Yesterday I went to Scarborough to volunteer in a byelection. It was widely considered a safe Liberal seat – perhaps the safest in the Ontario provincial legislature – where historically they have gathered over 60% of the vote on a regular basis. The Liberals lost.
The NDP didn’t win. They certainly didn’t deserve to. They worked their asses off, tried their hardest, perhaps too hard, and got their worst result in years. Why couldn’t the capture they palpable desire for change? It was clear that change was in the air, but it didn’t help them one bit. How did the PCs squeak out a win with less than 40% of the vote, leaving us in third?
I’ll just recount my direct experience of the event.
I volunteered several days in advance of E-Day, let them know I was visiting from BC and on my way to Quebec and happy to outside scrutineer during the day. They said awesome, I said great, see you at 8:30am at the campaign office.
When I got there, it was already busy. So busy I was shuffled out of there almost as soon as I got my poll kit, which was a manila envelope that contained the literature and a list of identified supporters and the usual other bits and pieces like an authorization slip. I was poll #413, and they had me scheduled to knock until 9pm, which I corrected: 7pm at the latest, as I said earlier. There was no map included with the poll, but I Googled it, and off I went. There was no coffee at the office, and no food, and therefore no reason to stay. There was no writing utensil in my poll kit either, but it turns out I didn’t need it anyway.
I thought to myself as I walked down the street to the apartment complex I’d been assigned, that if these people truly know what they are doing, they have placed me adjacent to the LCBO. And sure enough, the only one in miles is right across the street. But there was a Beer Store next door. Okay, we are in business.
Things start to get weird when I arrive at my destination. To my surprise, the polling zone is also a polling place! Elections Ontario has put a polling station right in the main lobby of the central building. This wasn’t a special outreach poll: this was just an apartment, and there it was, also a polling place. Neat.
Now, I’m from BC, and in BC we tend to put polling places in neutral territory like churches and schools and community centres. Every now and then the returning officer will do outreach to a retirement community, but that’s about it. And there’s a very good reason that we don’t use residential buildings as polling places. That’s because it’s illegal to distribute campaign literature and tell people who to vote for at a polling place.
So I wonder, hmmm, maybe the law in Ontario is different? The provinces do get to make up their own rules to a certain extent. So I decide to do the logical thing: I ask the Elections Ontario staff directly. They tell me I am correct: it is illegal while the polling place is open to do this particular outreach. So these flyers I have are garbage. (That’s okay, they were only in English, and they told people to “get dressed, eat breakfast, and go vote for candidate X”, and these voters aren’t six years old.)
So I asked the staff how far away from the polling place I had to be to campaign. And they said they had no idea. I asked if sitting outside was fine, and they said sure! Just outside the property line, thanks.
So I go to the beer store, and I pick up some Pabst, and I sit down on the traffic island that every single person coming in or out of this complex via motor vehicle must pass through, and I put a fallen highway sign up next to me, and I turn on my laptop and sit there and I get to work.
Eventually I get a call from the campaign office. They have time to call their volunteers to check in? Neat. “So how many people have voted so far?”
Like I would know that? I am not psychic, and I am definitely not babysitting these voters. They are the ones communicating to their inside scrutineers. They know the answer to this question, and I could not possibly. I am an outside scrutineer. I have done this before, I know how this works. I’d imagine lots have, and later most will.
I politely explain the situation and what has occurred. “Well that’s wrong, the staff are wrong, we will send someone to correct them. Just hang tight.”
Now forgive me for deferring to the state authority on this subject, but I do. But I have nothing better to do, so I read all the relevant legislation. People ask me for directions while I’m doing the research and everyone is getting directed to the voting area. Things are going fine, and I have beer.
The people who are to rescue me finally show up – I see their manila envelopes as they walk by – but don’t even say hello; they just walk past me into the building and start doing what I was forbidden to do.
A young man comes up to me a short while after. “Hey, are you volunteering for…” He looks at the sign. “…Neethan Shan too?”
“Why yes, I am, I was going to doorknock but this happened, so now I’m mainstreeting, and it’s pretty effective. How’s your day going?”
“Pretty well, I have pretty much covered all my territory, everyone got the literature, I’m just about out. Seems like people are voting.”
Yep. They sure are. After eight hours in Scarborough I’ve noticed I am the only white person in this neighbourhood, and the people that care and are around in the last week of August are organized. They do not need a white person to tell them who to vote for, I suspected, nor would they listen to me if I tried. We talk about the challenges of apartment outreach, the differences between strata and rental, that kind of thing. He doesn’t know about any of it. I offer him some literature, he offers me a bottle of water, I wish him well and he goes on his day.
I reflect. He was carrying a clipboard, and I didn’t see anything orange. Wait a second. Are we doing clipboards? No, we’re not. We are doing manila envelopes. We have too many volunteers to manage clipboards. He was lying to me. (Gee, I wonder what party he was from.)
A woman pulls up in a minivan and rolls down her window. “LEAVE! YOU HAVE TO LEAVE! THIS IS ILLEGAL! YOU ARE BREAKING THE LAW!” I look up from my laptop.
“Actually, I just read all the relevant legislation and it isn’t. Also I checked with the poll staff. They gave me permission to be here.” People behind her start to honk, and she glares at me for awhile, then drives off.
So as the sun starts to set I decide I’ve done just about all one might expect a volunteer to do under these conditions and then quite a bit more, so I get up and head back to Parkdale and get ready to go to Montreal. Jenny Kwan calls, and we talk about the energy on the ground in Scarborough. Too many volunteers, too many marks, so much to do but it was all getting done and then some. The conditions were perfect: if we can’t win now, I say, we’re obviously doing it wrong.
The Ontario NDP are doing it wrong. They are bad at winning elections. They do not respect their supporters as adults. They don’t treat their volunteers very well. They don’t know how to win: maybe they forgot a long time ago, maybe they never knew in the first place.
I mean, really. No coffee in a campaign office. None. Really? Really.
You guys better get your shit together, or you’re going to just help elect a PC government in 2018.