Largely unknown, scrutineers key in ensuring fair municipal elections

They’re likely among the first faces you’ll see at your polling station when you cast your ballot on election day, but they’re not allowed to talk to you.

They’re not even allowed to use a cellphone.

Yet, despite most voters not thinking twice about who they are or why they’re there, their role is crucial in ensuring legitimate votes — and only legitimate votes — get counted properly.

“The role of … scrutineers in the voting place is to observe the integrity of the process,” the City of Toronto’s website says.

It’s not a job to be taken lightly, says John Tory campaign manager Tom Allison.

That’s part of the job of scrutineers: to … watch for cheaters who try to vote more than once.

—Tom Allison

“I’ve seen the same person come in more than once to try to vote,” said Allison, who by his count has served as a scrutineer 30 times. “I don’t think it happens often, but it does happen. It’s called cheating.

“That’s part of the job of scrutineers: to watch for things like that, watch for cheaters who try to vote more than once.”

In municipal elections in Toronto, scrutineers are appointed by candidates, who are allowed one scrutineer at each polling station and at the vote tabulator in a voting place. Scrutineers are entitled to supervise voting at polling stations, as well as the final count at vote tabulating machines.

“I think that we can trust the election bodies to run elections,” said 18-year-old mayoral candidate Morgan Baskin. “But I also understand the want to have some of your own people ensuring that things are fair and safe, and that everyone is getting the chance to vote that they deserve.”

To ensure fairness and secrecy, the city places a few limits on what scrutineers can do. In addition to bans on using cellphones and talking to voters inside a polling place, scrutineers can’t display their candidate’s election material, including things like pins and buttons.

Scrutineers are also barred from peeking at the ballots as they’re entered into the vote tabulator.

That was something that caught Allison’s attention as a first-time scrutineer in 1990.

“I showed up so that I could scrutinize the counting of the ballots and the voting was done by machine,” he said. “When I got there they told me that I had to stand behind a counter at one end of a great big room and they opened the machines at the other end of the room”

Allison complained. He couldn’t scrutinize the count because he couldn’t see what was going on, he said.

“It opened my eyes to the fact that there is, in fact, no opportunity to scrutinize the counting of ballots,” Allison said, “which is one of the most important parts of the day.”

Still, Allison said he believes having scrutineers present during the voting process is vital.

“Scrutineers are there to ensure fairness,” he said. “And when you have multiple scrutineers, they keep each other honest.”