and the Deputy Returning Officers (DRO). (At larger polling stations, Tabulator Officers, Customer Service Officers, and other staff are usually present.) The BO’s main task is to check IDs and to cross names off the voters list, while the DRO hands out the ballots and places the marked ones into the vote tabulator, the boxy-looking device that scans the ballots.
These frontline workers receive hands-on training during a single two-hour session where they’re provided with step-by-step instructional materials for the big day. This year, an online training kit was also made available for reference purposes.
In terms of compensation, for a day’s work BOs receive $195 and DROs receive $220. The other positions pay more or less depending on the level of complexity and the required number of hours.
Responsibility-wise, the positions are comparable to their provincial and federal election counterparts. In Toronto, however, the vote tabulator makes the work much easier. Elections Canada and Elections Ontario still use old school paper ballots, which means, that at the end of the night, election workers have to count every single ballot by hand, often times with a candidate’s scrutineer breathing down their neck. The tabulator really speeds up the process.
“[It’s] similar to the technology used to scan your groceries in the grocery store,” explains McCarrol. When a ballot is fed into the tabulator, the optical scanner records the vote and then stores the ballot in a box underneath. To ensure the security of the vote, each tabulator contains a memory card that’s programmed for a specific voting station, which according to McCarrol, only accepts ballots from that ward, and rejects any unmarked or spoiled ballots.
At the end of the night, after the polls have closed, staff print off the results, which they then sign along with any scrutineers observing the poll. The results are then phoned-in to elections central, and a copy of the printout is sealed in an envelope and delivered to a receiving station. Each tabulator is also equipped with a wireless modem and antenna to transmit the results to elections central.
Finally, once everything is packed up, the tabulator is delivered to a receiving centre, and the memory card is removed and the results are downloaded. According to MacLean, the results on the card represent the official vote. If there are any discrepancies between any of the results, an investigation is launched and that poll’s ballots are recounted.
Ruban Jeyarajah (left) and Danny Rebello (right).
Helping to ensure that everything goes smoothly are Ruban Jeyarajah, a manufacturing worker and part-time Wal-Mart cashier, and Danny Rebello, a computers specialist at Bombardier; both worked the previous municipal and provincial elections, and were hired this year as standby workers.
“I think it’s an opportunity to learn about the different kinds of people in the community,” Jeyarajah told us, when we asked him why he commits his time. “It’s the money, but it’s the experience too…I’m a people person, so I enjoy it.”
For Rebello, a recent emigrant from Kuwait, the experience is invaluable, as it provides an opportunity to interact and converse with other Canadians. “I’m new,” he says sheepishly. “There’s still a lot of stuff that I need to pick up…I learn a lot from this.”
Despite having a few elections under their belts, neither have really ever had any major problems. Jeyarajah’s biggest, albeit still minor, problem came in 2006, when a rude scrutineer kept barking orders at him. Eventually, a station supervisor stepped in and told the political operative to back off. “He was just there to bug us,” says Jeyarajah. “We had to ignore that.”
According to the two, perhaps surprisingly, the voters they’ve helped have been nothing but civil.
Let’s keep that standard in mind. And when we vote, let’s remember to be courteous to election staff, regardless of the wait time or the length of the line. Sure, they’re getting paid, but they’ve also taken time out of their lives to serve the electoral process, and for that alone, they should command our respect.
Get more municipal election coverage from Torontoist here.
Photos by Stephen Michalowicz/Torontoist.