Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important local issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Should Guelph Have Ranked Ballot Voting?

In my last post I went into exhaustive detail about why I believe the City Council made the right decision about going back to using paper ballots for elections. In this post I'd like to outline a potential change to our voting system that might make our municipal elections even safer and potentially better. The province recently passed legislation that allows our city to use this new system, but Council decided to avoid discussing the change. But I think Guelph voters should at least be aware of this new system because if they decide that they want it, the time to raise the issue should be during the 2018 election.

I put a lot of work into "The Back-Grounder", so I have a favour to ask. I only get paid for advertising when someone turns off their ad-blocker and clicks on ads. So why not just run through the ads on this site and "right-click" on them before you start reading? That makes a big difference to my revenue. I probably will never make enough off writing to quit my day job. But money buys convenience, and every dollar I earn allows me to hire or buy instead of doing it myself. This gives me more time to write, which is my first love. Clicking on ads costs you nothing, and makes a big difference to me. So why not do it?


Many of the problems I raised in the previous post arise from the fact that "data mining" allows modern political parties to carefully parse out the voting public's reaction to policy. This allows the leadership to create "boutique policy" aimed at the relatively small fractions of the voting public that are highly motivated over issues that the vast majority of people are indifferent about. This means that a party can create a winning platform by ignoring the opinions of most citizens by adding bits and pieces of the electorate to their core constituency. One example I referred to was the decision by the Mike Harris Conservatives in Ontario to come out against photo-radar. Data-mining also allows parties to figure out which voters support other parties, which is how it is able to direct voter suppression campaigns against these citizens, as in the "robo calls" incident. But underlying all the above is one simple factor, the fact that politicians do not have to get majority support to gain complete control over the apparatus of government. What I am talking about is the "first-past-the-post" system.

A sadly large number of people are under the impression that the people we elect to run our country are elected by a majority of voters. But in actual fact, the vast majority of democratic elections in Canada are settled by a plurality of votes, not a majority. A plurality vote system doesn't care about whether a majority of people vote for a candidate, just who got more than anyone else. In the last three Federal Elections the winning Liberal candidate for Guelph got 49% (2015), 43% (2011), and, 32% (2008). Provincially, the situation is much the same, Liz Sandals won with 42% (2014), 42% (2011), and, 41% (2007). Across the entire country, the Liberals won a majority with only 39% in 2015, and the Conservatives had a majority with 40% in 2011. Provincially, the Liberals won with 39% in 2014, and, 38% in 2011.


Our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, made a promise in the last election that he would change the voting system of Canada to stop elections being decided by plurality voting. Many people thought that this meant that he would bring in a proportional system. (That is, where seats are assigned in Parliament based on the percentage of votes cast for each party.) But instead, it appears that what he really had in mind was introducing a system of ranked ballot voting, which is somewhat different in result. Since he couldn't get any of the other parties interested in pursuing this change, the Liberals have dropped this idea---at least until the next election. Since all three levels of government are toying around with the idea; either to use in federal elections---or, as only allowed recently allowed by the province---to use municipally; I thought that I'd put some effort into explaining the system theoretically and then discuss how it would operate in Guelph.


The key concept of a ranked ballot is the idea that in an election voters aren't generally so polarized that they love one candidate and hate all the others. People are torn. They like the policies of one person, but fear that she simply won't be popular enough to win, so they choose someone else that they don't completely support because they are afraid that someone else that scares them will win if they don't. This problem is usually described as "wasting your vote". For example, someone might want to vote for Jill Stein (Green Party), but they are afraid that if they don't vote for Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump will be elected. A ranked ballot gets rid of that problem by giving people a second choice.

If the US used a ranked system, someone could vote the following way:  Jill Stein (Green Party) #1, Hillary Clinton (Democrat) #2, and, Donald Trump (Republican) #3 (or blank.) When it comes time to count the votes, if it turns out that Jill Stein received fewer votes than either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, her ballots are then recounted and people's second choice would be added to the pile of that candidate. So the person who was forced to vote for Clinton before, still ends up supporting her, but she has also been able to vote for Stein without running the risk of helping Trump. With a ranked ballot, there are no more wasted votes. 

Getting rid of wasted votes has a wide range of implications for our electoral system---most of which are really valuable. For one thing, it gets rid of the self-fulfilling prophecy that since someone is not going to win, there's no sense voting for him---which of course means that he is not going to win. (And we end up with president Kang forcing us to build a space cannon.) 

Secondly, it imposes a price on candidates who throw mud during an election. In order to win an election with a ranked ballot, candidates have to be the second and even third choice of voters who support other candidates. If the first candidate acts in a vile way towards the other candidates, their supporters will refuse to make him their second or third choice. This forces politicians to show respect for each other simply out of self-interest. As a result, a ranked ballot reintroduces civility into election campaigns where it has been in decline.

As well, with a ranked ballot people don't win elections with a plurality anymore, they win it with a majority. This means that it isn't possible to carefully parse out a plurality by "throwing red meat to your core constituency" and then adding in enough "boutique policy planks" to push your vote count slightly above someone else's. You have to attract over 50% of the votes, and you can't do that without putting forward policy that is appealing to the majority of citizens. For example, it doesn't help you win if you get 5% more votes for promising to get rid of photo-radar if this means you lose twice as many second choice votes from people who like it. This dramatically changes the debate that happens during elections. This again, will improve the quality of what voters hear during campaigns.

Finally, when politicians always have to win with a majority instead of a plurality, it gets harder to manipulate elections through vote rigging and voter suppression. Remember that robocalls in Guelph failed not because Elections Canada caught the Conservatives doing it, declared the election invalid, jailed everyone responsible, and, then did another vote. Instead, the fact of the matter was that Frank Valeriote got so many more votes than the Conservative candidate that the number of votes diverted from the Liberals simply didn't matter. It might be possible to suppress or steal 1,000 votes without anyone noticing, but it is going to be a lot harder to do this with 10,000. In a system that forces winners to get at least 50% of the vote, it is a lot harder to steal or suppress votes without getting caught.


This man had a devious plot---
majority rule through compromise and consensus!
Photo by A.K. Fung, c/o Wiki Commons
If this is such an improvement over the status quo, why did the other parties besides the Liberals reject it?

The NDP and Greens refused to endorse this idea and held out for a proportional system. The obvious inference is that they did this because they felt that in a ranked ballot system they would probably end up losing seats in Parliament. The theory is that the Liberals would end up becoming the second and third choice for the overwhelming majority of voters---simply because of fear of the Conservatives. The Conservatives, on the other hand, opposed a proportional system but rejected ranked ballots too. They did this for probably the same reason as the others. Many of their voters would put down the Liberals as their second choice because they would be afraid of the Greens and NDP. The result would be that no party could win by having the vote split amongst the parties and then getting a bare plurality. Recently, this has been the way that the Conservatives gained power because of a Liberal/NDP/Green vote split. But before that, Jean Chretien followed the same formula to gain Liberal majorities when the right was split between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform Party.

In other words, the unspoken reason for the opposition was ultimately the fear that the Liberals would never again lose an election if a ranked ballot was introduced simply because they would end up being the first or second choice for most voters. This is probably not true, however. That's because changing the way we count ballots would have a tremendous impact on the way parties behave. If the other parties changed their policies so they would be more appealing to a majority of voters, (or, at least put more energy into educating voters about why they should support hitherto unpopular policies), they could win with a transferable vote too. After all, isn't the core idea of a democracy that parties that represent the majority opinion should win? (Damn those perfidious Liberals---what the heck are they thinking!)

I suppose on a deeper level the issue is whether or not you believe that the ideal of compromise should be at the heart of democracy. Putting up your second and third choice in an election shows that you really are willing to compromise your ideals in order to create a government consensus. "True believers" and polarized voters hate to compromise because they don't see the other point of view as having any merit at all. Trudeau himself suggested that he supports a ranked ballot because he wants to avoid the polarization that has recently damaged democracies all around the world. In the end, a ranked ballot system is probably not going to ever be as attractive to the people who devote their lives to a minority political party as it might be to the elected members of "the natural governing party". So it's hardly surprising that the non-Liberal MPs on the committee looking into electoral reform simply dismissed it out-of-hand. To paraphrase Stalin, how you count the votes is often more important than who votes. And professional politicians will always be tempted to conflate the good of their party with the idea of "fairness".


I don't want to over-sell the ranked ballot. There are some mathematical complexities in it that are very hard to understand, which is why people often reject it. (Later on I will try to explain this issue using the specific system that the provincial government has imposed upon municipalities.) But before I get to that, I'd like to outline a system called "range voting" that mathematicians say is the absolute best system of vote counting that has ever been devised. I won't get into the mechanics of why it is the absolute best, as I couldn't quite figure out what they were saying in the few times I've listened to someone explain it. But it does have a big value in being plug simple to understand and do, which is profoundly important for anything political.

