Hiding the Ballot Box from the Cat, and Other Tales of a Deputy Returning Officer

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How'd You Get That Job? Tuesday, July 08, 2014 View Count = 1452

Hiding the Ballot Box from the Cat, and Other Tales of a Deputy Returning Officer

Today's blog post is by Emily McCay

If you have ever felt small in the face of an election, a bug on the windshield of the democratic bus, my suggestion to you is to apply for a job the next time we go to the polls. I became involved in the June Ontario election for no reason other than I had nothing to lose. A recent social work graduate, I had more time than money on my hands. A friend suggested the opportunity, and the application was so simple I used my smartphone to complete it while sitting on a patio, and finished before my coffee was cold. By 6pm that day I was confirmed as a Deputy Returning Officer. 

Settling in for a long night of reading

After confirming my position and learning that a D.R.O. was entirely responsible for managing and counting the ballots for their poll, I began to wonder, “Don’t they want someone who knows what they’re doing?” I was feeling a familiar sense of intimidation that I’d previously felt when confronted with the looming specter of democracy. I have always voted, but felt uneasy each time. Each election felt so official and serious that the process of voting effectively distanced me from democracy. How could I possibly be responsible for a piece of this process? 

It wasn’t until I brought home all the electoral supplies I had been issued, including all the ballots for my poll and the list of electors, that my perspective began to shift. I realized, as I hauled my surprisingly heavy load through the front door, that all over the province there were people, just like me, trying to figure out where on earth they were going to keep their ballot box for two days so their cat wouldn’t tear them to pieces. All kinds of regular citizens feeling a swirling mix of trepidation, responsibility and excitement at the thought of pitching in with all the other election workers in Ontario to do something we can only accomplish as a collective, run an election. The election wouldn’t happen in spite of my involvement; it would run because of it. 

As I made my way down my block on Election Day, enormous ballot box awkwardly balanced on my hip, I felt capable, and excited to participate. My poll clerk found me, having recognized my voice from a phone conversation, and together we just muddled through the instructions in the manual regarding how to set up our poll. When the first voters appeared at 9am, we began to settle into our rhythm for the next 12 hours. My poll clerk and I were as different as can be, he was a man many years my senior with a global perspective, we discussed issues of evolution, physics and social trends between voters. By the end of the day, when it was time to count the ballots, I was much more comfortable with my authority. When challenged by a scutineer representing one of the main parties, I firmly stood by my decision. 

As I watched the other polls in our gymnasium reconcile their ballot counts, I relished standing in the middle of our all-too-human electoral system. I stood in awe of how little time it had taken me to feel like an insider to the process, realizing that we are all really insiders no matter what our role, so long as we participate. As I packed up my bag of ballots and reports to deliver to the riding headquarters, I also noted how vulnerable the electoral process is. While there are, no doubt, detailed checks and balances in place in our system, every election employee can shift the process. Incomplete instructions given to voters, or inaccurately accepting or rejecting ballots can alter the outcome of an election, even if only temporarily. Equally important, our engagement with the electorate may have a lasting impact on their experience as a voter. We may not be able to eliminate all traces of human error from our roles as Poll Officials, but we can help our fellow electors feel welcome and engaged. 

Ultimately, the integrity of our democracy depends on what we put into it. So if you feel disconnected, intimidated or even a little jaded in the face of elections, I recommend you volunteer to dive right into the heart of it, and help the rest of us keep it above water. 

Emily McCay is a recent graduate of the School of Social Work at Ryerson University. She follows politics at all levels of government, with a keen interest in issues of education and mental health. She is looking forward to voting in the Toronto Mayoral Election in October. 

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