Experiencing the Election as a Rural Deputy Returning Officer

Photo: Elections Canada, 2015.

Editor’s Note: This blog was written the day after the election. We waited for approval from the area’s Returning Officer. Not because we had to, but because we wanted to ensure no oaths were broken in the typing of this blog (Debra’s a stickler for rules).

A couple of weeks ago, I was forwarded a rather panicked email in search of election day workers in my rural riding. I must say, I’ve always had a soft spot for my local community, and when it reaches out, I tend to reach back. I applied for an election day job immediately, and received a phone call within the hour… Would I be okay with serving as a Deputy Returning Officer?

What the heck is a Deputy Returning Officer?

I knew little of the responsibilities I’d be trusted with as a “DRO,” but who doesn’t like a challenge?

I said yes and was immediately scheduled in for a weekend training session. Then, I was given a temporary “Recruiting Officer” badge right over the phone. Who else can work? Any suggestions? Where can we find people?

I was shocked. I mean, I guess it doesn’t sound like the most exciting job in the world (I’ll get to my experience in a minute), but surely there are people looking for a little extra cash? Or an opportunity to expand their resumes? Wasn’t that one of the major campaigns behind the election?

Jobs.

Yeah, okay. All told, it was the commitment of maybe twenty hours. And, I realize that’s not exactly what we look for when we type “employment opportunities” into our favourite search engine, but it’s those, seemingly (but not at all) trivial commitments that add up to our overall employability. Besides, it’s a good way to contribute to our communities, and get a feel for what happens beyond the ballot box at an election.

Training

Similar to basic first aid, WHMIS and other short educational days, training for the election was an opportunity to sit with strangers, read manuals and feel completely out of one’s element. There was no test at the end, but it did begin with a verbal oath. As a Deputy Returning Officer, I would be in charge of speaking to electors, asking for identification, and managing ballots. Much of the information I would deal with would be incredibly private. I swore that I was capable, eligible and would work to the best of my abilities, while respecting electors’ confidentiality.

Roles

Before I get to my experiences for the day, let me explain the roles of the people working at each polling station.

  1. Information Officer – The Information Officer was likely the first person you saw when you walked into the polling station. S/he helps direct electors to the right booth, in a timely manner, asking you to please have your identification ready. The Information Officer might do anything from opening a door to determining your polling division.
  2. Registration Officer – The Registration Officer aids those not yet on the official list of electors, by starting the flow of paperwork required to register to vote. If you had a Voter Information Card with you yesterday, you likely skipped past the person with this title.
  3. Deputy Returning Officer – The next person you had the distinct pleasure of talking to 😉 was likely the Deputy Returning Officer at your official poll booth. He or she greeted you with “Hello/Bonjour,” and received your name and address. As this was my role (and no doubt the coolest), I will get to it in a bit.
  4. Poll Clerk – The Poll Clerk was sitting across the table from you, on your left (to the right of the DRO). Their job is to assist the DRO in completing paperwork, setting up the station and counting the ballots.
  5. Central Poll Supervisor – As we are a rural riding, our CPS was only around for part of the day (shared between a few polling stations). His or her job is to make sure everyone is doing their job, essentially. They are also responsible for calling in the ballot count at the end of the night, and managing the collection of ballot boxes.

Election Day

Election day was long. I can’t imagine how the leaders feel today, as I nurse what I can only describe as a Canada Votes hangover.

Everyone working at our polling station arrived at 0630h — meaning a 0530h wake-up for most of us, and thermoses of coffee. The first item on the agenda was to set up our poll booths, which, would seem relatively simple. After all, every booth is really just a table, two chairs, and a cardboard privacy screen, right? Well, yes and no. Along with a job like this, comes a lot of paperwork.

It was my job to count all of the ballots I received (over 400) at training. We then set up all of the other paperwork I was alluding to, in an attempt to make our station as efficient as possible. We were given a piece of paper outlining the best way to do this, but developed our own system over the course of the day.

If you voted at my booth on election day, I greeted you, asked for your identification, confirmed with the Poll Clerk that you were on the list (or registered you if you weren’t), decided whether or not you were eligible to vote, then signed the back of your ballot and folded it in thirds before I gave it to you. I told you to mark inside the circle of your preferred candidate and I only accepted a returned ballot once it had been folded the same way (so as not to see your choice). I then checked that the ticket number matched the one I issued you, ripped it off, and handed the ballot back to you to place in the ballot box.

I went through that process over 200 times. And, I was the only other person to touch your ballot from the moment I received it at training ’till after it was counted and sealed in an envelope at the end of election night.

We served electors for 12 hours.

Then. Math.

After everything was balanced in our books, we cleared our table and prepared to count the ballots. A candidate’s representative saddled up beside us, so I asked to see his identification, noted that it had been signed that day, and allowed him to stay for the count.

As I mentioned before, it is the duty of the DRO to handle ballots. Their validity is also the DRO’s call. So, if you drew a little red barn in the circle of the candidate of your choice, I decided whether or not that was acceptable (no one did). As I grouped the ballots by candidate, I called out their name, and the Poll Clerk kept a tally.

No trouble at all (except that my voice was some kinda hurting).

Once that was done, everything was put away with precision. Every envelope was sealed and signed. All paperwork was completed, and everything was double checked by our Supervisor.

By day’s end, my emotions were mixed. Most of my electors were a breeze to deal with, and laughed at even the lamest of my jokes. The Poll Clerk I had the joy of working with, dealt with my rants, my raves, my suggestions, my questions, and even encouraged humour at our station. And, everyone remained level-headed, even through a few “notable events.”

Will You Apply Next Election?

The desperation to fulfill roles for Elections Canada was not unique to this riding. A media advisor told me that recruiting 250,000 people for such short-term roles poses unique challenges.

“Those challenges are especially acute in very rural areas, where the population is sparse, and in Alberta, where the years of oil-driven prosperity have pushed up pay rates and pushed down unemployment.”

The next election, will you help ease the desperation?

 

Debra Murphy

Debra Murphy is a Field Editor based out of central Alberta, where she never misses a moment to capture with her camera the real beauty of agriculture. Follow her on Twitter @RealAg_Debra

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