Special polls pulled from U of T

Trinity College at the University of Toronto was one of the proposed locations for the special ballot.
Trinity College at the University of Toronto was one of the proposed locations for the special ballot.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of trinity.utoronto.ca

A fracas over on-campus polling stations has the electoral riding of Trinity-Spadina and the University of Toronto campus abuzz with allegations of interference and bias.

On Saturday night, U of T’s student government, the Student Administrative Council (SAC), got a call from the returning officer for the downtown riding of Trinity-Spadina saying that the special on-campus polling locations that were to open the following day had been cancelled.

“The ballot was meant to begin Sunday at noon. We got the call at 9:45 p.m. Saturday night,” said SAC President Paul Bretscher, who added that returning officer Nick Ranieri told them he didn’t have any appropriate information to give them about why the locations were cancelled.

“It was a special ballot procedure and it was cancelled by Ottawa,” Ranieri told the Journal.

Jen Hassum, SAC VP (external), said the SAC contacted returning officers to arrange for on-campus polling stations where students could vote on election day, Jan. 23. The SAC has jurisdiction over colleges that fall into the ridings of Toronto Centre, Mississauga-Erindale and Trinity-Spadina.

Bretscher said that while the SAC was able to set up polling stations in both the Toronto Centre and Mississauga-Erindale ridings, this proved more difficult for the riding of Trinity-Spadina.

“The returning office was, let’s say, rather dysfunctional,” he said. “They were very slow trying to make progress on this.”

It wasn’t until January that Elections Canada suggested a special ballot initiative, Bretscher said.

The plan was that seven polling stations would be set up in residences and would allow students to register and vote on the same day, for either their home riding or for Trinity-Spadina. This “one-stop shop” was also done on Carleton and University of Ottawa campuses for this election, Bretscher added.

The arrangement would have had polls open from Sunday, Jan. 15 to Tuesday, Jan. 17, so students could vote early to ease pressure at the polls on voting day.

Hassum said SAC worked on the plan with the Trinity-Spadina returning office and Elections Canada in Ottawa, and once it was finalized got a confirmation from Elections Canada on the seven polling stations.

“That confirmation was also CC’d to all of the federal campaigns and their headquarters,” she said.

However, on Saturday, Jan. 14, Ranieri called the SAC to say the stations were cancelled.

The next day, Bretscher said, he called Elections Canada in Ottawa.

“They confirmed that the special ballot initiative was cancelled, and they said it was a legal issue,” he said.

Bretscher said Elections Canada told him they couldn’t comment on legal issues, and that all they could say was that Elections Canada didn’t bring the concerns forward.

Suspecting that one of the political campaigns might know about the closure of the polling stations, Bretscher said he contacted the campaign office of NDP candidate Olivia Chow. He said her campaign team told him they knew nothing about the cancellation.

“We then spoke with the campaign manager of the Liberal candidate, Tony Ianno,” Bretscher said. “He confirmed that it was legal counsel of the Liberal party of Canada that had submitted something to Elections Canada that resulted in this special ballot vote being cancelled.”

One of the concerns voiced by Ianno’s campaign manager, Tom Allison, Bretscher said, was that his campaign was not told about the on-campus polling stations.

“We got the fax sent out from the returning office to the campaign to highlight exactly where the polling stations were to be on campus,” he said.

“[Allison] accused us of making a secret deal with Elections Canada, which is not true,” Hassum said. “Everyone was notified.”

Allison contests this, however.

“That’s just one of the lies that the SAC is spreading,” he said. “They kept this secret from us—informed us not verbally, not in writing, not by an e-mail, nothing.”

Allison said he heard nothing about on-campus polling stations in Trinity-Spadina until Friday, Jan. 13, when a student volunteer for the Liberals told him there were posters up for a poll on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of the following week.

Allison said while he didn’t think this was true at first, he called the returning office to double-check. He said he was told that the sites in question weren’t polling stations.

“They actually refused to tell us the locations,” he said.

According to electoral law, scrutineers from all parties must be present at polling stations during polling and when the ballots are being counted.

Allison said he thinks the returning officer told him the on-campus sites weren’t polling stations in order to prevent him from sending Liberal scrutineers.

