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Jackie Barkhouse win over Bill Karsten reversed, and other election screw-ups 

1,000 percent voter turnout and more reasons to question the integrity of the Elections Office.

click to enlarge Jackie Barkhouse
  • Jackie Barkhouse
Late Saturday night, well, Sunday morning, actually, at around 3:30am, the HRM Elections Office announced on its website that the victor in the District 3: Dartmouth South- Eastern Passage district election was Jackie Barkhouse, besting Bill Karsten by just six votes.

Everyone expected that Karsten would ask for a recount, as well he should've, with a race this close. Recounts take some time: an independent judge is brought, and each ballot is examined independently.

But this morning returning officer Cathy Mellet announced that Karsten, not Barkhouse, had actually won. Mellet's press release:

Tuesday October 23, 2012 (Halifax) –Official Election Results Released

Today the HRM Returning Officer announced that official results have declared Bill Karsten, and not Jackie Barkhouse the winner for the seat of HRM Council District 3 Dartmouth South- Eastern Passage.

In conducting the requirement of the Municipal Elections Act (MEA) for the Returning Officer to review and confirm the Official Results a discrepancy was discovered in the results called in on Saturday evening from one poll in District 3.

The official review of the poll results was conducted this morning at 10am with the candidates from District 3 present for that review.

Mellett, the Returning Officer noted “ The stringent requirements of the Elections Act are in place to ensure that the will of the voters is carried out and that, upon official review of all poll books, the official results are correct and reliable. She noted that “Today the integrity and transparency of that electoral process was demonstrated under difficult circumstances for everyone involved”. It would be expected that a judicial recount will be requested.

Official results for all races and district have been posted and are available at www.halifax.ca/election/results

This is, to put it mildly, an astounding chain of events.

click to enlarge Bill Karsten.
  • Bill Karsten.
Barkhouse will undoubtedly now demand a recount, and that process will play out over coming days and weeks.

But even as the recount is happening, we need to ask: is the elections office broken? The very integrity of our city democracy is at stake here. Consider:

1. Angela Jones fiasco.

I won't re-hash the entire case here (background is here), but after Angela Jones was disqualified as a candidate by Mellet, Jones appealed to a judge, who decided that in fact, Jones should be a candidate.

As Jones was arguing her case in the media, she told me directly that she was a victim of hanky-panky in city hall. As I reported:

"I was told very firmly and clearly—and I have evidence of this—by Cathy Mellet, she agreed that I was on a leave of absence, that I did not need to do anything further, that everything was fine, the nomination was in good standing. We discussed my leave at length—and I'm talking at length."

Jones declined to say what her evidence was, saying she's waiting for that to come out in court, if need be.

"Late the next day," Jones continues, "I'm hearing from my friends at city hall that they are freaking out that I am running."

Jones won't say who "they" are, at least for the moment.

"I'm going to fight this in court," says Jones. "Because they are trying to take away my democratic rights. You've seen them make legal mistakes in the past. This is another one. They don't even have the authority to tell me I'm disqualified. This whole thing is so ridiculous, that I can't even wrap my head around it.

"So I'm asking myself the question: Why don't they want me to run?"

Jones says she doesn't have an answer to that question.

The judge's ruling did not address any behind-the-scenes shenanigans at city hall, meant to keep Jones from running, but the fact of her legal victory gives at least some credence to those allegations.

2. The naming of District 3

Before today's problems with counting votes, there was a strained relationship between Mellet and Jackie Barkhouse, related to the official name of the newly formed District 3, in which Barkhouse and Karsten would be facing each other.

I reported on that controversy here. At the time, Barkhouse expressed to me privately that she felt there was some collusion between Mellet and Karsten on the naming of the district, but she asked that I not report that, because she had no hard evidence of it.

I subsequently filed a FOIPOP request for documents related to the issue, and didn't get much back, except for email conversations after the change was made. I'm told that other councillors—David Hendsbee was one—didn't like the name of their newly formed districts either, but Mellet refused to change the names, citing UARB rules.

So why one standard for the name of District 3, and another standard for the names of other districts? It's hard to understand that without suspecting some form of bias on Mellet's part.

3. Election night delay

The polls closed at 7pm Saturday, but as I said above "official" results from the elections office didn't come in until the wee hours of the morning. While official word was delayed, the candidates themselves had reports back from their scrutineers in the polling places. This led to some absurd moments, like when Sue Uteck conceded to Waye Mason, and Mason gave a victory speech, while at the moment the elections office was showing just 10 percent of the vote counted, and Mason losing not just to Uteck but to Gerry Walsh, who was leading.

