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.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Making Sense of Guelph's Finances

I decided to roll up my sleeves and write an article about the Guelph city budget so I could help make the financial situation facing residents more understandable. I was more than a little afraid to do so, and the more I got into the job the more I found that that fear was justified. To give the city it's due, staff have made huge progress towards making financial information about the city more available than it has been in the past. If you look at the city website, for example, you can find a very detailed document that explains the 2016 budget. I downloaded it onto my computer and now have a 341 page pdf to work through.  But unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that Guelph has a budget that is approaching a half billion dollars a year, and it really does require a professional's eye to make sense of it---so there is ultimately no way that I can easily understand and explain all the details. This doesn't mean that a thoughtful generalist (or engaged voter) can't learn from the document, however. So I decided the best thing I could do to help readers is to identify some issues that people sometimes get wrong and which can create confusion. They are as follows:
  • using brute numbers instead of percentages
  • scaling problems that arise because of Guelph's rapid growth
  • confusion between capital and operating budgets
  • Guelph's extra "design features" that render comparisons with other cities problematic
  • emerging long-term problems that most people don't know about
  • "locked in" costs that the city is responsible for paying but has little control over
In addition, I think it is important for people to understand that the corporation of the city of Guelph has "hands off" control over and responsibility for various corporations that are either essential to the operation of the city or are the result of specific decisions in the past that fit into the long term "design features" that the city has decided to follow. These include:
  • Envida
  • Guelph Hydro
  • Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc.
  • Guelph Junction Railway


The Simplified Explanation of the Guelph 2016 Budget---in all it's glory.
From the city website


Why it is Important to Use Percentages:

The first thing necessary to understand about the city budget is its absolute size. This is important because people routinely throw around numbers without attempting to put them into a context. For example, it really doesn't help anyone understand local government if they are told "The total budget used by city Council and the Mayor---including both salaries and expenses---comes to $947,400! Why does it cost so much?" The issue here is that "947,400" is just a number on a page until someone puts it into a context. In many instances people automatically think about what that number would mean in their personal life. In those terms, $947,400 is about several times the cost of a person's home. But that isn't a proper comparison for things as completely different as a city and a household budget. A city is much bigger than any one individual, and does a whole lot more. A more useful way of understanding a number in the budget is to consider it as a percentage of the whole. It turns out that Guelph only spent 0.2% of the entire budget on Council.

The difference between comparing what Council costs to your personal finances to the over-all cost of running a city is emotional. When someone just uses a number instead of a percentage, they are often doing so in order to create an emotional response in the reader. Emotions bypass our reason and can often get us to do things that we wouldn't if we calmly thought about what is really the best thing to do. A professional reporter is often trying to "stir the pot" and get people angry so they will share their story in social media, which will generate "clicks" and therefore revenue for their website. Someone working on a political agenda will also do this because they want to get people angry so they will either avoid voting in the next election (because "they" are "all the same") or because they want citizens to vote for their candidate---or best of all---cut a cheque for the cause.


People might wonder why I routinely point out how other news sites manipulate people into sharing stories so they can generate ad revenue through clicks on advertising---then ask readers of the "Guelph Back-Grounder" to share it on social media and click on the ads to get money to me. The difference all comes down to how it's done. Revenue has to come from somewhere to support independent journalism, and you can either support it through making a conscious decision or by being manipulated by people appealing to your unconscious reflexes. What sort of business model do you want to see succeed? 


How About Another Graph from the City Website?


Scaling Issues Due to Growth:

It isn't hard to accept when you think about it, but most people don't know that Guelph is the fastest growing city in Ontario, and the 7th fastest growing one in all of Canada. In fact, between 2011 and 2016 Guelph's population grew by 7.7%. (Please note, the population numbers are calculated every five years through the national census. This is not an annual growth rate.) This isn't the fastest than the city has grown in it's lifetime (46% between 1951 and 1961, 51% between 1961 and 1971---and 270% between 1851 and 1871), but it is still quite high in comparison to other Canadian cities. 