Anyone who has ever watched competitive gymnastics or figure skating has seen this system in action. You give everyone who votes the option of giving a number between zero and ten for each candidate. If someone wants to give ten to everyone, that's fine, but they can give any other combination of numbers too. So you could give Jill Stein 10, Hillary Clinton 8, Ross Perot 3, Kang 1, Kodo 1, and, Donald Trump 0. When you count the ballots you simply add all these numbers together and declare the person with the highest score as being elected. It is a form of ranked ballot simply because the score you give each candidate gets a different rank in the form of the score you give them. It also had the advantage of giving you a more nuanced rank than simply putting an order of preference. For example, my fictional voter likes Stein a little better than Clinton---but she really doesn't like Trump at all. This is important, because the intensity of a voter's feelings about a candidate are just as important as their relative order of preference.

Range voting happens a lot in sports like figure skating.
I have no idea at all where this image comes from,
If it's yours and you want it removed---contact me.

Please note, that everyone has the option of putting whatever number they want (between zero and ten) besides the name on the ballot. In the last election many people would have put a "10" next to Trump and a "0" next to Clinton. If everyone has the option, then no one is being unfairly disadvantaged.

As I mentioned, range voting is also a form of ranked ballot. As a result, all the benefits I've mentioned above in ranked voting also accrue to range voting. There is one last point, however. That is, it is tremendously easy to make it proportional too. All you have to do is expand the size of your electoral districts and elect more than one MP. The easiest way to do this would be in large cities where the ridings are small. For example, you could stick four together, have a vote, and the top four candidates would be on their way to Ottawa or Queen's Park.

Know who this guy is? No?
Then stop having strong opinions
about knowing your local candidate.
Photo from his website
Unfortunately, in our large, rural Electoral Districts, putting four together would create enormous areas. People will argue that in such large electoral districts it would be impossible to know your local MP or MPP. To this I'd ask the average voter---"do you know the name of your current MP? Would you recognize them if you saw them?" I know most wouldn't be able. So is it really all that important? Every voter would know about the different parties, so they could easily vote for "Joe Blow of the Whatever Party"---because she'd have heard of the "Whatever Party", even if she didn't know who "Joe Blow" is. (If people decide to be honest, they'll admit that that's how most folks vote now.)  I don't know if the Election Reform Committee had this option explained to them, but I suspect if they did, someone probably didn't like it.

That's just the way it is, isn't it? The main thing to realize that there are a lot of very smart people who have thought long and hard about how to make our voting systems better.  The transferrable vote is one suggestion. Range voting in a multi-member district is another. These systems work fine in other countries, but I suspect that lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth can be expected before any real change takes place.


Let's move from Ottawa to Guelph. How does its elections compare to national and federal ones?

In the 2014 municipal election the Mayor received 50.75% of the vote. The rest of Council got their seats by receiving between 33.46% and 19.97%. The average for the entire Council comes in at 25.59% of the tally.

The average support for each of these people was 25.59%---which is pretty darn good!
Photo of current Council from Guelph City website, some manipulation of image---I removed the Mayor.
This might sound awful, but remember that we have a system where voters cast two votes and elect two people.  And when we vote, we can only vote for one particular candidate once---the other has to go to someone else. That means that if every single voter in an election voted for one of the candidates and split their other vote among several other candidates, the absolute maximum number of votes that that candidate would receive is 50%. (That is, unless they can convince voters to only vote once. If everyone single voter in a ward did this, the candidate could theoretically receive 100%.  This is called "plumping", and it used to be a factor in the Guelph's old "at large" system where the city was treated as one large constituency, and people voted for up to 12 council members---lots of people only voted for a few of the positions.)

In the system Guelph uses, a majority win is 25%, so an average vote count of 25.59% for winners is quite good because it translates to 51.18% in terms of popular support. Looking back at the eight elections that Guelph has held since it switched from an at-large system to a ward system, these results are the norm instead of the exception. This means that Guelph Council is one of the rare places in Canada where most politicians get elected with a majority instead of a plurality.


Before people get too comfortable, however, we should remember that the voter turnout in 2014 was far from praiseworthy---a miserable 43%. Even this was a bit of an improvement over the 2010 election, which had an even worse score of 34%. This was one of the arguments in favour of Internet voting. Personally, I suspect it had more to do with a very competitive race for the Mayor, which tends to raise voter turnout. The novelty factor of a new way to vote also might have had something to do with it.

Unfortunately, with the death of the Daily Mercury, I suspect that voter turnout will be less in the next poll. First, lots of people in Guelph simply won't even know that there is a municipal election. They won't be seeing anything about it in what news coverage they follow (probably mostly international on-line, with perhaps national news on tv.) They commute or work with commuters, so there won't be any "common wisdom" to pick up in the lunch room because people live in different communities from each other. Even if they do know that there is an election, they probably won't have a clue about the personalities or issues. And, of course, it is totally reasonable to not vote if you don't know enough to have an informed opinion.

And most people only have a certain amount of energy to devote to the public sphere. Many are happy to read about the election in a newspaper delivered to their door. But most don't have the energy to do the poking around necessary to inform themselves---hence my attempt to fill part of the gap with the Guelph Back-Grounder. (Just to give an example, it is darn hard to find statistics about voter turnout in municipal elections. It just isn't something that has been traditionally recorded or reported in election results statistics. Why? Perhaps because it is somewhat embarrassing.)


Now let's look at the specific transferable vote system that the province now allows municipalities to use. That's right, I wrote "allows municipalities to use" because in Canada cities are specifically under the tight jurisdiction of the province. And in Ontario, the province is extremely jealous of its authority. That means that there is zero opportunity for the city to "play around" with the voting system we use. We either use what we have now, or, the specific form of transferable voting described in the Municipal Act---no fooling around with stuff like range voting!

So here's the system that the province says municipalities have to follow.

First, the city can design the ballot as:

A List


Or a Grid
Images from Govt of Ontario Website


Next people have to wrap their heads around a little math. If we switched over to a ranked ballot, electing the Mayor would be very simple because it is just one person for one slot. What gets complicated is when you elect more than one---like we do in our Wards. That's because we have to decide what to do when we get a situation where one person gets elected easily---and there is a real struggle for the other slot.

First of all, we have to calculate the "threshold" of the vote. The ministry provides a formula for calculating this number:   [(A – B) ÷ (C + 1)] + 1, where "A" is total number of ballots cast, "B" is the number of rejected ballots, and, "C" is the number of spots to be filled. Let's look at an actual example from Guelph to see how it would work. In Ward One during the 2014 election the following vote count arose:  Bob Bell 2,984, Dan Gibson 3,419, Terry O'Connor 1,705, Maria Pessano 1,386, and, Karolyne Pickette 2,705. So, in the case of Ward One in the last Guelph election, the numbers would work out as: 12,199 votes were cast, (let's forget the rejected ballots), and there were 2 spots to be filled. So the number is [(12,199 - 0) ÷ (2+1)]+1= 4,067. So to win a seat on Council, someone would have to get 4,067 votes--both initial and transferred.

Let's assume that the numbers we have above represent the first choice of all the voters.

Still from the 1960s Irwin Allen tv show "Lost in Space" via Google Images
Used under the "fair use" copyright exemption
(Readers must remember that the assumption that the vote each of these candidates got in the last election was the voter's first choice pretty much negates the whole idea of transferable votes. People vote strategically in first-past-the-post, plurality systems because they don't want to waste their vote. So if---totally for the sake of understanding this point---we assume that some people who really like Karyolyne Pickette and Terry O'Connor voted for Bob Bell because they don't like Maria Pessano, we can see a totally different outcome if we switched to a transferable vote. Under a single transferable vote, these voters would vote for their real choice first, then mark Bob as their second choice in order to prevent the dastardly Pessano from seizing control of a seat on Council. So please remember that in what follows I'm just making this assumption to explain the math---there is a real difference in how people vote under a plurality system versus transferable votes!)

OK, so let's assume that the votes mentioned above are the real first choice of voters. With a threshold of 4,067, neither of the two front-runners---Dan Gibson (3,419)  and Bob Bell (2,984)---have enough votes to be declared a winner. At this point, it's time to start transferring ballots. The Municipal Act describes two ways of doing this: the "single elimination method" and the "batch elimination method". In the single elimination method, the people counting votes look at this first count and say "Maria Pessano has the lowest number of first choices, 1,386, so it's time to take her out of the race and put her voters' second choices into play".

Let's also say that 700 of the people who voted for Maria Pessano put down Dan Gibson as their second votes. This gives Dan Gibson 4,119 votes, which puts him over that threshold of 4,067 votes and makes him a successful candidate. Oddly enough, not a single person who voted for Maria Pessano put down Bob Bell or Terry O'Connor as their second choice, and instead put all their votes (686) towards Karolyne Pickette, which then gives her 3,391 votes.

At this point, the Municipal Act says that the city should go on to a third round of vote counting. You might think that at this point we just eliminate the lowest candidate an redistribute their votes. If you did, you'd be wrong. The Act says that at that point we need to recalculate the transfer ratio. We do this by following this formula:  (F – E) ÷ F . "F" is the number of votes cast for the successful candidate (Dan Gibson's 4,119) and "E" is the threshold for the office (4,067), which gives us "52". Divide that number by 4,119, and we get the ratio number of  0.013 (I rounded off using the rules of scientific accuracy.)

