The logistical challenge of recruitment and retention
The recruitment and retention of election workers is the biggest logistical challenge Elections Canada faces each election. No simple solutions exist for this complex endeavour.
In this report, dropouts is defined as poll workers who did not show up to work at the designated time and day for their shift on advance or ordinary polling days.
More than 200,000 election workers need to be hired and trained to serve 27 million electors in 338 electoral districts across the country. This large number of workers is required to provide adequate services at the polls, maintain compliance with voting day procedures, meet accessibility and official languages requirements, and accommodate growth of the electoral population.
In 2019, to meet its commitment to reducing wait times for voting, Elections Canada increased the number of advance polling stations to 6,166 from 4,946 in 2015. However, the total number of polling stations (advance and ordinary) fell slightly to 72,817 from72,858. The number of workers hired for the 43rd general election was 231,599, up from 221,826 hired for the 42nd general election.
Despite its best efforts, the agency faced several recruitment and retention challenges that eventually led to delays at several polling places, including 83 polls that opened late on election day.
Applicants versus workers
In 2019, the agency launched its first national digital recruitment campaign. A series of ads was created to increase awareness about job opportunities and encourage people to apply online. Communications tools were also developed to help returning officers and stakeholders effectively recruit election workers and encourage the hiring of people with disabilities, new Canadians, Indigenous people, linguistic minorities and young people.
As a result, over 550,000 online applications were submitted through the Elections Canada website, compared with 243,934 for the 2015 election and 130,427 for the 2011 election, when people were first able to apply online. Political parties also referred nearly 30,000 potential workers to returning officers; however, these applicants were not evenly distributed across all electoral districts.
Despite receiving such a large number of applications, returning officers in 89 of the 338 electoral districts were unable to hire enough workers to fill the positions needed. In addition, the recruitment of bilingual staff for polling divisions where at least 5% of the population speak the minority official language was sometimes difficult, affecting the agency's ability to meet the official language requirements in certain electoral districts.
High level of dropouts
With such large numbers of people being hired to work at the election, there is always a percentage of workers who simply do not show up to work their shift.
For the 43rd general election, the dropout rate unexpectedly increased nearly four-fold from the 2015 general election. Approximately 10,470 poll workers (about 5%) failed to show up for work at advance polls and ordinary polls. This would not have been a problem if dropouts were evenly spread across all electoral districts; however, 53% of all dropouts occurred in 97 electoral districts. In 20 electoral districts in particular, the percentage of trained workers who did not show up for work was about 15%. If no replacement staff were available, election officers had to merge polls, which meant one team of election officers and one ballot box serving two polling divisions. This type of adjustment was needed in the 97 electoral districts mentioned above.
Following the previous general election held in 2015, the Independent audit report on the performance of the duties and functions of election officials – 42nd General Election noted some deficiencies in training tools and practices. To address this finding, Elections Canada implemented a revised training strategy that combined in-class and hands-on practice using the Elections Canada guidebooks, allowing trainees to become more and more self-reliant as the training progressed.
Despite Elections Canada's efforts to improve poll worker training and materials for the 43rd general election, the majority of returning officers who completed the Report of Proceedings believe that even more can be done to improve them. They also recommend dividing more complicated poll worker tasks among newly trained and more experienced poll workers—which would be especially helpful when handling complex situations. In particular, poll opening and closing procedures were identified as being too complicated. It is worth noting that in the Survey of Election Officers, 83% of the poll workers surveyed reported being satisfied with their training.
Long working hours
Amendments brought to the Canada Elections Act ahead of the 43rd general election increased voting hours at advance polls, giving electors 12 hours per day to cast their votes—instead of the previous 8 hours—on each of the 4 days of advance polling. This meant that employees were required to work several 13-hour shifts in a row over the Thanksgiving weekend. This had a significant impact on workers' interest and ability to fulfill their employment commitment. In the Returning Officers' Report on Proceedings Summary, returning officers reported that, as a result of extended hours during advance polls, election workers were exhausted. According to the Survey of Election Officers, among workers who said the working conditions were poor (7% of respondents), the majority listed the lack of breaks (60%) or the number of hours of work (41%) as a reason for their dissatisfaction.
The recruitment and retention of the large number of workers required to deliver a general election poses a significant logistical challenge that cannot be solved by simple adjustments to processes. Elections Canada is working on a strategy to address the issues outlined above, including enhancing the poll worker recruitment campaign. The agency is committed to supporting returning officers with training, recruitment and capacity planning tools to enable an efficient and effective workforce in each electoral district.