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As Election Monitors Descend on Canada, Errors Crop Up at Polling Stations

Concerns over the fairness of the Conservative government's new Fair Elections Act prompted international monitors to observe this year's election on Oct. 19. They were formally invited by the government.

by Rachel Browne
Oct 16 2015, 2:40pm

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons

A team of six international elections monitors has arrived in Canada at the tailend of a tight campaign to assess the voting process as a contentious new law takes effect, and as reports of confusion at polling stations surface.

Canada is one of 57 members of the OSCE the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is currently monitoring elections in Ukraine and Belarus.

This OSCE mission was prompted by meetings with government officials and civil society groups in Canada last May that raised concerns about the Conservative government's new Fair Elections Act, which rights and legal groups have decried as harmful for democracy and far from fair.

"In May, the people the OSCE met with felt there would be added value to having an external assessment of the situation, especially given that there have been some changes," Hannah Roberts, a British national who is leading the team now in Canada, told VICE News. Roberts and her team are traveling across the country for two weeks to speak to people about the democratic process, campaign financing, and will observe how the Fair Elections Act is implemented.

The Fair Elections Act, which came into effect late last year, changed Canada's voting identification requirements so that voter cards were no longer sufficient to cast a ballot. In July, an Ontario court judge refused to grant an injunction against the Act launched by the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Federation of Students, which claimed the new legislation disenfranchised youth and aboriginal voters. Those groups already have low voting rates and might be deterred by the new process.

"We're not here at all for the outcome, it's really for the process," added Roberts. "We're examining laws, seeing things for ourselves, and hearing as many views as possible from across the political spectrum and others who are stakeholders."

Those meetings are private, so she won't say what she's been hearing so far and can't provide any analysis until the group releases its full report several weeks after the election next Monday.

It's standard for member countries of the OSCE to offer a standing invitation for the group to oversee its elections. And the federal government extended the group a formal invitation to visit during the current election. The last time an OSCE mission monitored a Canadian election was in 2006. They did not monitor the most recent election in 2011.

Even before the election was called in August, the federal agency in charge of Canada's federal election was concerned with voter suppression. It has already faced a number of challenges at polling booths.

And over the past couple weeks, hundreds of people have complained about receiving the wrong information on their voter cards from Elections Canada. More than 400 people in Calgary, Alberta were sent voting cards with the wrong polling station information. A couple in northern Ontario got voter cards in the mail that directed them to a polling station hundreds of miles away.

And one Nova Scotia woman who is not a Canadian citizen was sent a voter registration card, even though she's not eligible to vote federally.

This week, Elections Canada blamed a "printing error" for why a Vancouver man was given two ballots pre-marked near the circle, the first one for the Conservative candidate and the second for the Green party candidate.

Facebook posting Chris Quarrie

Dozens of transgender people across Canada have said they were sent voting cards with the wrong names on them, forcing them to "out" themselves to Elections Canada staff in order to correct it. Activists say this could deter many voters who don't want to go through the hassle or possible embarrassment.

Elections Canada told reporters it has seen no more errors on voter information cards this election than usual.

But beyond problems with voter cards, Elections Canada's own staff have said the agency was unprepared for the increased number of voters who showed up to the advanced polls last weekend — around 71 percent more people voted early this year compared to the last one. A few staff in Toronto claimed they weren't allowed to take meals or washroom breaks over the four days the advanced polls were open.

One Elections Canada worker at a polling station in British Columbia quit his job this week in protest of the hours-long lineups to vote.

Elections Canada put out a statement saying that things will be smoother on election day. 

Related: Elections Canada Is Accidentally Outing Trans People On Voter Cards

Last month, it was reported that Elections Canada warned its staff in a 2014 presentation to be wary of attempts to discourage or stop people from voting, such as through scare tactics or providing them with misinformation. That's the same year a Conservative staffer was found guilty for his role in the 2011 robocall scandal, in which hundreds of voters in Ontario received fake phone calls from Elections Canada directing them to the wrong voting station.

"We need look no further than the United States to find a vast overview of contemporary voter suppression suppression and surveillance practices," the presentation stated.

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne

Photo via Flickr user Canadian Pacific