What is the transfer ratio used for?

Well, now that we have a winning candidate, we need to have a mechanism for fairly transferring the extra votes that people cast for him (Dan Gibson) to the other candidates that are still in the running. The point is, we don't want to get into a situation where too many people vote for a successful candidate and by that waste their votes that could be used to elect someone else. To understand this, consider a hypothetical situation where 90% of the people in the ward voted for Dan. If that happened, then if we didn't have some way of taking into account these people's second choices, the next candidate could get elected with only at most 10% of the voter's intentions being followed. That would hardly be fair, would it?

So with that transfer ratio in hand, we can now count the second choices of the people who voted for Dan Gibson, and then multiply that count by 0.013, and then add that to the second choices of the people who voted for Terry O'Connor (because he had the second lowest vote count.) Terry got 1,705 votes, and let's say that his voters gave 700 to Karolyne Pickette, 400 to Bob Bell, and, 605 to Dan Gibson. The votes transferred from Dan Gibson are multiplied by the transfer ration of 0.013, which gives us a total of 8 votes.  The 700 votes that Karolyne got from Terry's supporters are added to the votes she got as the first choice (2,706) plus the second choice votes she got from Maria's supporters (686), plus the 8 votes that are transferred from Dan's supports which puts her at 4,091 votes. This gives her 4,100 votes, which takes her over the threshold (4,067) and gives her the second seat on Council.

This is how I feel after trying to explain how
a transferable vote works, Wiki Commons
Sorry to say, I've significantly simplified the process involved in selecting a candidate in order to make things seem at least somewhat comprehensible in this example. For example, I've ignored the issue of "exhausted ballots". These are the votes where someone voted less than than they could have, for example, if they only voted for Dan Gibson and left every other option open. In order to avoid the distortions caused by "plumping" (as I mentioned above), the clerk is supposed to add up the number of exhausted votes after every round, and recalculate the threshold. There's also a complex mathematical system for eliminating all the losing candidates all at once---which I haven't even tried to understand. If anyone finds a mistake in my calculations, I wouldn't be surprised. The point of the whole above exercise is to show how complicated a transferable vote system looks when you have two or more people elected at once with one vote cast.  

I went into somewhat tedious detail outlining the transferable voting system recommended by the province because I'd like readers to understand some of the problems that the city Clerk and Council would have trying to explain this new system to voters. I don't think that any city would be foolish enough to try and sneak in a transferable vote system, but the province would declare that illegal if they tried. That's because the amendment to the Municipal Act that allows transferable votes specifies a process of public consultation and education before it can pass a bylaw changing the system. Moreover, staff will also have to figure out how much the change will cost and identify the vote counting specifics. Given the current context, that would probably involve leasing some vote counting machines that are designed to deal with transferable ballots. (And that opens yet another can of worms---as outlined in my previous article.)

Faced with all these issues and the fact that the province only passed the legislation allowing transferable votes in 2016, staff recommended that Council not change the voting system for the next election campaign. Since they would have had to rush the whole thing, and the system we currently have seems to work relatively well, this was probably a wise decision. But that doesn't mean that the change doesn't have merit. Let's see what the future Council thinks.


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It is REALLY HARD to get most people to support any type of change that they have a hard time understanding. So if Guelph Council ever decided to switch from the present system to a transferable vote where we still elect two people per ward, I wish them luck. It needn't be that way. Many are the things in our world who's operations are totally beyond our comprehension (the cell phone, the automatic transmission, etc.) We simply accept that doctors, systems analysts, mechanics, etc, know more about their specialty than we do, and, accept what they say. But it rankles voters when you ask them to embrace something that is difficult to wrap their heads around. That's why we don't have proportional representation of any form in Canada. It always comes down to a referendum, and in these people ignore the experts, throw out some sort of bogus argument, and, vote for the status quo. (This is why I support range voting---it is so easy to understand I suspect it would scare a lot less people.) 

Having said that, it is really important to avoid throwing out the baby with the bath water. Transferable voting has some advantages---really big advantages that more than outweigh any discomfort that comes from math anxiety. 

No more need to vote strategically!
Clint Eastwood from "Dirty Harry"
Fair Use copyright exemption
First of all, it ends strategic voting. No matter how much you dislike Donald Trump, you will no longer have to vote for the slightly less annoying Hillary Clinton. Instead, you can vote for the Green Party Candidate first and put Clinton down as your second choice. Clinton may end up winning anyway, but at least you don't feel that the system is putting a gun to the side of your head and threatening you with the Trump bullet in the brains if you make a mistake and refuse to vote strategically.
Secondly, the transferable vote can make a difference. In the hypothetical example I gave, Karolyne Pickette got elected instead of Bob Bell. In a transferable vote system this often happens when a really polarizing figure seems to be one of the front runners but gets almost no support for second or third votes---which means that they start out in the lead but end up losing. In the recent French election (which uses run-offs instead of transferable votes---same principle, different mechanism), Marie Le Pen (a very strident anti-immigrant politician) came in second with 21.3% in the first round of voting against Emmanuel Macron who got 24%. When it came time for a second round of voting, the people who supported candidates besides these two then swung decidedly for Macron, who won the next round decisively with 66.1% versus Le Pen's 33.9%. 

Another example comes from the recent leadership race for the federal Conservatives, who use a transferable vote. (Funny that a party that has built it's election strategy around exploiting pluralities created by first-past-the-post and fights tooth-and-nail against voting reform for us plebes would opt for a transferable vote in their internal elections---.)  In the first round of vote counting, Andrew Scheer only received 21.82% of the vote, which put him well behind Maxime Bernier who had 28.89%. But after  an exhausting 13 rounds of recounts, the vote transfers finished off with Scheer at 50.95% and Bernier at 49.05%---giving Scheer the leadership.

Andrew Scheer likes
transferrable voting.
Photo by Marcos Oliveira, Agência Senado
c/o Wiki Commons
Maxime Bernier maybe not.
Photo by Marcello Casal Jr.
Agência Brasil, c/o Wiki Commons 

One last point that voters and Councillors should think long and hard about. Just because Guelph currently elects most of its Council through majorities doesn't mean that it always will.  Could there come a time when we end up with crazy splits being the norm, and extreme people routinely get elected to office? And if it does, will any of those people elected in that system want to switch to a system where they won't get elected unless they can appeal to the majority of voters? I have yet to meet a politician who would willingly bring in a system of voting that would guarantee that they would lose the next election. This time of stable government might be exactly the right time to change our voting system.  

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Internet Voting in Guelph Municipal Elections

Stalin, who---alas---wasn't a total fool.
USA Army Signal Corps photo,
public domain, c/o Wiki Commons
"You know, comrades," says Stalin, "that I think in regard to this: I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes, and how," from  Boris Bazhanov's Memoirs of Stalin's Former Secretary. As quoted by David Emery (trans. by Google.)  

Like many other people I was extremely happy to vote by using my computer in the 2014 municipal election campaign. I thought it was convenient and "hip". I wasn't totally happy with the outcome of the vote, but that's democracy and everyone else's opinion is ultimately as important as mine, so I didn't think much about the voting system after that.

But it turns out that Stalin had a better grasp of what is or is not important than I did. Fortunately, Guelph Council recently listened to delegates who were concerned about potential problems with electronic voting and decided to go back to the old system for the poll in 2018. But the vote was close and many of the people who wanted to keep the new system were very angry with the change back. As a result, I think that it would help readers to see an in-depth discussion of the issues at play.


Ballot Counting 101:

The two key points of fairly counting and recording votes are secrecy and transparency

A vote has to be secret because if someone else finds out how an individual votes they can use that knowledge to either bribe or threaten the voter into voting the way they want. The necessity for making votes secret might seem a "no-brainer". But in actual fact, the first votes in Canada were not secret. People voted orally. If this was done today, you would walk into a big room and publicly declare to everyone present whether you were voting Liberal, Conservative, New Democrat, or, Green. This meant that partisan operatives could do things like buy a beer for anyone for voted for their party, and/or, beat the crap out of anyone who voted for one of the others. Between the drinking and the intimidation, there was a lot of violence during early elections---which tended to drive down voter turnout for people who just wanted to avoid the entire hassle.

An army of men needed to keep the peace during an election.
Montreal 1860, photo by William Notman,
c/o Elections Canada

The way our modern democracy got around this problem was by creating a system where people are allowed to keep the way they vote totally secret. When we go into the polling station we are first identified as someone who is allowed to vote:  by being on the list of electors, and, not having already voted. Then you are given a paper ballot that doesn't have anything on it that can tie you to it. Then you take that ballot and go to a place where no one can see you vote. Then, you fold up the piece of paper in a way that keeps anyone in the room from seeing how you voted. Then you place that folded piece of paper into a box. Those pieces of paper are jammed together and then pulled out later to count. (I know, that this is how you vote federally and provincially, not municipally---but this particular system illustrates the concept, so I'm using it instead. More about the present municipal system below.)


