Sick, grumpy, late staff a headache for Elections Canada in May 2 vote

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An election official hands back to a voter her marked ballot to place in the ballot box so she can cast her vote for the federal election at a polling station on Toronto's Ward Island on May 2, 2011. — Canadian Press file photo

OTTAWA — Elections Canada scrambled to staff dozens of polling stations across Canada on May 2 when the people it hired called in sick, slept late, took unauthorized meal breaks — or quit in a huff over working conditions.

Internal agency records show Canadian voters aren’t the only ones with a poor turnout on election day.

Human dramas repeatedly erupted among part-time election workers, creating headaches for Elections Canada officials just as polling stations were set to open.

In the case of poll 145 in the Ottawa West-Nepean riding, the deputy returning officer and the poll clerk both quit on election day for reasons that remain unclear.

The poll was merged with 146, effectively doubling the workload of the two staff running the second poll.

That prompted the second deputy returning officer to quit. “He wanted more pay since we were merging the two polls and he said it would be too much work,” says an incident report.

Eventually a replacement was found, but the 9:30 a.m. opening was delayed by 90 minutes.

“We will have to try and understand why so many people did not show for their work at the polls May 2nd,” returning officer Arnold Finkelstein wrote of this and other staffing problems in his riding.

Under the Access to Information Act, The Canadian Press obtained detailed accounts of labour incidents encountered at 85 ridings across the country.

At poll 107 in the Churchill, Man., riding, on the remote Wasagamack First Nation reserve, the deputy returning officer could not cross the river to get to the band council office, location of the official ballot box, because of the spring breakup.

Eventually “RCMP got her across and everything was okay,” says a report, noting an opening delay of 30 minutes.

Every polling station in the country gets one ballot box and two staff, a deputy returning officer and a poll clerk. Often nominated by political parties, they receive $203.88 and $168.26 respectively for work on election day, plus $35 for three hours’ of training.

Typically, the work includes 12 hours at the polling station with an additional three hours for set-up time and ballot-counting afterward. There’s no designated time for meals or breaks.

Elections Canada also keeps a pool of spare staff on standby, who are guaranteed two hours’ of pay even if they’re not needed.

Nobody gets rich in this line of work.

Many of the hires called in sick May 2, some with little or no notice.

One woman in charge of a poll in the Scarborough-Guildwood riding in Toronto’s east end simply did not show up for work — a big problem because she had custody of the official ballot box.

Attempts to reach her failed, until an official left a voice-mail on her home phone. “I indicated if I had not heard from her by noon I would place it in the hands of the police,” Denis Neill Frazer reported. “A return call was received within 15 minutes.”

Nearby Scarborough Centre riding was among the worst-hit ridings, with trained staff quitting in droves — more than 20 of them on the morning of the election. Many polls opened hours late.

“Surprising number of cancellations by trained poll staff leading up to May 2nd,” wrote Brian Terence Reid, the returning officer.

In the southern Ontario riding of Prince Edward-Hastings, two deputy returning officers were called into their regular day-jobs at short notice, and had to abandon duties at Elections Canada.

Another deputy returning officer, in the Mississauga-Erindale riding near Toronto, unexpectedly had to work elsewhere, leaving the agency in the lurch. Traffic woes delayed the replacement worker.

Back in Ottawa West-Nepean, another drama unfolded when a deputy returning officer met his female co-worker, the poll clerk, for the first time on election day. He took an instant dislike, refused to work with her, and eventually quit — delaying the poll opening by more than two hours.

In the Saint John, N.B., riding, the deputy returning officer failed to show up and could not be contacted. Police were called.

“The DRO slept in,” the internal report concludes. “The ballot box and other materials was taken from him (by police) and brought to the polling station.” Opening was delayed by about an hour.

In Saskatchewan’s Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River riding, two workers shut down the polling station for 90 minutes to have supper. The RCMP were dispatched to their home and ordered them back on the job.

An Elections Canada spokesman says staff problems are to be expected, given the size of the part-time workforce.

“It’s regular business activity,” said John Enright, “It’s what happens when you’re dealing with 40,000 individual polls staffed by 80,000 workers. ...

“They’re going to miss their bus, they’re not going to get there in the morning, they’re going to have a family emergency.”

Organizations: Elections Canada, RCMP, Canadian Press

Geographic location: OTTAWA, Canada, Toronto Southern Ontario Mississauga-Erindale Saint John Saskatchewan Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River

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