St. John's ballot debacle avoided

Everton McLean
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Politics Computer code blamed for incorrect ballot packages being mailed out to voters

A single line of computer code was likely the reason more than 150 misdirected ballot kits for the St. John's election were sent to the wrong homes, says the city's clerk.

Neil Martin said the city looked into the issue, which first became apparent Monday night when people reported to councillors that they got the wrong kits. Officials discovered that a computer program used by the agency Datafix to peruse the voter list and compile the kits had a glitch that caused it to direct ballots for other wards to certain homes in Ward 2 and Ward 4.

A single line of computer code was likely the reason more than 150 misdirected ballot kits for the St. John's election were sent to the wrong homes, says the city's clerk.

Neil Martin said the city looked into the issue, which first became apparent Monday night when people reported to councillors that they got the wrong kits. Officials discovered that a computer program used by the agency Datafix to peruse the voter list and compile the kits had a glitch that caused it to direct ballots for other wards to certain homes in Ward 2 and Ward 4.

According to Martin, 77 ballots for the Ward 4 vote went to Ward 2 residents on Mayor Avenue, while 77 Ward 4 residents on Airport Heights Drive got ballots for the Ward 1 election.

He said the city has tracked down the voters who got the wrong kits, and luckily none of them had voted. He said the incorrect ballots are being voided and new packages will be hand delivered, along with a letter explaining what happened.

"What it was was a glitch in a new computer program," he said.

"For some reason, and they think it might have been a line of code, if they put in (the voter's address) as Mayor Ave., it went to one ward, and if they spelled it avenue, they put it in another ward."

The same thing happened on Airport Heights Drive, where residents were listed as in different wards depending on whether drive was fully spelled or abbreviated.

"But the problem is corrected."

Martin said the city had never had a problem like that before.

Small number

Meanwhile, Martin played down the significance of the mistake.

"It was 154 ballots out of 70,000, so it was extremely minute," he said. "The other 69,850, there was no problem."

Martin did admit there was one other issue plaguing the mail-in ballots - some ballot kits are being sent to homes where the people listed no longer live. As a result, a person could get three or four kits.

Martin said that happens when the voter list hasn't been updated, and the best thing anyone who receives a kit belonging to someone else can do is mark the package and return it to the city.

He noted it's the responsibility of individuals to make sure they are on the voter list.

Asked whether there's any concern about people filling in the extra ballots, he said that, as in any election, a certain amount of trust has to be placed with the electorate.

"We have to rely on the integrity of the individual."

In addition, he said, it's a criminal offence to fraudulently vote.

He also debated whether having polling stations only would actually stamp out election fraud. As an example, he said, there would be nothing to stop a person who previously lived in Mount Pearl and recently moved to St. John's from voting in both cities if they still have documentation listing their old residence.

Memorial University political science professor Alex Marland said that while the mail-in ballot system seems to lend itself towards some forms of fraud, his opinion is that it's unlikely fraud is very widespread.

"It's pretty obvious that it could lend itself to fraud. If you have ballots in a mailbox, people could take them," he said.

But he said, particularly in municipal elections when the stakes are lower, it's unlikely we'd see politicians scanning mailboxes for votes.

"The idea you would have some politician going around, stealing ballots and filling them out, the thing is, if that was uncovered, that person would have to resign his or her position, even if they did it once.

"It's not really worth the risk compared to the reward."

Meanwhile, he said other voting systems, from the traditional voting station to online voting, also have documented problems.

"There are concerns with every system of election," he said.

emclean@thetelegram.com

Geographic location: St. John's, Mount Pearl

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Recent comments

  • Edward
    July 02, 2010 - 13:30

    That's the ticket - blame the system, not the bureaucrat who didn't program it properly.

    No one at City Hall takes responsibility.

    From today's Telegram report on last night's all candidate's forum, what does candidate Simon Lono say about snow clearing...

    I'm not sure what the solution is, but I know there's got to be one, said at-large candidate Simon Lono.

    We need vision and responsibility at City Hall, not more of the same incompetence.

  • Edward
    July 01, 2010 - 20:18

    That's the ticket - blame the system, not the bureaucrat who didn't program it properly.

    No one at City Hall takes responsibility.

    From today's Telegram report on last night's all candidate's forum, what does candidate Simon Lono say about snow clearing...

    I'm not sure what the solution is, but I know there's got to be one, said at-large candidate Simon Lono.

    We need vision and responsibility at City Hall, not more of the same incompetence.