Voter suppression and the English Montreal School Board

Old guard use Republican tactics to maintain hold on power
Photo: Tim Lydy

In the United States they call it voter suppression. Here we call it voter irregularity. By whatever name it taints the entire electoral process.

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On Nov. 4, the Montreal Gazette reported on its front page that hundreds of people were disenfranchised on election day as they tried to vote in the English Montreal School Board election. The reporter passed it off as bureaucratic ineptitude on the part of the school board. Now there is evidence that a campaign of voter suppression may have been at work.

The first shocker was discovering that Pierre-Yves Bezazz, the man running the election for the school board, was actually in the pay of the school board. It's hard to exaggerate how wrong that is. Picture entering the playing field for a final match and finding that the referee is wearing the team sweater of your opponent. The result? Every time we cried foul, Mr. Bazzaz would respond "denied!"

The voter suppression started with the infamous voters list. Voters discovered that if there name was not on the list, they had to run a gauntlet to get registered: download a form from the internet and then trek across town to register the form with the office of Mr. Bezazz at school board headquarters. We petitioned Mr. Bezazz to make it easier to get on the list and to at least extend the deadline for getting on the list, as was done in a previous election.

Request denied

For some inexplicable reason, the Director General of Elections of Quebec has no real power over school board elections, unlike every other election in Quebec. The Minister of Education is in charge, but deputizes the school board Directors General, who in turn hire their friends, people such as Mr. Bezazz.

Another hurdle that was discovered was a classic voter-suppression technique ripped from the U.S. Republican playbook: cut down the number of polling stations. This increases voter frustration and leads to long lineups and people abandoning the polls. It was clear in the advance poll that there would be a large turnout in the English elections. No attempt was made to add polling stations.

In the northeast end of Montreal controlled by the incumbent Mancini team, there was a multitude of polling stations, at least three in every ward. In the west end of the city there was nowhere to vote in St. Henri, Little Burgundy or the entire downtown. We petitioned Mr. Bezazz to add polling stations, with at least one in the downtown. Request denied.

Hurdle after hurdle

On election day hundreds of voters arrived at the poll to discover that even with the Herculean effort they made to inscribe their names, they were still left off the list with no explanation. How come?

We discovered that Mr. Bezazz had frozen the processing of filled-out transfer forms. How many? Bezazz was cagey about how many voters were affected. We called the chief electoral officer, who referred us to the Ministry of Education. It turns out that at least 1,700 voters were going to show up on election day and discover they were not on the list. In effect, they were robbed of their right to vote.

There is now anecdotal evidence that it was many more than that.

Such fierce attempts to suppress the vote in western and central Montreal is contrasted with the ease with which people voted in Montreal North and East. The vice chair of the board, Sylvia Lo Bianco, installed her sister Louisa to captain the polling station. Witnesses saw voters waved through to vote with no reference to a voting list. These people were allowed to vote, no questions asked. The result: on Facebook Lo Bianco bragged that she got 86 per cent support, a figure that would gladden the heart of North Korea’s Kim family.

The question we are asked over and over is why such a fierce fight to hang onto power at the school board? The pay is not that great for elected commissioners. The answer is ego and money. The board has a quarter of a billion dollar budget, and a deserved reputation for looking after friends and family members of elected commissioners. You need only look at the complex web of connections between elected people and those in the pay of the board to see the indirect advantages that can be derived from these positions.

As a final note, the day after the election, Julien Feldman, a re-elected board member who ran on my slate, ran into Mancini and Lo Bianco, chair and vice chair of the English Montreal School Board. He stopped to congratulate them. Lo Bianco gave him the finger.

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