At the Toronto polls with Nigel Aplin

Not my Average 14-hour day

A personal account of the Toronto elections 27 October  2014

complete with a beer-drinking Doug Ford supporter with signs

By Nigel Aplin
Special to True North Perspctive

Image: Montage of "Ford for Mayor" election signs with image of Doug Ford and others inset.“Nigel, there’s a guy just outside the door drinking beer and he has a Ford For Mayor sign with him”, reported one of my ten staff at the Wallace Emerson Community Centre on Dufferin Street, south of Dupont in the north part of Ward 18. It was municipal election day — 27 October 27 2014 — a few minutes before the polls were to open.

There were about 50 voters waiting in line along a hallway outside the gym — some patiently and others less so. I was the Managing Deputy Returning Officer (MDRO — the person in charge of the poll) and everything was ultimately my responsibility. I looked up and could see the man with an open beer in his hand, sitting on a chair plastered with Ford signage. Every voter waiting in the line could clearly see him through the hallway window.

The advance polls had generated a much larger turnout than in 2010 and, thanks in large part to the sitting mayor (and his councillor brother now running in his place), all indications were that general interest levels among citizens of Toronto were heightened this time around — either in support of or in opposition to the mayor and his brother. I attended a two hour training session for MDROs a few days beforehand where the instructor warned us that turnout could be particularly heavy in certain areas of the city. I chatted with her briefly after the training session to clarify a couple of procedures and as we were wrapping up, she asked me what location I was assigned to. When I replied that it was the Wallace Emerson Community Centre on Dufferin Street, she winced slightly and suggested that it might be a busy day there.

I thanked her and left with my massive bag of ballots, signs, forms, voter lists, maps, multi-language voting instruction manuals, cardboard voting screens, ballot boxes and bags of masking tape, string, pencils, magnifiers and rulers and, as I dragged it toward the subway station, I thought back to June 12th of this year when I was a Deputy Returning Officer for the provincial election. That day, I was stationed in a swanky condominium at York Mills and Yonge Streets where the voters list consisted only of the mostly retired Jewish seniors who resided there. My ballot officer Rachel (who would join my team again in the municipal election) and I had an easy day that consisted of adding absolutely no one to the voters list. The coming municipal election day was sounding like it going to be a very different experience. But I really had no idea just how different it was going to be.

After touching base over the weekend with my supervisor and the ten staff who I would be working with, as I watched football on Sunday afternoon, I reviewed the materials in the bag, put my initials on half of the more than 2,000 ballots in my possession, re-packed the bag and took it down to the car before bed. I arrived at the polling place and parked my car just after 8 am, about 30 minutes ahead of schedule. I felt quite well organized as I began to set up in the gym and met the team members as they arrived. Everyone seemed upbeat and helpful as we assembled the ballot stations, voting screens and the electronic vote tabulator. Some had many elections under their belts and others had none but all were keen and we had lots of time to set up and review procedures as the polls were to open at 10 am. But voters began arriving shortly after 8.30am, intending to vote before going to work. Many were surprised and some were quite ticked off to learn that we were not opening until 10 am. Some decided to wait. And the line continued to grow as the clock rolled past 9.45am.

“Ok, thanks, I’ll deal with it”, I said, wondering if the man with the Ford sign was perhaps a bad omen. I walked outside, said hello to him and explained that election rules prohibit candidate signage within view of the polling place and that he would have to move his chair to a place where voters couldn’t see it. A confrontation is what he was looking for but I kept my composure, asked him again to move his chair and explained that I didn’t make the rules but that the City had hired me to ensure that they are followed. He refused to move and suggested that I probably also wanted him to get rid of the beer. I said that I didn’t. My concern was the sign. He was dug in. I considered calling the police but decided to go back inside and approach the front desk of the community centre to ask if they knew the man. The young woman had a glance at him but did not recognize him. She said that it might be faster and easier for her to call one of the security staff who was on site and could probably help. I agreed and thanked her and, since the poll was about to open, I returned to the gym where several voters in the line asked me what was being done about the man with the sign.

I became absorbed in directing traffic and answering last-second questions as the poll opened and we processed the first wave of voters. A few minutes later, I looked up from my table and saw that the man with the Ford sign was gone. Then, a large security officer named Marcus arrived at my desk, introduced himself and reported that he had taken care of the man with the sign and suggested that he was not likely to return. I thanked him but did not ask him how he handled the situation because there were voters and staff lining up to speak to me. Marcus was right. The man with the Ford sign did not return and the remaining hours passed like a blur.

The long and relentless day was the most stressful one I have ever experienced in my working life. Not that I’m complaining — yes, it was frantic, hectic, exasperating and exhausting but, like a challenging wilderness canoe trip, while it sometimes felt difficult, strenuous and daunting at the time, on reflection, it was an experience I’m really glad I had.

The wave of voters overwhelmed us for most of the day. At 7.30 pm, 30 minutes before the polls “closed”, the line-up was about 75 minutes long. It had not been less than an hour since just after lunchtime. It was reported that voter turnout increased citywide from 50% to 65% from the 2010 election. I’m speculating here but I’m certain that the range of voter increase varied widely across the city. In my stable and well-heeled Ward 16 neighbourhood of Lawrence and Yonge, for example, it probably increased from 86% to 87% but in the transitional inner-city area of Ward 18, with its geographic centre roughly at Lansdowne and Bloor, it clearly rose much more than the 15% citywide average — maybe by as much as 50%. I suggest 50% only because for much of the day, it seemed to me that we had about half of the staff required to properly serve the voters we saw.