People often say "If we can manage our bank account and buy items on-line, why can't we just as easily vote that way too?" This issue of secrecy is the key difference. In a bank there are detailed records and a history of transactions. Every bank transaction is carefully recorded and separated into different bank accounts because both the individual and the bank want to keep track of the money. In contrast, in a secret ballot election all the votes are tossed together and mixed up specifically to keep the origin of each individual vote a secret. So with banking if there is a problem and someone steals your identity and drains your bank account, you will know that this has happened because detailed records will say that the money has disappeared and who is supposed to have removed it. At that point people can back track from the message that came to say that it was removed. Investigators, for example, might be surprised to find out that elderly Aunt Matilda spent $1,000 at a sex shop in Durban South Africa and suspect that identity theft had taken place.  In contrast, if someone steals your vote there is no record of your particular vote being taken, because the origin of each particular vote has to be kept secret from everyone involved in counting it. For this reason, finding and tracing fraud in a secret ballot is a much more difficult task than in a bank account.


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Some people have said that the bad old days of attempting to buy a person's vote or intimidate them out of voting for someone else are over, so we shouldn't be so afraid. "No one would try to do that sort of thing today!" This misses the point of the "Robocalls" incident.  To understand what happened then, people have to wrap their heads around what data-analysis and modern computer technology have done to elections.

Brian Mulroney liked Grapefruit!
Photo by  Joshua Sherurcij
c/o Wiki Commons
First of all, all the major political organizations have created sophisticated computer systems that keep track of everyone who has ever bought a membership, made a donation, or expressed an interest in a specific political party. Secondly, these organizations move heaven-and-earth to get their hands on contact information about specific "demographics" that they can use to their advantage. To cite one ancient example, if memory serves, I remember reading that Brian Mulroney helped fund his leadership bid by purchasing the Canadian mailing list of something my faulty memory records as "The Ruby Red Grapefruit Company".  (I don't know if the link provided goes to the actual company that Mulroney used, but this is the sort of business I'm talking about.) This company sold especially good citrus fruit through the mail. It wasn't a huge business, but it identified a certain segment of the population that had very large disposable income (the service wasn't cheap) and who weren't afraid of spending their money (the customers weren't cheap, either.) This was a "golden" group for a political fundraiser and Mulroney used it as a source for funding his leadership bid.
Mike Harris didn't like photo radar!
Flickr photo, c/o Wiki Commons

Things have progressed exponentially since the Mulroney era. Using systems like Google Analytics (the program that tailors the ads on the side of this website to the individual reading this story), it is possible to not only find people who have enough disposable income to support a leadership bid, but people who have a specific point of view about partisan issues. If you have ever bought an in-car radar detector, for example, you might very well support a political party that promises to get rid of photo radar detectors if it forms the government---which Mike Harris and the Conservatives did in a past provincial election. Designing a platform for well-financed political parties now involves dividing the population into individual "slices" that are highly motivated to vote on one specific issue, appealing to them with "designer policies", and then adding these different populations together to see if a party can get a plurality.

That's why political campaigns have ceased to be about trying to convince the entire public that one set of policies are good for the public interest. Instead, politicians try to shore up their core support (voters who will only vote for your party---the only question is whether or not they will bother to vote at all), and then add in a couple highly-motivated, one-issue constituencies (ie: people who rarely vote, but will for one particular issue that highly motivates them), in order to gain the plurality that will form a majority. It works like this.  Through polling, the Conservative party learns that it can count on the support of a core of 25% of the voters. Then it finds that if it supports a policy scrapping the gun registry, it will bring in 8% more voters. If they promise to get rid of photo-radar they can also get another 8% of the vote. Promise to force people on welfare to work at "workfare" instead of just cutting them a cheque, and you get another 4%. This pushes your projected vote count up to a total of 45%. Since the Liberals core vote is also 32%, and the NDP can count on 15%, plus the Greens will get 8%, this means that the Conservatives will win a "plurality". And because we have a "winner take all" system called "First Past the Post", the Conservatives will take over Parliament and control the country---even though a majority of people voted for parties that opposed the Conservatives.

Brad Trost, gave away the database
and was fined $50,000 by the party.
Campaign photo, c/o Wiki Commons
These computerized lists of supporters and potential supporters are so important to political parties that you could argue that they have become their most important asset. As evidence for this fact, consider the following. In the last leadership race for the Conservative party of Canada all the candidates were given access to the membership database. Brad Trost was accused of giving the membership list to the National Firearms Association. The party proved that he had done so by planting different false names and contact info in each individual iteration of the list that was given to each candidate. (This is called "salting" the list.) The Firearms Association used the membership list Trost gave him to do a mass mailing and when the fake names and addresses received their propaganda, the Conservatives knew which candidate had given away the "family silverware". Not only was this breach of security considered important enough to put in a tracking system,  Trost lost a $50,000 security deposit for breaking the rules. Obviously, the Conservatives really want to protect their database!

This sort of fine-grained tracking of voter concerns was impossible before the advent of computer technology. Indeed, it has gotten to the point where a political machine can not only afford to keep track of supporters, it can now even keep track of people who vote for other political parties. And this has weakened the secrecy provided by the paper ballot system that I described above. And people supporting the Conservative election campaign used this information. They didn't send thugs out to beat up people who were going to vote Liberal, NDP, or, Green---like in the bad old days---but they did set up a robot dialing system to call these people on the telephone. And the message that was sent told them that the place to where they were supposed to vote had been moved at the last minute. The implication being that if the person went to the wrong place and found out that there really wasn't a poll there, they wouldn't bother to vote all---which would rob the other parties of support. In addition, other robocalls were made to people who were identified as core Liberal supporters which were purposely annoying and were obviously designed turn people off from the election to the point where they couldn't be bothered to vote at all.

The important point to learn from the Robocall incidents is that "it can happen here" and that there are members of major political parties in Canada who have malevolent intent and will use illegal means to win elections. We simply cannot rely upon the goodwill of politicians to safeguard our democratic rights. We also need voting systems that have robust mechanisms that prevent abuse---no matter what the intentions of political operatives.


The next issue is the security of the ballot box. It is also possible to manipulate the counting procedure---by changing the ballots in the boxes before they are counted (ie:  "stuffing the ballot boxes".) The way that the existing paper-based system gets around these problems is by making sure that the processes involved are as transparent as possible. The Canadian and Provincial systems do this by allowing for the presence of scrutineers, who are appointed by the political parties running candidates in the election. Their job is to make sure that no "hanky-panky" takes place during the mechanics of voting, collecting the ballots, and, counting the votes. Since there are scrutineers from all the major, competing parties, the chances of pulling off a fraud involving stuffed ballot boxes or fake voters is almost non-existent in the current paper-based system used federally and provincially. The paper system that Guelph uses municipally is a different issue because it uses optical scanners to count paper ballots. More about this later on, after I've dealt with the issues raised by the sort of computerized voting systems that were used in the last municipal election, and, were rejected for the next one.


The most important problem with Internet voting is that it destroys the transparency that keeps the paper balloting system honest. Ultimately, every time you use a computer or reduce a pile of votes to something like a thumb drive, you reduce things like counting and protecting the ballots to a "black box" that no scrutineer can observe. I've found a YouTube video by Tom Scott at the "Computerphile" channel that explains in detail the problems with electronic voting systems (ie:  not just the Internet) far better than I could, so I'm just going to let him do it for me:


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Let's just look at one of the simplest ways (in the sense of not requiring computer hacking---which to understand requires expertise that most people lack) that an on-line voting system could be manipulated. In order to vote on-line, each voter has to be given a pin number to identify themselves. Usually this is done by mailing in a card to the household on the list of eligible voters. Whomever gets that piece of mail now has the name and pin number that is necessary to vote. In the paper system crooked politicians cannot use this information to buy a vote because there is no way that they can tell if someone they pay really does vote the way they want. And they can't vote themselves, because impersonation is too difficult because of the need to show ID.  But because all the Internet voting system requires is the name of the voter and her pin, it is now possible to buy a vote off someone simply by buying that name and associated pin.  

Of course, there is the problem of how someone would be able to buy enough votes without being caught doing so. It is important to remember that modern marketing analytics allows businesses to select very carefully-designed "slices" of the electorate. This means that a careful criminal would only seek out races where there is a very slim difference between winning and losing. Modern election campaigns can identify these races through "in house" (ie:  the numbers that don't end up in the news) polling data. As little as a hundred votes can easily make all the difference in these ridings or wards.   

If an organization can separate out people who are going to vote for another party and then have the confidence to send them to the wrong address to vote, then it probably can find a fraction of the population that would be interested in selling their votes---if the price was right. The Internet is filled with people doing shady activities, for example, and a lot of businesses are willing sell their mailing lists or have databases that are easily hacked. 

