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Lorne Mayencourt's Great Escape

An official's mistake likely won him the election. Why his NDP rival gave up his court challenge.

By Richard Warnica 28 Jul 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Richard Warnica is a free-lance journalist and former senior editor at The Tyee.

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All things considered, it wasn’t a bad week to be Lorne Mayencourt. Last Monday, the BC Liberal backbencher was still being legally investigated and his job legally challenged. But by Wednesday, it was all over. In just two days all of Mayencourt’s legal clouds had cleared.

A special prosecutor investigating his scuffle with a transient announced last Tuesday that Mayencourt would not be charged for the incident. A day later, Tim Stevenson dropped his challenge to Mayencourt’s victory in May’s provincial election.

Stevenson had been insisting that he was the real winner of the ultra-tight race in Vancouver-Burrard. Mayencourt’s 11 vote victory, Stevenson argued, was the result of a screw-up by elections officials that had left 71 absentee ballots improperly certified and thus uncounted. On June 20, Stevenson asked the BC Supreme Court to throw out the election and call a new one.

Stevenson had a point. If those ballots had been counted there’s a better than even chance he could have at least tied Mayencourt, according to calculations done for The Tyee by Kin Lo , an assistant professor of accounting at UBC’s Sauder School of Business.

But a month after launching it, Stevenson dropped the challenge, to run again for a seat on City Council. Why, convinced he was the real winner in the first round of the election, did Stevenson give up his fight for a second?

Elections BC admits error

Lorne Mayencourt doesn’t think much of Stevenson’s challenge. He told The Tyee the mistake was by the voters, not elections officials. According to him, the instructions for absentee voting are clear, and if they aren’t followed properly, too bad.

What’s funny is that while Mayencourt is defending Elections BC, they aren’t defending themselves. Eleven of the 71 uncounted ballots could potentially have been fouled by the voter. But Elections BC readily admits that the other 60 were invalidated because of a mistake by a single official at a single poll, according to spokesperson Jennifer Porayko.

In the run-up to an election, Elections BC divides every riding into voting areas. Eligible voters are then assigned to an area by address and are sent a voting card with the location of their polling station. Inevitably, some voters show up at the wrong stations. When this happens they have to fill out an envelope certifying who they are and where they live. Their vote is then sealed in a separate envelope, which is placed into the certified envelope and taken to its proper location to be counted.

Eleven of the uncounted ballots were from incomplete certification envelopes. According to Porayko the envelopes had names, addresses and everything else, but hadn’t been signed. Whether that’s because the voters forgot to sign, or were never told to, we’ll never know.

The other 60, however, were never put in envelopes in the first place. On May 17, 60 misplaced voters turned up at St John’s United Church on Comox and Broughton, in the heart of the West End. Rather than have them fill out certification envelopes, an official working at the station stuck their ballots in with the rest from St John’s. When the District Electoral Officer found out, he immediately had the ballots taken out and set aside.

Because the mystery 60 had never filled out certification envelopes, there was no way to verify that they are who they claim, that they live in the riding and that they hadn’t already voted. On this point, the Elections Act is clear, a non-certified ballot cannot be counted, Porayko said. “As administrators we didn’t write the Act but we have to follow it,” she said. And following the act meant not counting the 60 ballots.

Calculating the odds

Tim Stevenson is convinced he would have won had the 60 ballots been counted. Considering they were from a polling station that voted almost two to one for him over Mayencourt, Stevenson argued, had it not been for the election official’s mistake he would be headed to Victoria.

But it isn’t that simple. First of all, the 60 votes were absentee ballots. In other words, no one really knows where in the riding those sixty voters lived. And even if you assume that they were from somewhere else in the West End the odds are only slightly better than even that Stevenson took 11 more of the 60 than Mayencourt according to Professor Lo.

At The Tyee’s request, Lo analyzed the preliminary poll-by-poll results from Vancouver-Burrard. By taking into account the results from every polling station within a four block radius of the one at St. John’s, Lo found that the expected breakdown of the votes would be 32 for Stevenson, 18 for Mayencourt and 10 for other candidates.

But because the number of votes is so small and the preliminary numbers are uncertain (final poll-by-poll results won’t be released until the fall) the probability that Stevenson would have won drops to somewhat lower that 62 percent. “While other polls show that support for Stevenson was indeed considerably higher than for Mayencourt in the West End, there is not overwhelming evidence that he would have won the riding had the disqualified 60 votes been counted,” Lo said in an email.

In the end though, who the votes were for is irrelevant, as long as there are enough of them to have changed the outcome of the election. In other words, once the decision was made not to count the ballots, the only question that mattered was whether it altered the election itself. And, if so, whether that was sufficient for a judge to declare a new election. That’s exactly what Stevenson had in mind when he announced his challenge last month

But before a judge could consider the merits of his case, Stevenson dropped it, announcing on July 20 that he would run for another term on City Council. Why, with a decent legal chance at forcing a new election, did Stevenson quit?

Stevenson’s dilemma

The answer has everything to do with timing. Stevenson kept his job on Council while running for a seat in the Legislature. If he won, he would have given it up. If he lost, he was still well positioned for re-election in this fall’s municipal election. The one result that position didn’t take into account was the one that happened, no clear winner.

Stevenson told The Tyee his legal team was optimistic the Supreme Court would hear the challenge promptly and overturn the election. But he soon learned that the earliest the challenge would be heard was October.

At the same time as this was going on, the municipal scene was heating up. When Mayor Larry Campbell decided not to run for another term, Jim Green, Campbell’s anointed heir, appealed to Stevenson to join his breakaway centre-left Vision Vancouver slate.

Stevenson was left with a choice: either see the court challenge through to the fall, and let Green proceed without him, or drop the case, and run for another term. When Stevenson opted for the latter, the whole matter of the mystery 60 ballots became moot. The NDP could have continued with the challenge and nominated a new candidate to oppose Mayencourt, but decided against it.

Whether a judge would have ordered a new election, we’ll never know. And while it may have taken a healthy assist from a bungling election official to get him there, Lorne Mayencourt is now firmly ensconced in Victoria for another four years.

Richard Warnica is on staff of The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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