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NDP says errors meant people — including First Nations — were disenfranchised

"Voters were turned away, were sent to the wrong polling locations, showed up at locations that opened late or never opened, or walked away from massive lineups,” NDP national director Anne McGrath alleged in a letter. 
People start to line up early for the Canadian general election before polls open in west-end Toronto for the Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, election. The NDP has requested an official inquiry into what it calls “numerous and systemic failures of election officials” on election day. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy

OTTAWA — The NDP has requested an official inquiry into what it calls “numerous and systemic failures of election officials” in last month's federal election.

NDP national director Anne McGrath has written to Canada's elections commissioner, Yves Côté, calling for an investigation into whether election officials in several ridings failed to follow correct procedures, denying citizens the right to cast their vote on Sept. 20. 

The letter of complaint, seen by The Canadian Press, alleged that some polling stations opened late “or not at all,” disenfranchising voters, many of whom were in Indigenous communities. 

It said that in Kenora, Ont., Indigenous voters were “significantly disenfranchised” because places where people expected to vote did not open at all, or not until mid-afternoon.

An accompanying dossier of failures, compiled by the NDP’s lawyers, has also been sent to Côté, an independent officer who ensures that election law is properly implemented. 

"In keeping with the confidentiality provisions of the Act, the CCE (Commissioner of Canada Elections) generally does not confirm whether it has received a complaint or has initiated an investigation into a particular issue," said spokeswoman Véronique Aupry.

Elections Canada said it was unaware of the NDP's specific complaints, because the elections commissioner acts independently.

Matthew McKenna, a spokesman for Elections Canada, said it faced "unprecedented challenges given the pandemic."

"Throughout the election, the agency communicated openly and regularly with political parties about issues that arose, and measures taken to address them," he said. "As is our usual practice, Elections Canada is currently analyzing and reviewing how the election unfolded, which includes reaching out to a number of stakeholders to get their feedback."

Vancouver-based law firm Allevato, Quail and Roy, counsel to the NDP, alleged that there were “system-wide failures of election officials to follow election procedures.”

Election-day polls in Indigenous communities including Cat Lake, Poplar Hill, and Pikangikum, “simply never materialized,” the NDP said. In Grassy Narrows, the polling station opened “over four hours late.” 

Some polling stations, the party alleged, did not have lists of voters ready when polls were due to open and sent voters away and told them to come back later. 

In some districts, election officials refused to keep polls open for voters, even though they had opened late, denying Canadians the requisite 12 hours in which to cast their vote on election day, the NDP alleged. 

Moreover, the party said some voters had to wait in line for up to two hours.

“Elections Canada failed their responsibility to ensure the enfranchisement of all voters, even and especially those in low-income communities, those living in Indigenous and rural/remote communities, and those living with disabilities," McGrath said in a written statement to The Canadian Press.

"What we saw in Indigenous communities in Kenora or urban communities in Toronto where people weren't able to vote or were not given the opportunity to vote is troubling and must be fixed before the next election.

“We respect the choice of electors and the results of the election, but these systemic failures by Elections Canada to make sure every person in Canada can participate in our process contravenes the Elections Act and must be addressed,” McGrath added. 

In her letter to the commissioner, McGrath said the NDP “gave prior warning to Elections Canada” of potential failures, based on warning signals emanating from advance polls a week before election day.

“We were promised that action would be taken by Elections Canada to ensure such failures did not repeat themselves on Election Day. Nothing was done. Voters were turned away, were sent to the wrong polling locations, showed up at locations that opened late or never opened, or walked away from massive lineups,” her letter said. 

The dossier also complained that the party’s elections observers were unable to scrutinize vote counts, and that, in one case, the police were allegedly called to escort an NDP lawyer from a polling station.  

“All across the country, local Elections Canada officials refused to permit candidate representatives to observe the counting of the ballots, despite their legal right to do so,” the NDP said. 

The NDP said it wants an inquiry and action taken to ensure such failures do not happen again. It said the mistakes have "done serious damage to the confidence of Canadians in our electoral system.”

The party said it “understood the pressure Elections Canada" was under to run an election "during a public-health crisis." But McGrath said the agency's job was to "make it easier for people to vote, not harder." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2021

Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press

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