Professional staff at City Hall have to take these issues into account when they do capital estimates---for both new builds and routine maintenance. For example, consider the expansion of the city police department building, a $34.1 million dollar project. It was originally built in 1960 when the city's population was 38,000. An addition was put on in 1989. The population in 1991 was 88,000---so we can assume that a doubling had occurred by then. (That would put the average annual increase in population between 1960 and 1989 at 2.42%.) The news release that came with the announcement for the Police Hall expansion suggested that this new build was to provide for the next 25 years. At 7.7% growth rates per every five years, this would suggest that in 25 years Guelph will have a total population of 191,000---a 45% increase. If Guelph didn't have to consider a 45% increase in population over the lifespan of this building project, it wouldn't be hard to believe that the police headquarters project would cost a lot less than $34 million.

Of course no one can tell what tomorrow will bring. Guelph gets its water from wells, which means that if we don't want to build an expensive pipeline to bring in water from Lake Erie, there is a limit to population growth. But it is fair to say that planners can consider a significant increase in population in the near future. This means that when it repairs, expands, or, builds new, the city has to create something with capacity that far exceeds its existing needs. This is a problem because the tax payers that are needed to pay for this expanded infrastructure are currently nothing more than a gleam in the eye of a planner. Hopefully they will arrive shortly and help pay for the expanded infrastructure, but in the interim the existing citizens are going to have to pay for a lot of the stuff that those future people will use. (And, of course, the faster that tax base grows, the greater the chance that the city estimates were too low and the facility will have to be expanded again to deal with a dramatic increase in population.)

And this isn't just a question of "big builds" like a new police station. Consider sewers. There has been a lot of work recently on expanding the sewers downtown so they can handle the increased flow from the new condo towers. Because sewers work with gravity, when you expand them you can't just open a trench and put a bigger pipe in. Instead, you have to dig down farther than the existing pipe and put the new, bigger capacity sewer in deeper. And, Guelph has it's bedrock very close to the surface---which means that putting in bigger sewers requires a lot of "jack hammer parties". (A friend who lives on Margaret Street has told me about the joys of having a year's worth of sewer reconstruction outside one's front door.)

All of this just goes to reinforce the point that it is very, very expensive to have a city grow quickly. 

So why doesn't the city just refuse to grow? First of all, it can't. The Ontario Places to Grow legislation basically forces the city to grow whether we like it or not. Secondly, there are groups in the city that really, really, really want this growth to continue. One person in 13 works in construction and 7% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) comes from the industry. This means that there are extremely well-motivated organizations that work to ensure that government makes no effort at all to limit growth in the city. It also means that anyone who works in construction, sells stuff needed in construction, or, has any family or business connection with either of these two types of people, is going to be extremely upset with any politician who suggests that the city should limit its growth in order to control taxes.

In fact, during the 1991 election campaign a slate of candidates (full disclosure, including me), ran on a "slow down growth" platform that pointed out that the rapid growth of Guelph's suburbs were responsible for increasing tax rates for people who lived in older areas. (This is a separate, but related issue that stems from the cost of servicing new low density (ie:  suburban sprawl) versus older, high density (ie: walkable) neighbourhoods.) This campaign so scared the Guelph Home Builder's Association that they placed a full page advert in the Guelph Mercury that warned
There are candidates in this municipal election that are against growth and economic prosperity. Send a message with your vote that you want Guelph's businesses to grow, for the employment of your children and the prosperity of your neighbours.
From Daily Mercury, Saturday, November 9th, 1991. Page 11-B 

Since deconstructing the city budget is a huge undertaking, I've decided to split this story into "bite sized bits" instead of creating an on-line "War and Peace".  Stay tuned for the next part, which will come out as soon as I can find the time to write it.


Here's another graphic from the budget. The city really
has done a good job on the 2016 report!


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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Water, Quarries, Construction, Growth, and Guelph

Most people don't think of Southern Ontario as being the center of a mining industry. Probably most folks don't think that there is an open pit mine within walking distance of downtown Guelph. But there is. You can just glimpse part of it off the Hanlon Expressway in between Wellington Street and College Avenue, through gaps in the trees on the side of the road away from the center of the city.

