The machinery of local democracy

Iain MacLean understands democracy is all about one person, one vote. But he also knows technology means one vote is all about 245 tabulators.

MacLean is the the City of Edmonton’s Director of Elections and Census. It’s his job to make sure the will of Edmonton voters on municipal election day—Monday, October 16—is captured, counted and communicated fairly.

And fairly quickly.

Which is where the tabulators come in.

The city has 189 election day voting stations, which share 245 vote tabulating machines. If you have voted in Edmonton before, you know the drill. If you haven’t, here’s the drill: You get your paper ballot, take it behind a confidential voting shield to mark your choices (mayor, councillor, school trustee), then you either feed the ballot into the tabulating machine or let an elections official do that. You wait a couple of seconds while the machine reads the ballot and watch your ballot be delivered into a sealed container. Then you read a message on the machine telling you the nine words countless human beings throughout history have longed to see and that others have given their lives for: Thank you for voting. Your ballot has been counted.


“The good news about voting in Edmonton is that we’ve been using these tabulators for a long time now, and people are very used to the machines and they trust them,” MacLean said. “And that’s good because those machines help.”

MacLean pointed to the common occurrence of a voter mistakenly leaving two marks across from a candidate’s name. If that was discovered hours later by human vote counters in the old way of doing things, the ballot would have been disqualified. The tabulator, however, would immediately notice the error and notify the elections official and voter, who would get an opportunity, without voting twice, to correct the mistake.

DS200 Unit


This year, for the first time in a general election, the tabulating machines will send results back to MacLean’s elections central remotely, saving time compared to the usual task of transporting a flash drive of results to a counting site. If all goes well, election results should be known around 9 pm, or roughly an hour after the polls close at 8 pm. Not the middle of that night.

To make sure it all works safely and smoothly, MacLean and his team are putting the machines and the voting process through a series of logic and accuracy tests this week.

“Every machine will be thoroughly tested multiple times to make sure they are reading the ballots effectively and in the proper and same way,” he said.

“It might sound a bit boring to some, but it’s really the machinery of democracy that we’re working on,” he said said. “That’s good work.”

MacLean said his machines are ready for a big turnout.

“The candidates themselves have turned out in record numbers,” MacLean said, referring to the 131 candidates letting their names stand for councillor and mayor in Edmonton this year. “Now we’re planning on a good turnout from the voters themselves. The tabulators will be ready!”

This is Iain MacLean, Director Elections and Census (right) being interviewed about the upcoming municipal election
On Monday, October 2, the Ward 7 candidates forum happens from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm at St. Bernadette Elementary School, 11917-40 St NW. The Ward 8 candidates forum happens from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm at McNally Composite High School, 8440-105 Ave NW