7 flaws in our municipal electoral system can be fixed for free
The following brief was submitted to Quebec's National Assembly to be included in the public consultation regarding municipally run elections. November 7, 2021 is this year's municipal election.
Identification of the author
Rhonda Massad is an engaged member of the community who believes we can be a stronger community through the aggregation of news in the West Island of Montreal.
The former City Councillor currently owns the West Island News outlet, one of the most read media/news outlets in the area. For the past 7 years, she and her team have worked hard to provide relevant local information to more than 40,000 engaged followers with monthly impressions (number of people who have seen a post) in the millions. West Island News is honoured to receive Google accreditation as a news publisher. The community has come to recognize West Island News as a trusted source for local news. Followers count on Rhonda to ensure that they get the local news they need to know.
The mother and grandmother has made it her mission to improve the quality of life of citizens through information. She believes that an informed community is a stronger one, and that we can be united through information. After serving as a municipal councillor, Rhonda realized the community was in need of a trusted online source of information whose content was focused on West Islanders, their needs, and aspirations. In 2014, she founded the West Island News as a way to give back to her community. Her quest was infectious, garnering volunteers to help her gather news and information. Today, the outlet employs up to 7 staff made up of writers and journalism students.
Having run in three municipal elections, Rhonda believes she is well suited to comment on the topic of this consultation.
The municipal election system in Quebec has no appellate court to fall back on in the case of a dispute that is not of a financial nature. Under the current rules, the local scrutineer, who is in charge of organizing the electoral process for cities and towns, is the Clerk (greffier) of the municipality in which the elections are taking place. That Clerk (greffier) is also the person responsible for any disciplinary actions beyond the scope of the authority of the DGEQ. The DGEQ regulates all financial infractions but does not intervene with the decisions of the City Clerk acting as local scrutineer.
7 flaws in our municipal electoral system which can be fixed for free!
Eradicate the local scrutineer’s conflict of interest
In 2017, the DGEQ had no power to decide on any infraction other than a financial one. Beyond financial considerations, the DGEQ does not have the power to settle a dispute that is not financial in nature. Taxpayers and candidates are under the impression that the DGEQ is all powerful. That is not the case.
Under the current rules, the local scrutineer, who is in charge of organizing the electoral process for cities and towns, is the City Clerk (greffiier), who sits at the right hand of the elected officials. The Clerk is also the person who adjudicates a dispute that is not financial in nature. The Clerk and the newly elected officials are those who could potentially be accused of an infraction. From spoiled ballots to signage to campaign infractions and storage of ballot boxes, the local scrutineer has the final veto. This is a conflict of interest that compromises democracy.
If the Clerk finds that a newly-elected candidate has committed an infraction, she/he is the one to decide if the official is to be removed from office. She is also the one to decide if the alleged infraction is worthy of reprimand.
Here is an example of how this oversight can lead to delicate situations. If ballot boxes were compromised by virtue of an evacuation that had people quickly taping the ballot boxes and fleeing the polling station - what happens in this case? When the false alarm is resolved, the ballot boxes may be reopened when a new box should have been used. That is against the rules. The rules state that candidates are welcome to view all ballots being removed from the boxes as well as the opening of the ballot boxes. Under no circumstances should a box be opened and resealed. New boxes should have been provided. This would be an infraction by the local scrutineer. He or she must always uphold the highest standard of ethics during the voting process.
The local scrutineer must be a Clerk (greffier) from another municipality. This removes the conflict experienced by the Clerk if he or she is faced with a subsequent question involving a newly elected official who may or may not be the incumbent. The work to prepare the election should remain in the hands of the Clerk of the city holding the election, but during the live elections and vote casting, a Clerk with no conflict of interest should be on-site. This way, when there is a dispute, it can be viewed clearly and without prejudice.
If the local scrutineer is permitted to open the ballot boxes at the advanced poll earlier, as per the 2013 adjustment to the Act, candidates must have a real opportunity to exercise their right to witness the count.