This not only can identify people who have no qualms about selling their vote, it also opens up the option of blackmail. So let's say you are a criminal in Russia who has hacked the databases of several companies that sell marijuana seeds and drug accessories. Let's also say that it has the employee lists for businesses (like the Toronto Transit Commission) that have a policy of drug testing their employees and firing anyone who tests positive. Then you do a Boolean search (a ridiculously simple task nowadays) to show which people end up on both lists. Then you have a list of voters that you could contact during an election that you could suggest that if they don't want an anonymous letter sent to their bosses saying that they take drugs, they might want to email in their pin number. There are lots of other ways to generate such a list---for example, years ago someone hacked the membership list for Ashley Madison (a web service that helps people cheat on their spouse.) A criminal organization needn't do all this work themselves, as these databases are for sale at on-line "thieves bazaars" on the "Darknet". 

To sweeten the pot, the gangster can offer payment too---in the form of Bitcoin. Lest people think BitCoin too esoteric, there are now even ATMs that you can use to convert them into Canadian currency. At one time Guelph had one, although has since been sold and moved to Sault Saint Marie. The point is, however, if you have Bitcoins, you will be able to exchange them for Canadian money---no questions asked.

Now this fictional Russian gangster has developed a database of voters that can be potentially "bent" in different ridings and wards across the country. If he is smart, he won't use this list too often. Instead, he will wait until someone has a close race and might want to use his service. He might have a news search bot that looks for indications of close races, then do a quick analytics of the candidate and his organization to see if it might be interested in his services. Then he might place a discrete inquiry. He might even look out to other criminals who might be interested in buying an elected official that they can blackmail at a future date. They would work as the "middle-man" who could get the "election bots" out there to win the race for "their guy".

When the out-of-country gangster has a customer, he can harvest votes using several methods. He could just hire someone in the local constituency to vote for him at places like public libraries. More likely, however, he'd just use a "Virtual Private Network" (VPN) to make it look like the votes were originating in the riding. This is the same process one goes through to allow you to watch American or British Netflix from Canada. Businesses like TunnelBear do this on a routine basis. By working out-of-country and paying with Bitcoin, a criminal can reduce his risk of both detection and prosecution to almost nil.

Finally, as the Robocalls story shows, authorities are extremely reluctant to overturn an election result---even if there is clear evidence of hanky-panky. Most people over-seeing elections are career bureaucrats who are directly involved with career politicians. Both groups have an enormous vested interest in preserving the status quo. Overturning an election would dramatically lower their authority---and no ambitious man willingly gives up power.


Most readers at this point will probably be guffawing. This all sounds absurdly complicated. Yes, it is. But so is researching, writing, desk-topping, and, distributing this on-line magazine. Think about how much difficulty would go into tailoring the advertisements on the side of this article to the individual people who are reading it, then deduct micro-payments from those companies, add them up in my account, then directly deposit the money in my credit union account. Then think about the difficulty involved of keeping track of small monthly subscribers or one-time donations that go to me. But because of modern computer technology all of this is not only navigated by an amateur, but it is automated to the point where it is either free or almost free for the small business person. This is an absolute revolution in the way computers can master enormously complex human systems. And this is all something that has happened in a very short period. Indeed, it's something that simply couldn't have been done five years ago. The same can be said about the scenario I've outlined above.

Moreover, contrary to what the casual reader might think, it makes more sense to do this on the municipal level than the provincial or federal. There is no other level of government where an individual elected official has as much power to make or lose money for a business than a city Councillor. There are three hundred and thirty-eight MPs in Ottawa and one hundred and seven MPPs in Toronto. They are also answerable to a formal party structure involving nomination meetings, whips, etc. There are committees, and a complex bureaucratic structure looking over the shoulder of Parliament to ensure that no "hanky panky" takes place. Guelph has twelve councilors that are elected free of any responsibility to a party. They can vote any way that they want. And many votes on contentious issues are very close.

Moreover, the things that Council votes on are really worth a lot of money to a business. Think about the number of condo towers that the city has to vote on, and the various issues involved. The difference between a profitable building and a hugely profitable one can be whether or not a developer can put an extra ten stories in the design. What if Council decided to over-ride it's own official plan and allow a big Greenfield development? Given housing prices, that would be the equivalent of a "gold rush" for developers. And there are already people on Council that would probably vote for more suburban sprawl for ideological reasons---could one or two extra votes allow that multi-million dollar development go ahead? Maybe a couple hundred thousand thrown to "the cyber mafia" would turn out to be a good investment.


One other point that bears thinking about. I used the example of the Russian gangster for a very good reason. The current Russian government has very close ties to organized crime and uses those connections to further its foreign policy. (This isn't such a strange idea. The CIA used its connections to American organized crime in it's attempts to assassinate Castro. US Naval Intelligence also used the mob to help in WWII.) Since subverting the electoral processes in Western democracies seems to be a tool for Russia's current "asymmetrical warfare" against NATO, it would make sense for the groups like the GRU (the Russian intelligence service) to encourage and even support this sort of activity. To succeed, all the Russians need to do is create chaos in our societies, not get a specific result. This means that all they really need to do is create the tools, spread the knowledge, and, encourage criminals to do the rest. It doesn't even matter all that much if the the criminals get caught---if your goal is to discredit the democratic system. With the large sums of money at stake in municipal planning decisions, it really doesn't stretch credibility to say that it could be worth someone's while to get one or two different faces on the Guelph Council---especially if a GRU subsidy has created a robust industry to do it.
Communications Security Establishment
It supports paper voting!

Indeed, the Canadian Communications Security Establishment recently issued a paper on this issue. It suggests that future Canadian elections will probably be targeted---if not by the Russians, by other private or state actors. One point that should be mentioned, is that the report states that the actual voting process itself (ie:  the hypothetical scenario I've outlined above) is immune to attacks because on the Federal level Canada still uses a paper-based system. And thanks to the recent vote on Council, so does Guelph.

It loves computer voting!
Unfortunately, the USA cannot make the same claim. A large part of the current chaos that is currently raging in Washington is the result of revelations that Russian cyber-criminals seem to have hacked into computerized election machinery used in 39 states. While it is true that the US uses an absurdly decentralized system to manage the process of voting, it does show that our Canadian system of apolitical, centralized bureaucracy serves a very useful purpose. Moreover, our municipal elections have a lot more in common with the US than federal or provincial systems. We do not have a well-oiled machine that protects voters from the Russian mob---or dumb politicians who refuse to listen to experts. Instead, we just have the city clerk's office.


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So what exactly does Guelph have to ensure that its elections remain secure?

I emailed the Clerk's office with some questions and got a prompt reply from the city Clerk and Returning Officer, Stephen O'Brien. I asked him some questions about how votes will be recorded during the next municipal election.

First, Guelph elections involve optical scanning machines instead of a hand count. (This is why I used the provincial and federal systems to illustrate the point about transparency to prevent ballot box stuffing.) In effect, what people do municipally is make a mark on a paper ballot, place it inside a special cardboard sleeve that hides your vote from anyone else, and then the ballot is handed to an election worker who slides the ballot out of the sleeve into a machine that then reads the ballot and puts it in a box where it can be stored on the chance that a recount is needed.

Any concerns that might be raised about the transparency and security of the process usually arise at the point the ballot gets read by the machine. That's because the machine is a programmable "black box". The question that arises is "if we can can the programming on the reader, why couldn't it be programmed to ignore or switch some of the votes?" For example, perhaps a machine could be programmed to switch every third vote for candidate Pediwhistle to candidate Optiprime. And since the machine is a black box, no scrutineer is going to have the opportunity to see votes being switched---all they can do is assume that everything's OK.

A Sequoia Co, Optical Scanner. Note the scanner is the bit on top
with the ballot box underneath. That is where the paper ballot goes after it's been read.
Photo by Douglas W. Jones, c/o Wiki Commons 

Leaving aside the issue of whether or not that sort of programming is possible---since neither you nor I have the expertise and knowledge to be able to make that assessment---I asked O'Brien why the scanners have to be programmable (like a computer) instead of just being a simple counting machine-(like a calculator.) He said that the city doesn't actually buy the optical readers, it leases them from a private company on an election-by-election basis. The last two times Guelph has used them, for example, the city used Dominion Voting Systems machines. (The city always puts out a tender for voting systems, as this is best practice.) The idea is that the company can use these machines in other elections besides the Ontario municipal cycle. And the company provides machines for union elections and governments in the USA and as far afield as the Philippines and Mongolia.  Each of these different groups uses slightly different systems to elect people, and it is a lot cheaper to change the programming than to provide different classes of machines for each type of election.

How this works out in practice is as follows. One type of election doesn't allow a person to vote more than once. Others, like Guelph, allow people to vote twice---for two different Councillors per ward. If Guelph switches to a transferable vote system---like the province recently allowed for under law---then voters would vote for as many candidates as are running, but use a different rank for each. (More about this in a future post.) If each type of machine only allowed one type of voting, each municipality would probably have to buy its own voting machines, which would be really expensive.

The reason why a slight majority on Council plus the Communications Security Establishment like the optical scanner system is for the following reasons.

First, the existence of paper ballots allows for the opportunity for a recount. It it were the case that concerns were raised about a scanner being hacked in order to electronically "stuff the ballot box", the paper ballots still exist to check to see if all the ballots were read properly instead of switching some people's votes from one candidate to another.