“If they had been polling stations, we could have had scrutineers,” he said. “We would have been informed by law.”

Allison said he contacted the Liberal party lawyer, who in turn contacted Elections Canada to find out under what authority the on-campus polls were being conducted. According to Allison, the lawyer was told that Elections Canada in Ottawa knew nothing about the arrangement, and that they called back the next day to say it had been cancelled.

Allison said it was Elections Canada, not the Liberal party, that had decided to close the polling stations.

“We didn’t cancel anything, we didn’t make any decision,” he said. “Elections Canada is completely independent. They run elections, they make decisions.”

Diane Benson, media liaison for Elections Canada in Ottawa, said the decision made by Elections Canada was not politically motivated.

“Elections Canada would have acted on this no matter who had notified us,” she said.

Benson said the reason behind the cancellation of the polling stations is twofold.

First, because advance voting was taking place in standard polling stations and the returning officer was ensuring that students were being registered and added to the electoral list, Elections Canada deemed there was no need for the additional special ballot initiative that was planned, she said.

Also, Benson said, there was a risk that parties could canvass in the area where the polling was to be done.

“Canada’s electoral law is very specific about where the voting can take place,” she said. “The special ballot initiative [on U of T campus] would have taken place in an area where canvassing by candidates could also occur.”

Benson said she was not able to comment on what the precise procedure for these special polling initiatives was to be, or whether Elections Canada had informed all the candidates about the initiative.

The Journal contacted five of the six other campaigns in the riding (the candidate for the Canadian Action Party was not immediately available for comment). The only campaign that confirmed it had received a fax from Elections Canada regarding the on-campus polling stations was that of NDP candidate Olivia Chow. Green party candidate Thom Chapman said he only heard about the polling stations after they had been cancelled.

“There was no faxed received by me, or phone call,” he said. “Basically, I had no idea that there was going to be special balloting.”

On Monday, Chow’s campaign sent out a press release deploring the cancellation of the seven polling stations and demanding that Elections Canada “immediately set up alternative arrangements, secure them with deputy returning officers and poll clerks so students will not be denied their right to vote due to the lack of enumeration and proper notification.”

The same day, NDP Federal Secretary Éric Hébert sent a letter to Jean-Pierre Kingsley, commissioner for Elections Canada. The letter emphasized the importance of the polling stations and expressed concern at their cancellation.

Allison said he believes all the other parties have been purposely kept in the dark by the SAC and Elections Canada, as have the Liberals.

“It was kept secret from us,” he said. “It just brings into disrepute the entire electoral system.

“[Elections Canada] won’t even tell me who’s made this decision … They’re clearly embarrassed by this.”

Allison said he suspects the lack of transparency is due to a desire on the part of the SAC to favour the NDP, adding that the race between Chow and Ianno promises to be a close one.

“This is the riding the NDP want to win,” he said. “The NDP will do anything to get Olivia Chow elected.”

Bretscher said he thinks the tight race might have motivated the Liberal party to interfere with the student vote.

“This issue of whether or not it was a Liberal intervention to purposely stop students from voting has created a lot of speculation,” he said. “Everyone is going to have to come to their own conclusion as to whether or not this was interference.”

At the university itself, many students are confused about how they can now cast their votes, said Ted Thomas, a student living at U of T’s Trinity College.

“I think the only thing that has frustrated people here is confusion over how to vote as university students,” he said. “More often than not, people have offered conflicting advice.”

Thomas said he was planning on voting at the on-campus polling stations, but now he will probably vote in one of the regular polling stations on Monday.

Bretscher agreed that students are feeling confused and irritated.

“I was getting phone calls all the time from students who were, like, ‘What’s happening? What should I do?’ ” he said, adding that he had recently been told that there will be on-campus polling stations on election day, for which students can register now. The possibility of canvassing in the area is no longer an issue, as the polling will take place on election day when canvassing is prohibited.

Bretscher added he wished he could have known about these arrangements earlier. “Until an hour and 10 minutes ago, I couldn’t even tell them there was going to be a polling station on campus,” he said.

Allison said it’s hard to tell how this controversy will affect the last few days of the campaign.

“How will we do on election day?” he asked. “I don’t know. I think we’re going to win.”

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