As for mail-in ballots, the same principles should apply. The votes should be opened by a third party (the Clerk from the adjacent city). This will ensure that, if there is a dispute, there is not conflict of interest for the Clerk, who has the critical task of determining whether the infraction can cancel a newly elected person’s candidacy.
2. Election Campaign Infractions
It is imperative that signs display a current photo of the candidate. Using an image from previous campaigns can be less costly for the candidate. However, there must be a limit to how long a candidate can use an image. Two terms should be enough, at which point a current picture should be used to give citizens a true sense of who they are voting for;
Candidates should be required to complete all candidacy documents with the name on their birth certificate, as that is their legal name. If the candidate uses a nickname that may be more recognizable, they should be permitted to put it in parentheses. The proper spelling of the candidate’s name should be taken from his or her identification, such as a driver’s license or Medicare card. Being able to change the spelling of your name to trick the electorate should not be permitted;
Use of city logo - While the incumbent often has access to the city logo, it should in no way appear on any campaign material. City pins and city activewear need to be included in that regulation. They currently are not;
Use of city social media and memos - The incumbent should not be allowed to promote or announce his or her candidacy for re-election in any way, before or during the campaign period. Once the sitting official announces his or her intention to seek re-election, he or she should no longer have the right to speak about that intention through city channels.
3. Term Limits
At all levels of government, we should take a page from the book of our neighbours to the south. Two terms should be the maximum allowable time spent in the office. After two terms, it is time to pass the torch to a new person. It makes for a more transparent government, and allows for new ideas to be brought forth. Residents who may want to run will have the chance to do so, making the process more democratic. The elected official is less likely to engage in questionable acts if they are forced to develop new relationships. A candidate should be permitted to run again after a one-term break.
4. Voting by Mail
At the municipal level, everyone, regardless of age, should be permitted to vote by mail or electronically. One of the major issues encountered during recent elections is voter turnout. Making voting accessible to all - especially during a pandemic -is the duty of every decision-making body. Two pieces of ID must be submitted with every ballot. Votes should be collected and counted by the Clerk from an adjacent city to ensure a voter’s anonymity is maintained.
5. Recorded Ballot Count
The ballot count must be recorded by a videographer, and the video must be provided to the local scrutineer and a representative of each candidate.
The ballots collected at the advanced poll, as well as on Election Day, and those cast by mail should continue to be accessible to the candidates during the count.
At no time should any ballots be opened and counted without granting access to the candidate or the candidates's representative, as per the Act. The polling station count should be recorded and kept for six months after the count.
6. Social media and City memos
The sitting officials of any city should not have access to the city’s social media during the election period, and should not have the right to send out a city-wide memo during this period.
In the absence of a Disciplinary Committee, there is no tribunal which could take action with regard to the issues that arise during the elections. It is the sole discretion of the local scrutineer - who has an obvious conflict of interest!
Even if there is a financial infraction, it will only be discovered after the election, leaving taxpayers to pay the costs associated with holding a re-vote. This begs the question - who decides when the costs outweigh the value of democratic principles?
Cities should be required to live-stream or webcast all their public meetings, especially during the pandemic, since current public health rules do not permit in-person meetings This is highly recommended by the Government of Quebec, but is not an absolute requirement. There are several cities which still do not allow universal online access to their public meetings.
7. Candidates Must Have a History of Volunteering
Along with the required courses that elected officials need to take, I would like to recommend that all those intending to run for office at the municipal level should be required to bank 100 hours of volunteer hours at a local non-profit organization serving the residents they wish to represent. This task would guarantee that the elected officials have grassroots understanding of their residents’ needs, giving the taxpayers the best candidates to represent them. I believe that the best candidates for public office know their communities intimately and have a track record of serving them in various capacities.
I present this brief to point out the issues that I have encountered during my time campaigning and as an elected official. Much like parenthood, as many of you know, being an elected official has very little pre-requisites. Anyone can and should run. Providing the very best democratic system to serve citizens is a must. These are 7 easy fixes to a powerful system that guides the present direction and future development of our communities.