Seeking perfection will destroy the good
By Bruce A Stewart
Etobicoke Centre was won in 2011 by 26 votes, with Conservative MP Ted Opitz displacing longtime Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj.
Wrzesnewskyj didn’t take the loss lying down. He went looking for problems with the list of people who voted, and the count.
As with all the other ridings in Canada, it wasn’t hard to find some. A judge hearing the case noted three times as many irregularities as the margin of victory, and ordered a by-election to redo the result.
Appealed to the Supreme Court, arguments were heard yesterday. If you listened to the positions taken by both sides, you’d come away finding positive things to say about both of them.
It’s the process that’s wrong, though. This should never have been in court, period.
Canada’s elections system, administered by Elections Canada, depends on a lot of voluntary effort.
It counts on each of us filing our income tax forms — and ticking the box allowing our relevant information to be passed on to Elections Canada to create the electoral rolls.
We used to send enumerators around, but we don’t do that anymore.
Then we have — when an election is called — to rush the training of hundreds of volunteers for every riding to act as polling station staff and returning officers.
The small amounts of money paid for a tough job of making judgement calls for hours, then counting accurately, don’t overcome the fact that you have to be pretty civic-minded to invest the time in training and in doing the work.
In a flash, these people — a good number of which have never done this before and likely as not never will again — have to master all the intricacies of our electoral procedures, including how we handle adding people who aren’t on the electoral list but show up to vote anyway, and how we purge names from the rolls who have moved, or who were added but aren’t entitled to vote.
(An example: a very good friend of mine lived in Canada since 1967 until his death. His wife became a citizen; he never did. He was a public figure, active in many organizations, entitled under our passport regulations to act as a guarantor. If he had ever gone to a poll on voting day — which he didn’t — how would a quickly-trained clerk have decided whether or not he could vote?)
Errors will be made. Lots of them.
Ask anyone who’s ever done the count of votes cast: it never comes out the same way twice.
Ask anyone who’s ever had to decide whether a ballot is clear or not and whether therefore it should be counted or treated as spoilt how clear the boundary lines are there.
Ask anyone facing a line of people just how long you can take for each person being added on site.
We give our voting system legitimacy not because it is free of errors, but because we accept them. In a count that’s not close, we call it a day. When the count is close, recounts are done.
Bringing this case has really been about an unwillingness to accept the outcome. For a defeated candidate, it’s always possible that errors in procedure defeated you. That’s part of the process. Wrzesnewskyj refused to accept that.
It’s typical of the hardball increasingly played by all parties (although, of course, each paints themselves as lily-white defenders of Canada against their black-hatted evil-doing illegitimate opponents).
“Win at all costs, and if you don’t win, force a do-over” will surely kill Canadians’ trust in the system. No vote will ever be meaningful again.
This case is not about Etobicoke Centre; it’s about our future in every riding from coast to coast to coast. The Supreme Court should reverse the lower court’s by-election order.
The way to fix the electoral roll is to return to enumeration — not to find judges who’ll vacate sitting MPs.