How many trees does it take to elect a Prime Minister?

Op-eds Opinions

An attempted analysis of Canada’s democratic waste stream

Image by Darian Lee, Design Director

If you voted in last month’s federal election, you might have a sense of the bureaucracy involved with democratic processes. If you weren’t registered to vote you probably talked to an information officer who sent you to the registration officer who filled out a form then directed you to the proper polling division according to your address. There, a poll clerk and a deputy returning officer verified your ID, copied the information from your registration certificate into their big black binder, then handed you an unmarked ballot. The paperwork is finished, unless you have an aid who assists you in voting, you need to change a detail of your personal information, or you’re vouching for someone who doesn’t have ID.

I worked as a poll clerk at one of the 192 polling divisions in the Victoria riding. This was the first election in which I’ve worked, and I was astounded by how much paper I saw during that 15-hour day. Between the various forms, booklets, envelopes, sheets, and lists I dealt with, I estimate that there were 470 pieces of paper on our desk — excluding the 600 ballots we were in charge of.

I arrived at the elementary school gym at 6 a.m. to set up. My polling station housed 10 polling divisions, meaning that there were 10 tables set up exactly like ours. For the next 13 hours, the gym echoed with the footsteps of thousands of people exercising their democratic rights.

The last voter left around 8 p.m. (everyone that arrived before 7 p.m. was granted the opportunity to cast a ballot), and we all cheered. Finally, the counting could begin.

My partner for the day pulled out an entirely new bag of paper supplies to record the process. At the end of the day, not a single ballot or form can be unaccounted for. Elections Canada has protocol for every piece of paper it issues, and we followed the instructions to the letter.

We counted and tallied our ballots twice, recorded the results on multiple documents, and sealed them in official envelopes destined for offices across the city and country. The only materials that can be locally recycled are the cardboard ballot boxes and voting screens, and voter feedback forms. Elections Canada states that trash and organic matter must be disposed of locally, but it does not provide any examples for what might be considered trash.

Of course, security and secrecy are of the utmost importance in our democratic system. Elections Canada strives for these values by never using private couriers (instead, they only deliver material through Canada Post), providing official stickered seals for workers to place on every completed package (11 in total), and setting rules of conduct for voters and workers alike.

I was astounded by how much unused material we were sending back to the Victoria registration office, which would then be couriered to Ottawa. I asked my partner, a seasoned election worker, what would happen to it all, including the secret material. She told me that the Returning Officer would keep the local results material for seven years, but the rest would be incinerated. I found this hard to believe, so I filed an official inquiry with Elections Canada.

In this inquiry, I asked about the percentage of electoral materials that have been reused from previous years, what the total print budget is for federal elections, and how much money they spend on recycling or destroying sensitive information. I waited for several weeks to receive an incomplete answer.

My case was pushed around to at least five different departments including Field Support, Business Administration, and the Distribution Centre. Apparently, they do not have a designated department for handling their waste stream.

The eventual response arrived from the Operations Complaints & Incidents Unit. It stated: “recyclable materials that have not been used are put back into stock to be used in future elections, either for by-elections or for the next general election.”

The response did not specify what the recyclable materials may be, and appears to conflate the words “reuse” and “recycle.” The email also told me that I must make an official request under the Access to Information and Privacy Act to obtain information about print budgets.

Their response left me with two conclusions: they did not care to divulge any more information than necessary, and they might not have the answers to my questions at all.

In a separate enquiry which has yet to be answered, I asked how many polling divisions are in Canada. There are 192 in the electoral district of Victoria, which is one of Canada’s 338 ridings. The number of polling divisions is determined by the population of a specific area, so it is difficult to make an exact estimate. The population of ridings vary from 17 197 in Labrador to 147 520 in Calgary Shepard (according to 2013 data). However, if we assume that Victoria has an average number of polling divisions that would mean there were 64 896 tables set up exactly like mine on Oct. 21, never mind advance polling days. If the average tree can create around 15 000 sheets of paper, and each polling division was responsible for around 1 070 pieces of paper (including the base number of 600 ballots), the approximate amount of trees it took to re-elect Justin Trudeau was 4 629.

This number assumes that none of the material was reused, but this is still an enormous amount of waste to not be accountable for.

I began researching electronic voting alternatives, which some Canadian municipalities adopted years ago. There are many different proposed systems, and although Canada has voted against internet voting in federal elections, Elections Canada provides a chart of the benefits and drawbacks of remote voting methods on their website. A lesser environmental impact is not listed anywhere as a benefit, and perhaps it wouldn’t be. Building and transporting new voting systems that will eventually contribute to e-waste may not be any more environmentally sound than the system currently in place.

Dana Johnson, a zero-waste advocate and president of UVic’s former Garbage Club pointed out that this issue isn’t unique to Elections Canada. 

“An inability to take accountability and maintain transparency concerning waste streams is plaguing most institutions,” said Johnson. “Negative externalities of waste streams have always come down to an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach, or a ‘make it worth the waste’ approach.”

Change can only begin within an institution of this size after an analysis of the current system is conducted. As of now, I’m not even sure how that process can begin.