It was a bad beginning. I clashed with the PRIMO, the woman in charge of ensuring our part of the election ran smoothly. I’ve worked other elections – for the province, the federal government, school board elections and for the City of Côte St. Luc. Every election I’ve worked I was instructed to head to my polling station and then the PRIMO would come by and check the paper I’d brought proving I was assigned to that station.
But this PRIMO was unhappy I had failed to present myself to her when I entered the room. That was just the start of a very bad day.
We were told in training that as deputy returning officers (DROs) we had permission to initial one or two ballots ahead of a voter’s arrival at our poll. But the PRIMO asked me not to do this. She criticized me for not preparing because I wasn’t folding ballots ahead of time in the ballot book. But when I folded the ballots in the book, I had trouble getting them out of the book, putting the numbered talons at risk of coming off the ballot. I didn’t want to tear ballots and found it faster to take them out and fold them but this is not what she wanted. I was apparently folding the ballots too slowly. They were heavy paper ballots and voters received three – one for the mayor of the city, one for the mayor of the borough and another for the city councillor.
I had to insist on being allowed to use the washroom when I and the poll clerk needed to use it badly at a time when our poll was busy. I pointed out that a bathroom break would greatly improve our efficiency since we were both in agony and the discomfort was slowing us down. She finally allowed us two minutes.
During training we were instructed to follow the procedures in our training manual. For me having procedures outlined in the manual was comforting. I knew if I followed the manual I wouldn’t go wrong. But when the time came to count the votes, the PRIMO instructed us to go straight to the count and put ballots on the table even though we were told in training to take ballots out of the box one at a time. We transferred papers and documents to another table in a hurry as per the PRIMO’s instructions and I worried that our earlier work to organize everything had become messed up. I wanted to make sure the last batches of unused ballots were in their envelopes. So when she was addressing the room in rapid fire French, I was putting the ballots away while I listened to her. A big mistake.
The PRIMO was angry at me for not giving her my full attention and decided to make an example of me in front of everyone. She ordered me to sit down at a table and then sarcastically quizzed me on what she had been saying at the time when she saw me putting the ballots in the envelopes. When I repeated in French my understanding of what she had said very quickly in French (I couldn’t always hear her), she made sort of gotcha comment, because I failed to mention that the count list had 10 boxes on each line. Another DRO (scrutateur) in the room addressed her on my behalf and told her she was being abusive. Later he asked me why I hadn’t spoken up for myself. I told him I was afraid that would cause more problems. I need to work on being more assertive but I was also in shock.
When I went for the interview and training session, Election Montreal staff were friendly and kind and accommodating of anglophones like me who have French as their second language. I thought we would be treated the same way on election day. Being humiliated in front of the other election workers is not something I expected. I was afraid that had I stood up for myself I would have found myself fired in front of the group, sent home and out $290.
This PRIMO’s approach was vastly different from the great experience I had working a municipal election for the City of Côte St. Luc. For that particular municipal election, the PRIMO and Aide-PRIMO gave the DROs and poll clerks tips on how to proceed more quickly and if you were having trouble balancing your poll, as we did on Sunday, they helped you. She told me that we were responsible for our own poll, she would not help us and the poll clerk was freaking out because the PRIMO had said earlier that if we messed up we would not get paid. It was taking forever to figure out what was wrong. Perhaps it was stupid but I suggested that we simply send in what we had because we had some freak problems with our poll that hours later we still couldn’t figure out.
Our calculations were wrong but as it turns out when they finally stepped in to help, (to be fair, the PRIMO did act a bit better towards me later, though I’m not sure she meant it), the PRIMO and her second-in-command Aide-PRIMO discovered a mistake in their own math calculations. At one point they insinuated we had let someone walk out of the room with a ballot, something neither of us would ever allow to happen, we needed help checking things but the second guessing made everything a lot worse. There was also a situation where three people – me, the poll clerk and another Aide-PRIMO had counted a candidate’s ballots and we all found the same number but when they counted the number was higher and then our poll balanced. I still can’t figure out how that happened.
I realize too that anxiety played a big role in the problems. I suffer from anxiety, so did the young poll clerk. Anxious people rely on procedures to feel safe and when everything gets thrown out, things get much worse. Anxious people can be perfectionists and work slowly, especially when feeling stressed.
I’ve long considered election work as something a few steps up from volunteer work. Most of the people attracted to this work care deeply about democracy (they also need the money). Any citizen 18 and over is eligible to apply to work a municipal election. There are no tests to decide how qualified someone is for this work. I ended that 16-hour day feeling crappy and doubted and regretting ever having signed up to work Montreal’s municipal election.
I filed a complaint with Election Montreal but they’re defending the PRIMO. They said they spoke with three other DROs in the room, adding that while the PRIMO’s manner was brusque, everything was fine and that she’s very good at her job. They said they would put a note in her file but that’s about it. The woman I filed the complaint with chided me, said I should have had the unused ballots in envelopes before the polls closed at 8 p.m. but the training manual had that procedure as part of the first things you do after the polls close. I don’t remember the poll number of the guy who spoke up on my behalf and it seems Election Montreal never talked to him.
The Quebec government has a law on psychological harassment at work but it seems election workers are not protected from being dressed down by PRIMOs in front of everyone in the room. I learned too that to survive election work you’re better off listening to the PRIMO even if she tells you to ignore the training you received. To work a City of Montreal election, you better have perfect French and work quickly (people with any sort of disability need not apply). I don’t think I’ll ever work a Montreal election again, it was such a bad experience.