Aerial view of the Guelph DoLime Quarry,
photo by Mike Nagy
One of the odd things about this open pit mine is that it isn't in Guelph legally, even though it is certainly part of the city geographically. Take a look at this map of the boundaries of the city. As you can see, the official boundary of the city ends just at the edge of the DoLime open pit mine. This means that the city has no effective direct control over the property---which is under the jurisdiction of the County and the Province.

Boundary Map, City of Guelph
Original map from Elections Canada,
minor modification by author
This quarry has been in operation for over 150 years, and began its life in the countryside and the city grew up around it. It is currently owned by "River Valley Developments" and managed by "James Dick Construction Ltd".

River Valley Developments is owned by Carson Reid, who is the son of Albert Reid, who was the brother of the developer Melville Reid. Melville's brother Albert had a son Orin, who started a company called "Reid's Heritage Homes", which is now managed by Orin's sons Brian and Scott Reid, plus his son-in-law, Tim Blevins. So there are two housing construction and development companies in Guelph owned by members of the Reid family:  "Carson Reid Homes" and "Reid's Heritage Homes". "River Valley Developments" is a separate business that owns the Guelph dolime quarry, and lists Carson Reid as the president.


The Guelph DoLime quarry is of importance to the city because concerns have been raised about the impact of it's operations on water quality in the city. Guelph is an "odd duck" in that it is a city that gets its water from a complex of 21 wells. This is a rare thing to do because the population plus it's associated industries uses an awful lot of water. In order to keep it flowing, the city has to be vigilant in preserving the aquifers. To understand why Guelph is able to run a modern city on wells, we need to understand a few things about hydrology.

The Guelph situation,
Image from Guelph City website

Wells are just holes in the ground that allow people to draw water from an aquifer, but the complexity comes from different layers of soil, sand, gravel, rock, and, clay that the water sits in and flows through. As you can see in the above graphic, there are two different aquifers to consider---the shallow one above the clay barrier, and, the deeper one between it and the bedrock.

Guelph has a very strong deep aquifer at least in part because it is surrounded by geological deposits called "moraines" that are left over from the last ice age. Take a look at the following map:

The dark blue blotches that surround K-W, Guelph, and, Cambridge are moraines.
Image c/o Wellington Water Watchers (right-click on it for a bigger map.)

Moraines are important sources of "recharge" for groundwater and act like sponges that will soak up water during heavy rains and spring melt and slowly release it into both aquifers and streams during relatively dry times. No doubt part of the reason why Guelph has such good ground water is because it is surrounded by them.

The water in an aquifer doesn't just sit still, either. It often flows from place to place---just like water above ground. The difference is, however, that it can be often difficult to know the direction, rate of flow, and, source of water in an aquifer. This means that we can only map this information through very expensive research---and even then, we often end up in a situation where people making decisions can have to play the old "dueling experts" game. The problem is that the city has to decide and water is really, really, really important to the future of the city. Right now River Valley Developments wants to dig deeper into the bedrock that they are mining and this means that they are well into the same depth that the city harvests its water from.


Before we get much further, I'd like to remind people that I put a lot of work into these articles and making a few bucks off them allows me to put even more time into research and writing (money buys convenience.) If you can afford it, please consider subscribing through Patreon or tossing something in the tip jar. If that doesn't appeal to you---or you can't afford---no problem. It helps a lot if you just turn off your ad-blocker (if you have one) and "right click" on all the ads on this blog. For every ad you click on, I get between 50 cents and a dollar. That adds up very fast!


For the past five years the city of Guelph has been opposing a bid by River Valley to double the amount of limestone being taken every year from the quarry.
The City has been clear in its concerns regarding the amended permit. Concerns are based on the fact that increased pumping above historical levels at the quarry will impact water quantity available at some of the City’s municipal wells. The City is calling for a limit at the current pumping rate; a long-term management plan for the quarry; an effective monitoring program; and financial assurances to ensure the quarry owner—rather than Guelph ratepayers—pay for long-term mitigation costs related to its operation. (From a press release dated Feb 4, 2013.)
The key potential problem that can arise would happen if surface water were allowed to seep directly into the deep aquifer without having first been filtered through the layers of gravel, sand, and, clay that exist in both the covering soil or the moraines surrounding Guelph. Consider, for example, a situation where there was some sort of ruptured pipeline, agricultural run-off, or, industrial accident that led to contaminated water flowing across the surface and ending up in the quarry pit. It would end up flowing directly into the lower aquifer---and from there possibly into the city's wells. Once it is in that aquifer it is essentially beyond the ability of the city to ever remove it.