Mellet explained the delay Sunday morning in a press release:

Results took longer than expected due to the need to verify some very tight races and logistical issues related to reporting and entering the results from over 500 polling tables throughout HRM.
That's really a non-explanation, but the time, I didn't put too much stock in the delay. I come from an American context where final election results normally don't come in until 4 or 5am, and really what difference does it make when the results come in? Some of us are eager to get results, but I'd rather them done properly than quickly.

It now appears, however, that the counting on election night was neither quick nor proper, and if the "need to verify some very tight races" explained the delay, it served no real purpose as the verification was faulty, at least so far as District 3 goes. Further, in the context of repeated mistakes, misjudgements and at least the appearance of bias from the elections office, I've reconsidered my earlier view. I now think that yes, indeed, the election night delays are problematic, and reflective of bigger problems still at the elections office.

4. Flip-flopping on District 3 results

This is of course the relevant issue, and I'm sure this will be examined in great detail in coming days. Still, Sunday night Barkhouse led by six votes, today Karsten was declared winner by 68 votes.

I won't make any assumptions about what the exact vote was. Clearly, a judge needs to look at this, and both Karsten and Barkhouse should examine each and every ballot.

But the exact vote aside, this is no way to treat either candidate. Further, this kind of mistake is an embarrassment, turning Halifax into a laughingstock, like Florida's hanging chads.

5. Other questionable election results

A reader alerts me to two other problematic election results, as shown in the now-official tally.

In District 4, at the polling place at the Bissett Court retirement home, the results show one eligible voter, but 10 votes cast, for a turnout of 1,000 percent. And in District 16, at the Berekely-Bedford, there were 45 eligible voters, but 52 votes cast, for a turnout of 115 percent.

The reader gives a probable explanation for the figures: "people may have moved in after the lists were generated and swore eligibility at the tables." But, he continues, "it still seems odd that the number of eligible electors wasn't changed."

Isolated, this is a petty issue, but it's indicative of an overall sloppiness on the elections office's part that should be worrisome, especially given the context of the other problems.

This situation cries out for action, and a public explanation of events.

Mellet did not immediately return a call for comment.

Update, 2:56pm

Jackie Barkhouse has issued the following statement:

At a meeting of all District 3 candidates Tuesday morning, HRM election officials explained that some of the results had been entered into the overall totals in error during the count Saturday night and Sunday morning. They presented new numbers showing that Bill Karsten has won.

The difference between our vote totals is large enough that I offer Bill Karsten my congratulations on his victory. However, the exact number of votes is still in question because my official agent and I noticed discrepancies even today.

It does no justice to the voters of District 3 or to the reputation of the democratic process in Halifax Regional Municipality if a counting process so flawed is not challenged.

I have the option until Oct. 30, 2012, to request a judicial recount in District 3 but have not done so because Municipal Clerk and Chief Returning Officer Cathy Mellett has told me that she is “actively pursuing” permission from Council to ask for a recount.

I hope that Council will follow the advice of the head of its election staff to pursue a judicial recount so residents of District 3 can be assured that their votes have been counted accurately.

The last three days have been an emotional roller coaster for me and my family that has left me physically exhausted. As a result, I will let this statement stand as my comment on the 2012 HRM municipal election. I’m going to spend some time with my family and maybe take my first vacation in four years.

Again, I want to thank all the people who have supported me throughout the campaign that just ended. Win or lose, you have been there for me. It has been an uplifting and at the same time humbling experience to have served you. Thank you all.

Jackie Barkhouse

Update, October 24, 2pm

Election coordinator/assistant returning officer Lori McKinnon sends the following email:

I wondered if I could take the opportunity (on behalf of the HRM Election Office) to address item 5 in [the article above].

Under the MEA (Municipal Elections Act) Section 40 (5) “the final list of electors shall be the lists of electors for the municipality until new lists have been prepared and revised”. The election office requests resident’s information from the Nursing Homes but it is often difficult to have a complete list prior to the creation of this final list of electors.

The final list (and numbers) are used to generate the official voter list and for reporting purposes of the results. It is not until the election office updates the elector list with the additions made at the poll locations that the new numbers are reflected.

The number of eligible electors as reported from Saturday will be adjusted in the municipal voter view(MVV) system before we return the data to Elections Nova Scotia. This may take a number of weeks.

Should you wish to discuss this, I welcome a call or email.

Thanks,

Lori McKinnon
Election Coordinator/Assistant Returning Officer
Election Office
Halifax Regional Municipality

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