Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Vote boss keeps everybody's hands clean

Harry Neufeld photographed by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 29, 2009


It is E-Day minus 14, a fortnight from the province's first election in four years. A lot of planning can be done in that time. A voters list of three million names is compiled. Some 1,700 voting locations have been selected, district returning officers hired and ballots printed.

Then, aches and pains become an outbreak that may yet become a pandemic. In Mexico, soccer games are played in stadiums empty of spectators. You're in charge of an exercise in which strangers by the tens of thousands gather in common spaces to share pencils before casting a ballot. What to do?

The folks at Elections BC met yesterday and decided to have hand sanitizer at every voting place.

"I'm happy we're not going to have to do more than that," said Harry Neufeld, the province's chief electoral officer.

So far, anyway.

Mr. Neufeld heads the best-run campaign in the election. Not only does he eschew partisan attacks, but he does not make promises he can't keep.

He is British Columbia's ballot boss, an independent officer of the legislature.

He turns 57 on June 4, or, on his calendar, the day after the writs are returned. That will mark 50 hectic days since the election was called. (In the elex biz, this is known as when the writs are dropped. Writs are formal documents. They're not so much dropped as issued by Mr. Neufeld. But if you talk about the dropping of writs it makes you sound like an electoral veteran.)

If election campaigning is a sport, then Mr. Neufeld is the referee. As in hockey, you read about the officials only when they screw up. So, the chief electoral officer remains a little-known character with awesome responsibilities.

He is an unembarrassed preacher of the beauty of one-person, one-vote democracy, a system defended in war and in recent years threatened by a combination of apathy and disgust at political machinations.

"We take so much for granted," he said.

He has travelled from Botswana to Zimbabwe to share with fledgling democracies Canada's success at conducting fair elections.

The globetrotting has taken him far from his roots. He was born in Brooks, Alta., which had the hospital closest to the family farm at Rosemary. His childhood duties included stacking hay and feeding sheep.

At the age of 9, he moved with his family to Winnipeg, where his father, a Mennonite minister, took on a role with the church. At 15, he moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., returning after high school graduation to work on the family farm, by then being managed by an uncle.

"I broke a horse. I took care of a lot of range land. Did a lot of fencing. Drove around in a pickup truck. Had a straw hat. Cowboy boots. It was good fun."

The return to Alberta soil persuaded him to decline his acceptance at the University of Western Ontario and study English and political science at the University of Lethbridge, where even his first-year classes were smaller than what he had experienced in high school. He moved to Victoria to work on a master's degree.

After a year's study, he arranged a summer job as a waiter at a steak house, a job he dreaded but thought he could not avoid.

"I was broke. I had $32 in my bank account." As it turned out, the last paper he handed in was a 32-page examination of the evolution of the electoral franchise in British Columbia. While interviewing the deputy chief electoral officer, he had mentioned his interest in working for Elections BC. The call came just in time to save him from the restaurant.

He helped organize what is believed to be the first computerized voters list in time for the 1983 provincial election.

In 1989, the United Nations sent him to Namibia, which was to conduct an election before declaring independence after nearly three decades of war. He monitored a local computer expert handling voter registrations at Windhoek. He was witness to history, as a people colonized by the racist regime of South Africa took the first steps toward independence.

"The turnout for the election was staggering - 94 per cent," he recalled.

"Many of them were illiterate. They stood in line for days in order to get a ballot. It was inspiring."

He has also worked on and witnessed elections in Mexico, Russia, Guyana, Uganda, and South Africa.

Back home, he can quote the Election Act like a scholar cites Shakespeare.

For all his passion about the sanctity of the ballot, his election day will be free of a duty he expects the rest of us to exercise.

A peculiarity of his job can be found in Part 2, Section 5, Subsection 2 of the act under a boldfaced heading of impartiality: "The chief electoral officer is not entitled to vote in an election."

So, he will not be casting a ballot on May 12. But at least he has a good excuse.

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