In addition, by pumping down the deep water aquifer enough to expose the bedrock, the risk could be that this would also lower the aquifer over a much wider area---which would reduce the flow rate in nearby municipal wells.

Finally, there is the problem of what is going to happen to the quarry once the business no longer wants to mine the limestone. This is a far from trivial issue as it means that a lot of money needs to be spent after the cash flow from the sale of limestone has ended. It is true that under the 1980 Pits and Quarries Control Act all quarry operators are expected to put up a financial deposit that they forfeit if they don't pursue a remediation strategy that meets the approval of provincial inspectors. This act was modified in 2017 by the Aggregate Resources and Mining Modernization Act, which gave the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry increased power to intervene and modify site plans for extraction resources in order to protect both the economic and environmental interests of the community.
The Schedule includes some amendments relating to enforcement of the Act and regulations.  In order to encourage voluntary compliance, the amendments give inspectors the power to provide a person believed to be contravening the Act or regulations with a report indicating the contraventions identified during an inspection.  A new offence is established in respect of false or misleading information provided under the Act.  The Schedule repeals the current penalties for offences under the Act and provides a new maximum fine of $1,000,000 and a new maximum daily fine of $100,000.  A provision is added to protect the Minister, inspectors and public servants from liability for any acts that they have done in good faith under the Act. 
The Schedule includes amendments to give the Ministry powers to obtain more information from licensees and permittees.  A licensee or permittee is required to submit reports on the progressive rehabilitation and final rehabilitation of the site of a pit or quarry.  Regulation-making powers are added to require licensees and permittees to prepare reports on records they are required to keep under section 62 and submit the reports to the Minister.  Regulations may provide for a person with prescribed qualifications to review technical or specialized studies or reports that a licensee or permittee is required to prepare and to submit a report to the Minister.  The Minister is given the power to direct licensees and permittees to submit information relating to the operation of a pit or quarry to the Minister and to conduct inventories, tests or studies with respect to the pit or quarry and submit a report thereon to the Minister.
From the "Explanatory Notes", Legislative Assembly of Ontario Site

The city raised its concerns about the long-term impact of the River Valley Developments quarry on the deep water aquifer in 2013. The province agreed to consider these issues, and a provincially-appointed mediator has been working between the city and the company to find some sort of compromise that both parties can live with. Since mediation happens in secret, the public record just about ends at that point. 


There is another open pit mine that people should be thinking about:  the Hidden Quarry project just East of Rockwood, off highway 7. James Dick Construction limited (the same guys that run the Guelph DoLime quarry owned by River Valley Developments) want to open a 39.4 hectare limestone quarry. Just to understand the size, one hectare is roughly the area of a football field, so think of the quarry as being forty football fields in size. This has raised the concerns of local folks who (understandably) are concerned about it. People are afraid that they will have giant trucks roaring down their roads, blasting, dust, and/or, wells drying up. And, of course, just concern about these issues is bound to affect people's property values---let alone if some of it actually comes true! Some folks have even suggested that the deep water aquifers that serve places like Guelph are all connected and if some contamination were to occur in the Hidden Quarry that it would eventually affect the city.

Here's a YouTube video from a Rockwood Group, "The Concerned Residents Coalition" that goes in pretty significant detail about the Hidden quarry proposal.

I'm not going to try to sift-out these issues to try to separate the plausible from the far-fetched. I lack the expertise to do so, and that is a very deep swamp for a journalist to negotiate. But I will
Green Party of Ontario Leader,
and Guelph candidate, Mike Schreiner
photo c/o Wiki Commons
pause to point out that there are very well organized groups in this area that have made the issue of gravel pits and limestone quarries---and groundwater in general---a very big issue. These include: Wellington Water Watchers (Guelph DoLime, the Nestle bottling plant in Aberfoyle, and, growing the Ontario Green Belt), the Concerned Residents Coalition (the Hidden Quarry proposal), and, an umbrella group called Gravel Watch Ontario. In addition, we have the Green Party of Ontario leader, Mike Schreiner, who has made concerns about local water quality a key part of his bid to gain election to Queen's Park in the Guelph area. This isn't to say that any of this is anything more than public-spirited individuals seeking to ensure that Guelph's water supply is preserved for future generations. After all, every single advance that society makes has come about through the work of advocacy groups plus politicians who have decided to make a specific issue "their project". All I want to do is point out that is that aggregate extraction is a significant issue in the political consciousness of both local voters and politicians, and as such, it is something that the citizenry really should think about.     