Secondly, the use of paper ballots allows for random audits of machines to see if they are working properly. Since any effective fraud would either involve a very close race (which would usually cause a recount anyway) or widespread fraud involving multiple machines (because of multiple polling locations), any random testing regime would probably detect fraud. Indeed, when I talked to O'Brien about this, he said that the city tests each machine before the vote, and then "locks" each machine and places it in a secure facility before they are distributed to polling locations.

Is the system perfect? No, no system is any better than the people who run it. If the machines can be hacked, then perhaps that could be done by someone on the "inside" using whatever access the machine allows---either through a lan wire or a thumb drive. But the optical reader system itself is amenable to very simple safeguards that could---at least in principle---be used to protect it. For example, the machines could be hacked after the initial test, but if they were then tested after the vote, presumably that hack would be found. If the hack was time operated, so it turned itself on after the initial test, then shut down after the vote, then it wouldn't be found by a final test too. But then the city could do randomized tests during the vote count itself.

Unfortunately, a lot of issues in human society come down to an arms race. The police become better at catching criminals, so the criminals become better at hiding their activities. The important point is to level the playing field so both sides have a relatively equal chance at finding out what the other side is doing. If the city were using electronic voting machines or using Internet voting, then there would be no paper ballots to use to double-check to see how the system is operating. The important point is to not tilt the playing field and leave the city trying to play without a goalie. I don't want to give the Russian mob an opportunity to score on an empty net. Do you?


One last point where I was pleasantly surprised. If a candidate breaks the rules governing election finances during a municipal election, the ultimate sanction is the City Council itself. And since it's ultimate authority is based on that election, it is a historical fact that Councils in Ontario are extremely reluctant to call elected officials to task for breaking the financing rules. I assumed prosecuting individuals that break the laws governing voting would similarly be at the discretion of Council. O'Brien told me no, that isn't how it works as set out by provincial statute. If he believes that there is evidence of vote tampering he passes on the information to the police, not City Council. Since they answer to the province through the Police Board, they are independent in a way that even Elections Canada and Elections Ontario are not. This means to me, that in this way at least, our municipal elections are more secure than the other two levels of government.  

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Debates Over Guelph's Carnegie Library


In a previous post, "Are Public Libraries Still Important?", I discussed the historical development of public libraries, the public library in Guelph, and, suggested that while the role of libraries is changing, Guelph still needs one. In this one, I will deal with the creation of Guelph's Carnegie Library, it's destruction, and, what lessons we need to learn from it.


Andrew Carnegie,
from US National Portrait Gallery,
c/o Wiki Commons
The first thing to understand is that the name "Carnegie" in the title "Carnegie Library" refers to a historical person, Andrew Carnegie. He was a Scottish Immigrant to the USA who rose from obscurity to being the richest man in the world. He did this through a combination of hard work, risk-taking, being able to cultivate important friendships who helped with what would today be called "insider trading", taking advantage of a government position during the American Civil War, being an early adopter of a disruptive innovation (the Bessemer Converter, which was a quantum leap in the production of cheap steel), and, by assembling the first "vertically-integrated" steel company that brought coal mining, coke production, steel foundries, and, heavy manufacturing (e.g. steel rails) all into one business.

Carnegie believed that the rich had a moral obligation to use their money to benefit society. To this end, he wrote extensively on this subject, which became known as "The Gospel of Wealth". He suggested that the really wealthy had an obligation to spend most of their money on good works for the community, live modest lives themselves, and, if a person insisted on trying to amass inter-generational wealth, the state should intervene and impose very high estate taxes to prevent the creation of an "inheritor class". Moreover, he believed that wealthy individuals should personally administer their wealth in a way that didn't just succor the poor, but helped them work their way out of poverty altogether. Probably the best way to understand him is to think of parallels between Carnegie as a 19th century Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, and his library fund as being similar to the Gates Foundation's attempts to control malaria or bring public education to the Third World.

Carnegie believed that access to a free library as a youth was tremendously important to his later life, so he set up a foundation that donated funds to communities all over the world to create public libraries. At first, the only stipulation was that local government agreed to fund the on-going maintenance of the library once it had been built. But shortly thereafter, as a result of some bad designs being OK'd by communities, he instituted guidelines that standardized building features to a certain extent.


Before I get into the specific conversation in Guelph regarding building the Carnegie library, I want to give people some context. In the outside world, the Empire---including Canadian volunteers---was just finishing off a war in Southern Africa (the Boer War.)  There was an international terror campaign being waged not by ISIS, but by anarchists. And there were concerns about American soldiers water-boarding insurgents resisting their occupation of the Philippines.
American Soldiers Torturing Philippine Citizen
US Army Photo, c/o Wiki Commons

Closer to home a terrorist bomb was found in the canal being built to channel water from Niagara Falls to a electrical generation facility. As well, someone was poisoning sheep in Elora by spreading Paris Green on their pasturage. A big debate was taking place in Guelph about whether or not sanitary sewers should be installed. Local doctors gave testimony to Council suggesting that these were essential to preventing outbreaks of diphtheria and typhoid. In addition, Council also had to deal with other important issues, such as managing a telephone system, natural gas (as opposed to manufactured coal gas), and, the connection of railways. (This was just before the creation of the Ontario Railway and Municipal Board---today's OMB---which was tasked with helping municipalities deal with these complex technical issues.) In addition, there was a great deal of "back and forth" by Council over a proposed glue factory in the city because of concerns about the smell it would produce. As a result of all these contentious, difficult issues, it was not unknown for Council meetings to continue until midnight.


In 1901 the Public Library Committee applied to the Carnegie Foundation for funds to build a public library building in Guelph. The grant was approved, and Guelph was given $24,000. To put this amount in context, in 1905 the total budget of City Council came to $138,000. And using an on-line money calculator provided by the Bank of Canada, I was able to convert $24,000 1914 dollars (the earliest date allowed) to $520,000 today. To put things into another context, the current city budget's projected gross expenditures is $484 million. 24,000 is 17% of 138,000. And 17% of today's gross budget is $82.28 million dollars. Obviously cities like Guelph were very happy indeed to be given a library!
"The report of the Special committee on the Free Library recommended the granting of a site and further recommending the granting of Nelson crescent as the site was adopted." (Guelph Mercury, April 25, 1902)

Council then held a special meeting where it adopted the recommendations of the Free Library committee and formally accepted the Carnegie donation.

Oddly enough, one city Councillor, John J. Drew, was so upset about a special meeting being held to accept the Carnegie money that he resigned his seat in protest and sued the city. Believe it or not, the suit was settled in less than one month and only cost the city $12 ( $260 in today's dollars.) Obviously the legal system functioned very differently in 1902 than it does in 2017. It isn't clear from the Mercury why Drew was so upset, other than he was standing on the principle that there should be no special meetings to decide important issues.

Later on, in 1905 there was a letter to the Editor by a George Norrish that mentioned that some people in Guelph were complaining that the Carnegie library was being paid for with "blood money". He doesn't go into detail, but I can only assume that they were referring to things like the Johnston Flood, the Homestead Strike, and, Carnegie's association with Henry Clay Frick. To understand why anyone would take issue with such a generous donation, readers should consider these different parts of Andrew Carnegie's business life.

The Johnston Flood was an catastrophe that was created when a consortium of business magnates---including Frick and Carnegie---bought an old artificial lake in Pennsylvania. It had been originally built to provide flow for a state canal system, but the investors purchased it to form a hunting and fishing club. They put in several "improvements", including an access road on the top of the dam, a screen on the spillway to prevent fish from escaping downstream, and, removed an elaborate set of pipes that were used to regulate water levels downstream. After the dam's failure, consulting engineers reported that they believed that all of these measures weakened it and contributed to the catastrophe. On May 31, 1889---after a period of exceptionally heavy rain---the dam failed and sent a wall of water and debris cascading downstream. It killed 2,209 people.

Just one part of the Johnstown Flood Catastrophe
Contemporary Lithograph, c/o Wiki Commons
To understand the Homestead Strike, it's important to understand that unions were a very big part of working life in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the period when the Carnegie library was built in Guelph, the Mercury is filled with stories about strikes and labour settlements between unions and management. Henry Clay Frick---who took over day-to-day control of operations once Carnegie retired to his life of philanthropy---was ideologically and adamantly opposed to unions. It is also important to understand the revolution that Andrew Carnegie brought to the production of steel.

Iron production had traditionally been a somewhat skilled job, which gave the workers in foundries significant leverage when it came to negotiating contracts. Carnegie's new technology and vertical integration of steel making "dumbed the job down". This meant that most of the jobs became just manual labour. Individual workers were easily replaced and this dramatically reduced their ability to negotiate good contracts with management. When prices went down, wages were cut substantially too. And because of the "disruptive technology" that Carnegie adopted, the steel prices did go down dramatically. In the Homestead Iron Works the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA) attempted to organize and support a union and fought against management's attempts to hire men through "Yellow Dog Contracts"---which forced workers to agree that they gave up the right to join a union if they worked for the company. This "push and pull" escalated over several years to the point where armed battles broke out between the union members and the local community on the one hand, and, forces of hired thugs  (Pinkerton detectives) on the other.  At one point this included a fight where the union used a twenty-pounder artillery piece against a barge filled with strike breakers who attempted an amphibious landing at an occupied factory! People were killed and wounded, and the Governor eventually called out the state militia to intervene.

