A leadership convention is one of the biggest events for political parties, second only to a general election. Such was the case for the Wildrose Alliance Party this weekend in Edmonton, where we elected Danielle Smith as our new Leader. Much of the weekend events will be reported on by media and bloggers alike. What I would like to share with you is a peek behind the scenes of the most important component of the day; the ballot counting room.
My day begins at 7 AM, after having only a few hours sleep. I head down to the hotel restaurant to grab a coffee before meeting with the volunteers. As I go in I am met by Don Braid, he asks me to join him for breakfast. We have a good, albeit brief chat, he realizes I am still under the impartiality agreement and he doesn’t ask me any out-of-bound questions. I finish my coffee and head to the main convention hall to let the volunteers know where the counting room is located.
In the convention area Betty, a volunteer, has done a bang up job on the decorations and assigning duties to the volunteers. I touch base with Heather, our office administrator and as usual she is on top of everything. I leave to set up the counting room. By 7:45 the volunteers are arriving, included in these are scrutineers from each campaign and our returning officer, Bruce Childs a Chartered Accountant from Edmonton.
The role of scrutineers is to observe the process and question anything they deem irregular or unusual. The role of the returning officer is to oversee the process, hear the concerns of the scrutineers, make rulings on those concerns and make rulings on any questionable ballots. My role was that of liaison to the Leadership Committee to keep them apprised of our progress throughout the day. And also to insure the proper handling of the any correspondence and contribution cheques that were enclosed with the ballots.
By 8:15 we had 18 volunteers ready to go. Being a volunteer in the counting room is not easy, you are sequestered for the day and don’t get to partake in any of the convention activities. The room we used was purposely far removed from the convention floor. Any communication with the outside is not allowed. So cell phones are turned off and left in the room if you go to the washroom. Our lunch was brought in to us and the room was a tad too warm.
The first duty of the volunteers was to open over 6000 envelopes, remove ballots and pass along any cheques and correspondence.
Then the counting began, the ballots bundled into stacks of fifty and counted twice to insure accuracy. We tried to use a bill counter for the counting unfortunately the thickness of the ballots prevented it from working properly. At this point (roughly around 1 PM) we decided we needed more volunteers. I made a call to Heather and magically nine more people arrived, bringing our total to 27.
From 2 to 4 PM the Leadership Committee was checking in with us frequently. At 4 o’clock we reported to them we had all the Smith votes counted, the Dyrholm ones bundled and had a rough total of 8200 ballots. Also that it was clearly a Smith victory.
Left to be done was the exact count of Dyrholm bundles, count of the spoiled ballots and the reconciliation. The reconciliation involved tabulating the validation sheet totals to make sure it matched the total ballots counted. This would have taken about another 10-15 minutes.
Since we had a lot of members and media waiting, the committee advised they had enough to make the announcement and would do so immediately. At that point I asked (actually, I was pretty vocal about it) if it would be possible to release the volunteers from the room so they could at least see the most important and exciting part of the day. Between them the volunteers had put in nearly 200 hours of work and to miss the announcement would have been heartbreaking. The committee agreed and the volunteers were allowed to go to the convention floor in time to hear each Mark and Danielle speak. The returning officer stayed behind to finish the reconciliation.
About half way through Danielle’s speech the returning officer advised me the reconciliation was complete. I returned to the counting room, secured the ballots, packed up the last of the garbage to be shredded and moved all to a locked facility. At this point I could see people were dispersing from the convention floor, some leaving to the parking lot, others to the Smith hospitality suite.
After a long day in dress clothes and heels, in a stuffy boardroom I decided to go to my room and change; I wanted to be in comfortable jeans for the remainder of the evening. That’s when I got the call; “Hey Jane, do you have those numbers? Because we have a volunteer speaking to the media about it, perhaps that should come from you.” My response, “Um well, all I have on right now are my underwear. How about I post them on the blog and send a Tweet out?” So it was that the results were rather unceremoniously announced.
Today I see from some blogs and forums that there was some confusion as to whether or not we were going to release the numbers. There was never any doubt in my mind that the numbers would be released. The PC’s released theirs in 2006. The Liberals released theirs in 2007. The Wildrose Alliance strives to be open and accountable; we believe in transparency in government. In my opinion, it would have been very hypocritical of us not to release the actual count.