With that in mind, I think it would be useful to discuss the greater role that aggregates play in our lives. River Valley Developments and James Dick Construction want to dig up limestone because someone wants to buy them. And the people who do are you and me!

In 2009 the Ontario government commissioned a study of the Ontario aggregates industry. In the first decade of the 2000s, it estimated that Ontario used 179 million metric tonnes of sand, gravel, and, limestone per year. (A metric tonne is 1,000 kilograms, which is roughly the same weight as an Imperial ton.) That comes out to 14.5 tonnes per person, per year. The per capita use is actually less than what it was in the 1980s, when it was 16.4 tonnes/person/year. But because the population has gone from 8,625,107 in 1981 to 13,448,494 in 2016, the actual total amount used per year has increased by 45 million tonnes over the same time. Since Guelph DoLime and the Hidden quarry are specifically limestone mines instead of gravel pits, it's important to separate out the demand for limestone as opposed to sand and gravel. According to the study I'm working from, 43% of the aggregates in Ontario are crushed stone (ie, what comes from the Guelph DoLime and Hidden quarries)---as opposed to sand and gravel. This translates to a little over 6 tonnes of quarried stone per person per year.

Aggregates are used in a lot of different things---including such esoteric things as computer screens, abrasive cleansers, glass, road sand, etc. But by far the greatest use (81%) is in construction. And in construction, 62% is used directly, 21% goes into ready mix concrete, 7% goes into making cement, and, the other 10% goes into other construction materials. And the purpose of that construction breaks down as follows:  34% for new roads, 14% for "repair construction" (the majority is road repair), 26% for new residential buildings, 15% for new non-residential building, and, 10% for new "other" engineering (don't know what that means---bridges?) The greatest use of aggregates in Ontario is for roads (34% plus the majority of 14%.)

 This is a significant increase since the late 1980s, when it was only 34% of the total. And let's separate out the use of crushed stone in road construction:  "road metal" 24%, concrete aggregate 22%, cement 12%, asphalt aggregate 12%, a variety of other uses at 2% or less, plus a whopping 26% of "unspecified uses".

(A few explanations are in order here.  "Road metal" is the traditional name given to the stone chips that are mixed with asphalt to make a bitumen road. "Cement" is the name given to the chemically-active substance (usually "burnt" limestone) you mix with water, sand, gravel, chipped stones, etc, with to make "concrete" which is cast in forms to make things like sidewalks, steps, foundations, etc. The "unspecified uses" in the above are just that: "unspecified"---they could be road metal, cement, etc, or something else entirely. The consultants had a hard time finding numbers for many parts of the aggregate survey, which they explained in another part of the text.)


Aggregates all have two properties in common:  they weigh a lot and we use a lot of them. Put these two things together and transportation becomes a major fraction of the end cost of use. This means that it just isn't feasible to import aggregates from some far away "sacrifice zone" and ignore the impact that extraction has on that neighbourhood---like we do for oil:

Alberta tar sands,
Photo by Howl Art Collective, c/o Wiki Commons
This means that if we are going to continue to use a lot of limestone in Ontario, we are going to have to have open pit mines like Guelph DoLime and Hidden quarry pretty much in our own backyards. This raises the question, "Can we do with less limestone?"

The answer is "yes", and we are already moving in that direction. The first option is recycling. If you checked out the first phase of the Metal Works condominium project or other building site you probably saw something like this.

Aggregate recycling. Photo by Peter Craven, c/o Wiki Commons

And while driving along the road, you may have seen something like this. 