The 18th Regiment Arrives, Harper's 1892
Copyright Expired, c/o Wiki Commons
Because of things like the the Johnstown flood and the Homestead strike, Henry Clay Frick was absolutely loathed by a significant percentage of the population. And because Frick was associated with and managed his businesses, Andrew Carnegie suffered from guilt by association. Indeed, Frick was so loathed that he suffered from an assassination attempt by a leading light in the American Anarchist movement, Alexander Berkman. Once modern people understand the context, it becomes easy to see why some folks would see a Carnegie library as being paid for with "blood money".

Berkman Attempts to Kill Frick
Harper's, Expired Copyright, c/o Wiki Commons

At this point the record goes dark. The month of July, 1905 is totally missing from the Mercury microfilms. This means that whatever story there was about the grand opening is gone forever. The earliest mention that I could find was an August 16 story that mentions the first public lecture given in the new facility. A Mr. W. H. P. Anderson was brought in by the Clerk's and Salesmen's Association. Three hundred people attended.

Fast forward to 1964. The big stories on the front page revolve around civil rights in the USA---lots of pictures of black people rioting, ominous stories about civil rights workers disappearing in the South, the odd speech by Martin Luther King Jr.. LBJ is pushing through the Civil Rights Act, and the Republican Party has nominated Barry Goldwater for the next presidential election (and thereby scaring the bejesus out of Canadian editorial cartoonists.) Canada is committed to another military fracas in a small, far-away country---this time it's Cyprus instead of South Africa. 

Terrorism is still an issue, but now it isn't the international anarchist movement, instead it's Quebec nationalists---who are raiding militia armories and setting off bombs that destroy property and kill the odd person who gets in the way, and, the Ku Klux Klan blowing up churches and murdering civil rights workers. Prime Minister Mike Pearson and John Defenbaker were involved in a seemingly never-ending debate about adopting a new national flag.  (Almost as a side-line, the Pearson government was also creating the Medical Care Act and the Canadian Pension Plan.)  

Judging from the letters to the editor, it is easy to believe that the flag and water fluoridation were the two most important issues for Guelph residents. But there were other issues for people to write about. For example: 
I believe that a Mrs. Hogan in her recent letter has exposed an uneasiness that a number of people feel about the annual Kiwannas Minstrel Show---   ---we are passing through a period of considerable racial tension not all of which is confided to the nation to the South. Is it wise or just to continue to perpetrate a stereotype of the American negro personality which is no longer valid, if indeed it ever was?
signed, Robert C. Kail, April 22, 1964 Mercury letter

Here's a picture of local Guelph service club "minstrel show" from the 1960s
Photo reproduced with the permission of the owner. 


With regard to the public library, a story in the January 28th, 1964 edition of the Mercury stated that a D. J. Matthews, who was chairman of the Library Board, reported that the Board was not in favour of demolishing the old Carnegie library unless it was "structurally necessary". He also said that land had been purchased next to the existing library for $52,000 for the new building. City Council then decided to set aside $500,000 for building the structure. Using the Bank of Canada's groovy inflation calculator, this translates into $414,000 to purchase the land, and, about $4 million for the building in today's dollars. The total operating budget for the city of Guelph in 1964 was $7.58 million, or $60.4 million in today's dollars. The cost of the library translates to 7% of the entire Guelph budget. To put that into perspective, the 2015 tax levy in Guelph (that is, what Council collected in taxes---but not in fees or transfers from other levels of government---it is hard to read a city budget because of all such complexities) was $208 million. And 7% of that would be $14.6 million. It is obvious that building a new library was a very substantial investment for the city in 1964---and there was no deep-pocketed steel magnate around to pony up.

Even with this assurance from the Library Board, several people were concerned about the future of the library because they could see what had happened to a lot of other architecturally significant buildings in the Downtown, although other voices were in favour of it's demolition.

"Guelph does its best to destroy every trace of its early architecture, and there seem to be very few voices raised to stop this tragic deed", (letter to Mercury by Barclay Holmes, March 2/64.)
"The Guelph Public Library, now the subject of so many letters to the editor, is not old as Guelph buildings go. Our city hall is 100 years old, our court house 120;  many homes are 100 years old. The library is not build in an architectural style distinctive to Guelph.---
---There would be no harm in preserving the library building, if efficient use could be made of it;  but the library board has made a thorough study of this aspect of the question, and has had expert advice on it. To preserve the building for its own sake would be ridiculous." (letter to Mercury by Marion D. Cameron, March 11/64.)
(Actually, contrary to what Mr. Cameron says, there seemed have been a lot more letters to the Mercury concerning fluoridation of water and the flag than there were about keeping the Carnegie library.)

At a recent meeting of the Wellington County Historical Research Society, we endorsed a resolution protesting against the "pending destruction" of the old Library building.
As it is one of the oldest and most artistic structures existing, we would wish to have it remain as is. Hoping the result will be in favour of the historical group.
Yours sincerely,
Mrs H. M. Warren,
Wellington County Historical Research Society" (letter to Mercury, March 12/64) 
"---As nearly as I can classify it, it seems to be an ordinary piece of early Carnegie pseudo-classical to which a silo was affixed. In its turn, the silo or grain elevator has a low Byzantine  dome capped with tar. The building does not enshrine any production of lost or vanishing skills. Instead, it represents a rather elementary exercise in materials that are richer and better in our own day. Elementary, I say, because we can now employ these building materials in a more pleasing and useful fashion. The point has not been emphasized so afar by your correspondents that the "stone" blocks of the building are an early form of concrete aggregate overlain by a sand wash:  it's ornamental elements are of precast concrete or of pressed metal. If it is necessary to preserve this type of building, why not encourage one of the 2,800 other communities having Carnegie libraries to embalm theirs? I, for one, would not travel far to inspect one of these dreary, obsolete structures.
---At present, our library costs the average Guelph citizen about $1.96/year---the approximate equivalent of nine quarts of milk, of two hockey games, or of a dozen beers per year."
(Mercury letter by John Oughton, March 26/64) 
Oughton goes on to state the the population of Guelph in 1964 was between 30,000 and 60,000 and it was near the bottom of support per capita of comparable cities. For example, Sarnia spent $3.77/person/year, whereas Guelph only spent $1.96. (Obviously milk and beer were a LOT cheaper back then!)  In 2017 dollars, $1.96 translate to $15.62---which helps us put things into perspective. In 2015 the Library received $8.37 million from the city (there are other sources, but the lion's share comes from Guelph Council.)  Since Guelph's population is about 130,000 people, this translates to something like $64 per person today---a four-fold increase in support for Guelph, but only a doubling for Sarnia.


John Oughton's letter is quite interesting. He makes a couple of strong statements that can be looked at in turn.

First of all, he suggests that the Carnegie library is not worth preserving because it is made of concrete. I've heard surprise from friends who assumed that the old library was made of Guelph limestone like so many other buildings. But I think we need to be careful not to be biased against ugly old concrete. Consider the following picture:

Copyleft, MarkusMark, c/o Wiki Commons

This looks like another ugly old building made out of concrete. It also has an attached "silo". Let's take a look at the front:

Copyleft, Martin Olsson, c/o Wiki Commons
The front looks better, but it still kinda ratty. How about an inside shot? 

Copyleft, Wknight94, c/o Wiki Commons
Of course, the above is the Pantheon of Rome. Most people don't know this, but this 2,000 year old building---one of the very few ancient buildings that still stands intact---is made of concrete. I think that we can discard any idea that a building is not worth preserving just because it is made of concrete instead of stone. 


It is obviously true that the old building was simply too small and old-fashioned to continue to be Guelph's main library. But did that mean it needed to be torn down? Couldn't it have been "embalmed"---to use Oughton's loaded verb? It turns out that the province of Ontario has a website devoted to "embalmed" Carnegie libraries so the tourist can peruse their funeral grandeur---something like visiting the mummy collection at the ROM. Carnegie funded one hundred and eleven libraries in Ontario, Sixty-one are still in use as libraries. Thirty-four have been "re-purposed" and are in use for other, non-library uses. Only sixteen---including Guelph's---were torn down.


On June 3rd, 1964 the death sentence was announced under the caption "Retention of Library Building Not Advised":
Much to the surprise of many Guelphites, the Toronto architects who have studied the library situation in the royal City in the preparation of plans for a new public library, point out that the walls of the present library building along with the moldings are "artificial or imitation stone"---
---the exterior artificial stone facing of the building shows signs of deterioration and that it is almost impossible to repair artificial stone which is spalling and cracking---
 The report, prepared by James A. Murray, goes on to point out that the activities of the public library require a space of 27,850 square feet whereas the old Carnegie building is only 6,800 square feet in size. Moreover, the front entrance requires people navigate 17 steps to enter. (It is nice to see someone thinking about these sorts of issues all the way back in 1964!) The children's section is in the basement, which is damp---which would be very difficult and expensive to fix.  The story goes on to say: "The proposed new library, he says, would replace one with artificial stone with one natural stone---".

