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Simple coin toss almost trivializes Vernon River-Stratford election outcome

Chief electoral officer Gary McLeod
Chief electoral officer Gary McLeod

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A coin toss to determine the winner in the Vernon River-Stratford district almost trivializes the outcome of a hard-fought, clean campaign between two strong, worthy candidates. The P.E.I. Elections Act sets out the formula so there had to be good reasons behind it. It’s just that no one is sure what they are or why the authors of the bill went this route.

Alan McIsaac, the Liberal incumbent and cabinet minister, was assigned tails while Mary Ellen McInnis had heads when district returning officer (DRO) Marie Curran tossed a special commemorative coin in the air. It landed on the ground with tails facing skyward and Mr. McIsaac was returned to office.

The act decrees a coin toss but fails to establish important criteria before the flip is held, such as who picks first - which is fairly important in any coin toss.

Fortunately, Chief Electoral Officer Gary McLeod established his own criteria for order of selection before the recount – just in case. It was a wise precaution.

But once Mr. McLeod unilaterally decided the order of election would be based on the alphabet, it meant Ms. McInnis was going to select first. The candidate whose name was closer to the start of the alphabet was assigned heads and the one closer to the end was assigned tails. There was nothing random about that solution. It came down to an ‘n’ being earlier in the alphabet than an ‘s.’

Mr. McLeod might have cut cards to decide the order of selection but that would only trivialize the process even further.

Mr. McIsaac was two votes ahead at the end of the night May 4 – 1,174 to 1,172.  The narrow margin necessitated a recount conducted by Provincial Court Judge John Douglas, who discovered that a vote for Ms. McInnis was mistakenly put in the pile for Mr. McIsaac, creating a tie. The only other change among the 2,845 votes cast in the riding was that a ballot awarded to Nicolas Graveline was rejected, leaving the Green candidate with 234 votes. The 258 votes

earned by NDP candidate Kathleen Romans stayed the same, while there were seven spoiled ballots.

The coin toss formula is unique to this province. Nova Scotia and the Yukon draw lots while in Ontario and New Brunswick, district returning officers cast the deciding vote. The majority of provinces hold a byelection to select the winner in a tie election, as does the federal government.

A byelection involving the two top candidates would make sense. Let the people decide in a kind of run-off election, which is common in many parts of the world. Arguments against that option are the costs and the time involved. The candidates have just finished a grueling four-week campaign knocking on doors and discussing issues with voters. It requires a lot of time and money. To go through the process all over again is a huge burden and would leave the district without representation when the House is recalled.

It would also have cost Vernon River-Stratford a cabinet minister, as Mr. McIsaac was re-appointed to cabinet a day after the recount. Had Premier Wade MacLauchlan left a spot open in the hopes Mr. McIsaac would win a byelection – it could be construed as a bribe. It would all be too cumbersome.

The situation in Vernon River-Stratford hammers home the message that every vote does count.

Some voters might tell themselves that “it doesn’t matter if I vote because it doesn’t mean anything.” Obviously it does. It also enhances the importance of third parties when close to 500 votes were cast for the NDP and Green party candidates in Vernon River-Stratford.

Some will use this situation as another argument for proportional representation. But a better argument could be made to use a preferential ballot, such as the one used by the provincial Tories to select Rob Lantz as leader in February and the one used by Egmont Liberals last November to select Robert Morrissey. In both cases, additional counts were needed to select the eventual winner.

In a provincial election, a voter would indicate his or her first choice on the ballot, then select a second choice. The preferential ballot would break any ties and might make the most sense to avoid a byelection. It would also help get the province moving towards some kind of electoral reform options.

A coin toss to determine the winner in the Vernon River-Stratford district almost trivializes the outcome of a hard-fought, clean campaign between two strong, worthy candidates. The P.E.I. Elections Act sets out the formula so there had to be good reasons behind it. It’s just that no one is sure what they are or why the authors of the bill went this route.

Alan McIsaac, the Liberal incumbent and cabinet minister, was assigned tails while Mary Ellen McInnis had heads when district returning officer (DRO) Marie Curran tossed a special commemorative coin in the air. It landed on the ground with tails facing skyward and Mr. McIsaac was returned to office.

The act decrees a coin toss but fails to establish important criteria before the flip is held, such as who picks first - which is fairly important in any coin toss.

Fortunately, Chief Electoral Officer Gary McLeod established his own criteria for order of selection before the recount – just in case. It was a wise precaution.

But once Mr. McLeod unilaterally decided the order of election would be based on the alphabet, it meant Ms. McInnis was going to select first. The candidate whose name was closer to the start of the alphabet was assigned heads and the one closer to the end was assigned tails. There was nothing random about that solution. It came down to an ‘n’ being earlier in the alphabet than an ‘s.’

Mr. McLeod might have cut cards to decide the order of selection but that would only trivialize the process even further.

Mr. McIsaac was two votes ahead at the end of the night May 4 – 1,174 to 1,172.  The narrow margin necessitated a recount conducted by Provincial Court Judge John Douglas, who discovered that a vote for Ms. McInnis was mistakenly put in the pile for Mr. McIsaac, creating a tie. The only other change among the 2,845 votes cast in the riding was that a ballot awarded to Nicolas Graveline was rejected, leaving the Green candidate with 234 votes. The 258 votes

earned by NDP candidate Kathleen Romans stayed the same, while there were seven spoiled ballots.

The coin toss formula is unique to this province. Nova Scotia and the Yukon draw lots while in Ontario and New Brunswick, district returning officers cast the deciding vote. The majority of provinces hold a byelection to select the winner in a tie election, as does the federal government.

A byelection involving the two top candidates would make sense. Let the people decide in a kind of run-off election, which is common in many parts of the world. Arguments against that option are the costs and the time involved. The candidates have just finished a grueling four-week campaign knocking on doors and discussing issues with voters. It requires a lot of time and money. To go through the process all over again is a huge burden and would leave the district without representation when the House is recalled.

It would also have cost Vernon River-Stratford a cabinet minister, as Mr. McIsaac was re-appointed to cabinet a day after the recount. Had Premier Wade MacLauchlan left a spot open in the hopes Mr. McIsaac would win a byelection – it could be construed as a bribe. It would all be too cumbersome.

The situation in Vernon River-Stratford hammers home the message that every vote does count.

Some voters might tell themselves that “it doesn’t matter if I vote because it doesn’t mean anything.” Obviously it does. It also enhances the importance of third parties when close to 500 votes were cast for the NDP and Green party candidates in Vernon River-Stratford.

Some will use this situation as another argument for proportional representation. But a better argument could be made to use a preferential ballot, such as the one used by the provincial Tories to select Rob Lantz as leader in February and the one used by Egmont Liberals last November to select Robert Morrissey. In both cases, additional counts were needed to select the eventual winner.

In a provincial election, a voter would indicate his or her first choice on the ballot, then select a second choice. The preferential ballot would break any ties and might make the most sense to avoid a byelection. It would also help get the province moving towards some kind of electoral reform options.

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