When I vote, I bring my Voter Information Card (VIC), mailed to me a few weeks before election day, and my driver’s licence. In my ward, it’s probably that way for about 90% of voters but on election day in Poll 4 of Ward 18, only about 10% of those we saw had their VIC s and another piece of identification showing their address. The other 90%? Well, they either had to be added to the voters list (we added more than 400 new voters) or re-directed to another poll closer to home. The City of Toronto, as was explained to me literally hundreds of times that day, built a tool in the election section of its website which purported to direct voters to the correct poll in their ward when they entered their postal code. What a great idea! For younger first-time voters, this is exactly what they were looking for. The only problem is that it didn’t work properly — at least not for the hundreds I spoke to who had been sent to our poll in error.

Many who lived well outside the range of Poll 4 had been erroneously directed our way where they waited in line (expecting to be added to the voters list) for an hour only to be told that they were actually at the wrong poll. Most were understandably irritated; some were surprisingly patient; some were furious; others much more furious. Some people swore at me. Others told me that they never voted before and were now giving up and would never, ever try again. “This is bullshit!” many said — and they were right.

I was provided with a map of Ward 18 in my election materials bag which showed most streets and all 27 poll boundaries within the ward as well as a list of the addresses of each of the other 26 polling stations. I taped them both on the wall behind my table well before the polls opened — more to get them out of the way than because I really thought we would be using them much. I ended up spending more than half of my time examining the map with frustrated voters who I re-directed to polls at various public schools, churches and condominium buildings after finding their addresses on the map.

Each poll has a list of street names and ranges of numbers on those streets which fall within the poll boundary. Voters must vote in the poll where they live. There are 27 of them in Ward 18. Voters who used the online tool that directed them to our location only to be told that their street address did not fall within our poll were sent to me for re-direction. By the time they reached me, most were looking to vent their anger and I was the one in charge.

I kept my composure throughout and I tried every strategy I could think of to diffuse anger, calm nerves, add levity and, most importantly, encourage voters to invest a little more time, take a short walk to the right poll and follow through with voting. It felt like my most important responsibility. At various times and based only on a quick read of the kind of personal energy I was feeling from each person, I said things like “sir, if I were in your position, I would me much more angry than you are right now’” or “hang in there, a short walk, probably a shorter line-up and you’ll be done” and often “we know that the online tool isn’t working properly but the damage that it has done cannot be undone today” usually followed by “we are the people who are here today and each and every one of us is trying as hard as we can to process voters or send them to the right poll where they can be processed.” Amazingly, most people were grudgingly accepting but some were not. It seemed like such a shame, in particular for people who had never voted before and were motivated that day to do so for the first time, that so many of them had that I spoke to had such a bad experience.

We did get through the voting hours to 8 pm when we closed the doors with the gym still almost full of people waiting in line. We were still processing voters until almost 9pm. Then, under the watchful (and often disruptive) eyes of armies of scrutineers for two council candidates locked in a tight and bitter race in Ward 18, we closed the tabulator and printed the results tape. We then confirmed that the results had successfully been transmitted electronically and we were finally done — except for the closing procedures.

I had skimmed over those the day before, assuming that I would have plenty of time during the slow afternoon period to bone up on them. My supervisor (who was moving between four locations – mine being the biggest) dropped by around 7.30 pm and said that she was going to check in on her other three locations and then come to help me close my poll. She called just after 8 pm to advise that one of the other MDROs was completely overwhelmed and had dissolved into a tearful sobbing breakdown. She had to stay there so I was on my own.

When Martin arrived around 9.15 pm, it felt like the cavalry had come. He introduced himself as a senior Elections Toronto supervisor who was here to help me close the poll. He sized up the situation and asked me how the day had gone. “How much time do you have?” I asked. He glanced at the tape from the tabulator machine then looked more closely at it and said “wow, it must have been crazy here today.” I showed him the stack of 400 new voter forms which we had processed. We had used all that we had been allocated, included all of the French forms and some extras we had photocopied at the front desk so that we didn’t run out. He was beginning to understand the kind of day we had. “How much of the closing procedures have you done so far?”, he asked.

“None. Just getting started,” I said.

We worked for another 15 minutes and then I saw him on his phone in the corner of the gym. He finished his call, came over and said “get all of the documents you need for the ‘Critical Documents Folder’ and we’ll just pack everything else up into the bag and unravel it later. You need to get your materials to the ward centre (at King and Dufferin).”

We lugged the bag, the tabulator machine and the Critical Documents Folder to my car and I dropped the materials at the ward centre just after 10.15 pm and then drove home in a trance. The next morning I told a friend that if the American documentary film maker Ken Burns could get his hands on a video recording of everything I did from 8 am to 10 pm that day, including all of the tense conversations I had with the hundreds and hundreds of the people I spoke to, he could simply add some headings and captions and release it as his latest documentary film with no editing required. The film would be 14 hours long — right in his usual range.