Later on, there was a story on June 16th under the title "Opposition Is Voiced to Library Demolition" with the subtitle of "Board to Get Final Plans Construction of Building".
Guelph library board was authorized by city council in committee Monday to proceed with arrangements to obtain final plans and specificiations for the construction of a new library, also for the demolition of the present building.
Aldermen H.F Farmer, C.V. Robinson, and, F. W. Dixon were opposed to the demolition, but the resolution passed.


I did a Google search on the name "James A. Murray" and found a couple very interesting links. It turns out that Murray was something of leading light in the Canadian architectural community. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any public domain pictures of his work, so I can't include any in this article, but if you click on his name in this paragraph, you will see blog posts that show several buildings he designed. It is easy to see that he had a hand in building the present downtown library.

Murray certainly liked flat roofs and boxes. This shouldn't be surprising. It was a time when most institutions liked to pay for buildings that looked like bunkers. Take a look at the University of Guelph library or the Co-Operators building, both of which were built at the same time as the library. This was the time when "Brutalism" reigned supreme in architecture.

This was the architectural school that gave up any attempt at all to appeal to traditional building aesthetics and instead put up purely functional buildings without any attempt at decoration at all. Generally, they were square blocks with flat roofs and were made of cast concrete or monotonous brickwork. The term "brutalism" was invented by a British architectural critic who coined the term to describe an influential Swedish home named the "Villa Goth" that was built in 1950. The name was widely adopted.

Villa Goth, the building that inspired the term "Brutalism"
Copyleft Sebastian F, c/o the Wiki Commons
Institutions---like large corporations, governments, universities, etc---adored Brutalism because it allowed them to be "hip" and "with it" while at the same time allowing them to totally dispense with any aesthetic sense and totally concentrate on controlling costs and maximizing utility. In contrast, most citizens loath the buildings.

All human beings exist embedded in a culture. This allows us to feel a sense of continuity no matter where we go in it. This cultural context is what allows people to have a feel for various things. An Arab Mosque, Daoist Temple, and European Cathedral all have design features that allow people to instantly know what culture they inhabit even though each particular element of the building is different in one way or another from every other building of that type. This is what philosophers call a "family resemblance" and what architects call a "pattern language".

Some of these design features are the result of having to deal with specific environmental conditions. Northern countries---like in Canada and Sweden---have to deal with the build-up of snow in the winter, which is why peaked roofs have been part of our traditions instead of flat ones. Other features are brought in to remind people of historical association. I posted a picture of the Pantheon earlier on in this article, as you can see below the Carnegie library incorporated elements that continued the same design tradition. 

The old Carnegie library: front pillars with a dome in the back. Just like the Pantheon
Photograph courtesy of Guelph Public Library Archives
Sometime in the 1950s, Item C6-0-0-0-0-1231 -

The problem with Brutalism is that it doesn't fit into our culture, it usually doesn't fit into the way the rest of the street looks, and, very often it additionally doesn't fit into our climate. But at the time that the Carnegie library was built public buildings were consciously designed to hearken back the old Temples and Palaces of old Europe. The idea was that the public sphere was above the commercial or personal. It demanded more from an architect. But in the sixties people thought that the old was stultifying and needed to be purged. Ordinary people bye-and-large didn't know where things were going, so they tended to go along with what the experts were saying. And, of course, the people paying the bills were over-joyed to have found an architectural school that designed buildings that were cheaper to build.

Front of current downtown branch, Guelph Public Library,
Photograph appears courtesy of the Guelph Public Library Archives,
late 1960s, Item C6-0-0-0-0-1230 - 
But there were people in 1964 who were upset about having the old Carnegie library demolished. In contrast, I suspect that almost no one would shed a tear about the demise of the present one. What's the difference? I'd say that it's because the present population has had to live through so much radical and accelerating change that they are heartily sick of buildings that are "new" and "innovative", or even "utilitarian". They want something that fits into the landscape and reminds them of their culture. And they want to refer to things like ancient Greek temples, not strip malls.

When James A. Murray recommended that the old Carnegie building be demolished he talked about its size, the number of front steps, the damp basement, etc. But these are non sequiturs. They are reasons to no longer use the existing building as the main library, not to tear it down. The building could have been kept as a library annex. Or it could have been re-purposed as a lecture hall or something else. If it needed it, I find it exceptionally hard to believe that it couldn't have been repaired. If the Pantheon has lasted 2,000 years, I suspect that Guelph's Carnegie library could have lasted at least another 100. What I suspect actually happened was that the library committee hired a modern architectural firm that simply didn't like the old ways of doing things and wanted to follow the latest fad. And Guelph simply followed the line of least resistance and did what they were told.  


When I started researching this story I had a vague idea about using it as a way to draw parallels to the current arguments you see about the built environment in Guelph. But the laborious process of working through a few years of the old Guelph Mercury teased out other issues, ones that I think are pretty important and rarely discussed.

A minor story about an Alderman resigning his position to protest the process where the Carnegie library was built, and, a letter to the editor by someone complaining about other people saying the building was being paid for with "blood money", opened up an entire world that has disappeared without a trace in the popular consciousness. The Johnstown Flood and the Homestead strike were as big as 9/11 and Black Lives Matter in their day. This got me thinking about other issues. Other little items jumped out at me too. A brief mention of American officers on trial for war crimes got me doing some research into the Philippines occupation. And that led to me finding out that waterboarding was being done by the US long before the "war on terror". Indeed, a note about the bomb being placed in a construction site in Niagara Falls plus the attack on Henry Clay Frick led me to learning about the international terrorist movement by Anarchists.  And further research on destroying the Carnegie library opened my eyes to the scale of the threat caused by the FLQ in 1964. Can you imagine what the reaction would be today if a group was breaking into militia armories to steal weapons and explosives?
"plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose": Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr:  “The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.
People often repeat this phrase, but rarely do I think people remember to put today's issues into a proper historical context. We get all flustered and upset about things, but many of them are not much more than background noise to anyone who isn't directly affected. Ask yourself "Do I know anyone who has actually been killed by a terrorist?", then ask again "Do I know anyone who has been killed in a car accident or has been affected by a psychiatric illness?"  The obvious answer will come to everyone, and then---what should be---the obvious question arises "why does society devote enormous resources to this trivial problem while fundamentally ignoring these two tremendously important ones?" (Don't get me started on climate change---.)  I'd suggest that part of the problem is that almost no one ever tries to put these issues into their proper context. (Hence the need for for this on-line magazine.)


The second issue that struck me was that the fundamental issue with tearing down the Carnegie library wasn't replacing it, per se, but rather that people were upset with what replaced it. People don't like brutalism, and it's still why they oppose new buildings again and again. Unfortunately, the government and big business are so in love with it, that people have been conditioned to fight tooth and nail against all new buildings because they know that when push comes to shove, the architectural design that will be chosen will be a big, nasty-looking, flat-roofed building block. The professional architects will come up with some groovy language about how it fits into some sort of aesthetic framework---but we all know that they built it this way because it's the cheapest way to to do it, and, the government is going to let them do it that way. Developers complain about the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) phenomenon, but I'd argue that a lot of the time it's really No More Brutalism!

To be fair to the planning department, they have been trained by the OMB to accept this sort of development simply because they know that if they did try to force developers to build differently, they would just get dragged through an expensive OMB hearing and lose anyway. One can only hope that the recent announcement by the Liberal government that they are going to radically overhaul the OMB will finally allow planning departments to force architects to end their love affair with brutalism.


This article was only possible because we have a library. That is where I found the microfilms of the Guelph Mercury to do the primary research. It also shows how important it is to have local news sources. Without the work of the unnamed reporters who ground out stories day after day, there would be no record at all. And I would never have known that John J. Drew resigned his seat over accepting the Carnegie money, that there were folks complaining over the "blood money", or, that a relatively famous Toronto architect, James A. Murray, was involved in the decision to tear down the old building.

This brings me to my final point. Guelph needs to support local news production.  Guelph Today and the Guelph Mercury Tribune simply do not count as real news sources. We need a lot more. That's why I support Adam Donaldson's Guelph Politico through a monthly Patreon pledge. It's also why I am asking people who read the Guelph Back-Grounder to consider doing the same thing. We need to support the pioneers of alternative journalism if we are ever going to get the industry off the ground.

The Back-Grounder isn't put out regularly, so another way to support it is to just put a little money in the tip jar when you think a particular story was really good.

Also, if you are a small business or non-profit that would like to advertise in the Back-Grounder, I can accommodate that too. Email me at "" for more information.

Finally, I know that not everyone has spare cash to put into journalism. But there is one thing that everyone can do. Turn off your ad-blocker and make the minor effort to click on every advertisement you see on the website. It turns out that there is a very significant pay out through Google Adsense every time you click on an advert. It depends on the ad, but some of them can be almost as high as a dollar a click! I mentioned this in my other blog and I made more money in Adsense for that month than I had in the previous five years! I'm close to getting my first $100 cheque from Google, so click on those ads and help me get it this month.