A pavement recycling machine,
Photo from U.S. dept or transportation, Highway Division

These are two examples of "in situ direct aggregate recycling". There are other things that can be "recycled" as aggregates. These include demolition waste, slag from steel mills, ground glass, etc. The study I am working from says that Ontario uses 7% recycled content in the aggregate mix, whereas Europe uses as much as 20%. Gravel Watch Ontario suggests that if Ontario recycled at the European level, we would save 22 million tonnes of virgin aggregate a year.

Of course, it's important to remember that this reduction is for total aggregates, not crushed rock (ie what comes out of Guelph DoLime and Hidden quarries.) From what I've read, it appears that recycling tends cut down on the use of sand and gravel more than crushed rock. Moreover, there are issues involved in the use of recycled materials that need to be addressed. For example, there was a problem with highway 427 where road failure resulted from the use of recycled materials with a relatively high concentration of contaminating gypsum materials (eg: drywall) because of swelling due to absorption of moisture. This isn't to say that there is an intrinsic problem with recycled materials, just that there is a learning curve in developing the knowledge and systems to ensure that it is used properly.


Another interesting option is the use of more wood to build mid-range buildings. It turns out that it is possible to build mid-range sized buildings---both commercial and residential---using a lot more wood instead of concrete, if the local building code allows it. On January 1rst, 2014 the Ontario provincial building code was amended to allow wooden structures up to six stories tall.  This opens the door for more buildings like these:

1201 Mercer St., Seattle Washington
Aspen Art Museum, Aspen Colorado

Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Washington District of Columbia

Arcadia Student Living, Charlotte North Carolina
All photos c/o the "Image Gallery" of the Wood Product Council
(lots more great stuff there)
These sorts of building not only use less aggregates, they tend to be cheaper and quicker to build too. And, as you can see, they can be designed both as the Brutalist blocks which are so beloved by institutions (and that enrage so many neighbourhood associations), or, as something that fits better into the existing pattern of communities. There has been some opposition from fire departments and aggregate companies (of course) who say that these buildings aren't as fire resistant as concrete ones, but there are ways of getting around that problem and these are covered in the new code.


One other way we could cut our use of aggregates would be to live in smaller homes. According to Stats Canada, 1861 6.2 people lived in the average household---by 2011 it had declined to 2.5 At the same time, home size has been increasing. In 1975 the average Canadian home size was 98 square metres, but in 2010 it had increased to 181 square meters. At the same time, the number of people living in that home declined from 3.1 to 2.5. Canadians currently have the third largest average home size in the world---with an average of 72 square meters per person. (Hong Kong has the lowest at 15.)

There are a lot of ways in which we can probably change the amount of aggregate we use in Canada. We could drive less and take public transit more---which would cut down on the wear-and-tear on roads. We could get a handle on population growth. We could decide to live in more modest homes. All of these things would help us live more in harmony with nature. They would also help with climate change (gravel trucks use a lot of fuel.) But they would all involve Canadians rethinking our values and how we live our lives. What is more important---a big house or a clean environment? Do we want to live in the countryside at the expense of degrading it? The large house in the countryside---which we have to commute from in order to pay for---requires much more aggregates per person than the modest home in town serviced by public transit.

At this point I suppose I could put up an image from the famous poster by Walk Kelly, "We have met the enemy and he is us." (I would if I could find a public domain version.) But that would be disingenuous. A lot of "powers and principalities" exist to inflate people's expectations and wants in order to get people to want to buy the largest houses possible (I won't say "can afford", because many people buy homes that they can't), as far away from work, public transit, shopping, etc as possible. Home builders want to build big luxury houses instead of affordable apartments. The OMB wants to "preserve the character of neighbourhoods filled with single-family, fully detached units". The debate over gravel pits and limestone quarries will work itself out one way or another. In the process of doing so, I hope that some people will take the time to consider what effect their personal decisions affect the world around them.


One last point. If you think that this magazine helps inform voters, share it with your friends. "Word of Mouth" is absolutely essential to its success. So post a linke on FaceBook, Twitter, or, however else you connect with friends. Oh, and don't forget to click on those ads!

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, AgĂȘncia Senado
c/o Wiki Commons
Maxime Bernier maybe not.
Photo by Marcello Casal Jr.
AgĂȘncia 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.