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Public inquiry needed into parts of Elections Ontario’s running of provincial election

Elections Ontario violated the law – refused to inform voters of right to decline their ballot in its election ads

Declined ballots decreased by more than 7,000 compared to 2014 but unmarked ballots increased by almost 11,000 – did poorly trained poll station workers prevent thousands from declining their ballot? Did the ban on scrutineers seeing many ballots affect the outcome?

Despite Elections Ontario’s negligence, Ontario voter turnout up 7.7% from 2014 to 58% but still 7th lowest since Confederation – is Elections Ontario’s voter education effective? What other changes would help increase voter turnout?

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

OTTAWA – Today, Democracy Watch called for a public inquiry into parts of Elections Ontario’s running of the recent provincial election given: 1. Elections Ontario violated the law by failing to do ads informing voters of their right to decline their ballot; 2. a huge increase in unmarked ballots raises questions about whether thousands were prohibited from declining their ballot; 3. questions about whether banning scrutineers from even seeing ballots at polling stations that used electronic counting machines affected outcomes, and; 4. overall questions about Elections Ontario’s voter education efforts given voter turnout was the seventh lowest percentage since 1867.

The first question a public inquiry needs to examine is why Elections Ontario refused to do even one TV, radio or print ad informing voters of their right to decline their ballot, even though Democracy Watch has been requesting that it do such ads since 2011, and even though the provincial law requires Elections Ontario to do ads about all voter rights?

The second question is whether polling station workers violated the rights of thousands of voters by failing to allow them to decline their ballot? According to Elections Ontario’s unofficial results which were finally made available for all ridings yesterday (two ridings were missing for the past 17 days and Elections Ontario refused to explain why), the number of declined ballots decreased by 7,253 (-24.2%) compared to 2014 (from 29,937 in 2014 to 22,684 in 2018).

In contrast, the number of unmarked ballots increased by 10,787 (up 89%) compared to 2014 (from 12,124 in 2014 up to 22,911 in 2018). According to Elections Ontario’s summary of election results since 1977, unmarked ballots have never totaled more than 12,124, the total in the 2014 election.

And according to Elections Ontario’s summary of election results since 1867, the total number of declined and unmarked ballots in the 2018 election was higher than the total of declined, unmarked and spoiled (rejected) ballots in every election except the 2014 and 1990 elections.

Did poorly trained poll station works fail to process declined ballots properly? Did their lack of knowledge about how voters decline their ballot violate the right of thousands of voters to decline their ballot – and did these voters leave their ballots unmarked instead or spoil their ballots? Democracy Watch has heard from some voters who, when they told the poll worker that they wanted to decline their ballot, were told to take their ballot directly to the person who was running ballots through the electronic counting machine.

“An inquiry is needed into Elections Ontario’s running of the provincial election because it refused to inform voters of all their voting rights in its election ads, and there is evidence that the legal rights of thousands of voters were violated while scrutineers were prohibited from viewing ballots,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch. “Voter turnout will go up significantly only if the voting system is changed, if Elections Ontario does voter education and polling station worker training properly, and if the parties make changes to end undemocratic elections and dishonest, unethical government.”

“Some voters may not support any party that has a candidate in their riding or may not support any of the parties’ platforms, and they have the right to be informed by Elections Ontario that they have the right to vote for ‘none of the above’ by declining their ballot,” said Conacher. “Ontario’s politicians gave voters the right to decline their ballot in 1975, and for more than 40 years Elections Ontario has negligently and illegally refused to inform voters that they have this right and to train polling station workers properly so they don’t stop voters from exercising their right to decline their ballot.”

Ontario voters have the legal right under section 53 of Ontario’s Election Act to decline their ballot (i.e. vote “none of the above”) and have it counted separately from a vote for a candidate or a spoiled ballot. This right has existed in the law since 1975. However, Elections Ontario has consistently failed to inform voters that they have this right in its communications to educate voters undertaken under subsection 114.1(2) and section 114.2 of the Election Act.

The third area a public inquiry should examine is the use of electronic vote counting machines in the recent election for the first time. As others have pointed out, these machines raise concerns about hacking and manipulation of results, especially given that scrutineers were prohibited by subsection 4.1.3 of Elections Ontario’s directive from even seeing the ballots at polling stations that used the machines.

As well, the use of these machines should not be a step toward using machine or Internet voting as they should not even be considered currently given they dangerously undermine the integrity of the voting system.

The fourth and final question a public inquiry should examine is whether Elections Ontario’s voter education efforts have been a waste of money and should be overhauled. Despite Elections Ontario’s $4.5 million in advertising spending in 2011, voter turnout in the 2011 Ontario election was a record low 48.2% of eligible voters, the first time in history that turnout dropped below 50%. And despite Elections Ontario’s more than $4.8 million in ad spending in 2014, turnout in the 2014 election was the second-lowest ever at 51.3%. The 2007 turnout was only slightly better at 52.1%, and the 2018 turnout was still low, the seventh lowest turnout since Confederation.

Democracy Watch has long called on the federal government, and every provincial and territorial government, to change their election laws (including the law for municipal elections in each jurisdiction) and add the right to vote “none of the above” and to give a reason to election and by-election ballots.

Democracy Watch has also long called on Elections Ontario, and all election agencies across Canada, to include two key messages in their voter education advertising and communications – the real reasons to vote:

  1. “You never know when your vote may count” — with examples from past elections, and from specific ridings in various elections, which show clearly that election results cannot be predicted in advance, and;
  2. “If you don’t vote, you don’t count” — making it clear that politicians don’t really care about you if you don’t vote because non-voters do not help them get elected or defeated.

In addition, the Ontario parties must make the following changes if they want to increase voter turnout up to the past modern high of 65% (in 1990) let alone 73% (in 1971):

  1. pass an honesty-in-politics law that gives voters an easy, low-cost way to file complaints to the Integrity Commissioner, and gives the Commissioner the power to penalize misleaders (and requires MPPs who switch parties in-between elections to resign and run in a by-election);
  2. change the voting system to provide a more accurate representation of the popular vote results in each election in the seats held by each party in the legislature (as in many other countries) while ensuring that all elected officials are supported by, and are accountable to, voters in each riding/constituency (with a safeguard to ensure that a party with a low-level, narrow-base of support does not have a disproportionately high level of power in the legislature), and;
  3. strengthen provincial political ethics, political finance, lobbying, open government, and whistleblower protection laws.

These changes would give voters many more reasons to vote because they would know that voting for a specific party would mean their vote would count and the party’s promises would be kept, and they would be more assured of democratic good government overall no matter which party won.

As well, moving the fixed election date to the last Monday in October would make it easier for people with kids, and students, to follow and participate in the election campaign and have the identification needed to vote.

“More and more voters know from their experience of the past few decades of elections that they are not going to get what they vote for, and are likely to get dishonest, secretive, unethical, unrepresentative and wasteful government no matter who they vote for, and as a result no one should be surprised to see voter turnout at such a low level,” said Conacher.

These problems exist in all the provinces and territories across Canada. All of these changes should be made by the federal and provincial and territorial governments, and for their municipalities, before mandatory voting is even considered because forcing voters to vote creates false legitimacy for political parties and politicians (and mandatory voting must never be implemented unless “none of the above” is one of the options on the ballot).

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Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch
Tel: 613-241-5179
Cell: 416-546-3443

Democracy Watch’s Democratic Voting System Campaign