A new social media monitoring team at Elections Canada spent more than 10 days responding to online disinformation claiming polling stations were using pencils that could be intentionally smudged to spoil voters’ ballots.
The story started online in Canada with purported first-hand accounts of Canadians voting during advance polling, then went wide on social media platforms — casting doubts in some voters’ minds about election security.
By Oct. 21, Elections Canada was getting angry questions from voters asking why the agency only provides pencils at polling stations, while some people tweeted out claims that the system couldn’t be trusted and the election could be “rigged.”
<a href=”https://twitter.com/ElectionsCan_E?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@ElectionsCan_E</a> very disappointed that we as canadians or at least those from northern Ontario filled our ballots in PENCIL! very hard to trust a system that can VERY EASILY be rigged!
Elections Canada said the claims are unsubstantiated and implausible. Even if a ballot is smudged, the agency said, it would still be counted.
The department never issued a public alert during the campaign itself — suggesting the agency did not consider it to be a threat to the integrity of the election.
Online disinformation expert Elizabeth Dubois, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, said these reports didn’t spread widely enough to trigger voter panic — but they could still undermine public confidence in the democratic process.
“It could lead to people choosing not to cast their ballot,” said Dubois. “It could lead people to believe their system is untrustworthy, illegitimate, that it’s not even worth participating in.”
‘My X was gone’
The 2019 election marked the first time Elections Canada monitored social media during a campaign. The monitoring team’s objective was to detect false information about where, when and how to register and vote. The department reports it only detected 28 pieces of misinformation and impersonation accounts between August and election day.
Elections Canada did spend time during the campaign responding to voters’ social media queries about why pencils were offered at the polls. All the department could do was to point out that, while Elections Canada is required by law to provide black lead pencils at polling stations, voters can bring their own pens, markers or other writing tools to mark their ballots without seeing them discarded.
The law requires poll workers to provide black lead pencils for use on ballots. There is nothing in the law to prevent you from marking your ballot with a pen or another writing tool. So long as the ballot is properly marked, it will be counted as a valid vote.
Some of the early social media posts about the poll pencils appeared in mid-October. One of them was an alleged first-hand account posted on Reddit about a chaotic Toronto polling station. The post said a voter handed their ballot to a clerk who opened it, looked at how they voted and smudged the X on their ballot.
“My X was gone,” said the author of the post, which has since been removed from Reddit but was copied to Facebook. “It looked like one big smudge mark … It was clear my ballot would be considered spoiled.”
The post said that the polling station refused to give the voter a new ballot. It also claimed that few at the polling station spoke English.
“I’m 100% sure the Liberals win my riding. No doubt about it,” said the post. The post was picked up and shared on other social media platforms.
From there, the posts complaining about the poll pencils snowballed.
Shauna McAllister of Nanaimo, B.C. warned voters on social media that their pencilled ballots may have been tampered with.
She told CBC News that she saw some of her Facebook friends in Alberta sharing their own stories of ballots being smudged. She said her daughter also told her about an online story alleging a voter at the Vancouver Conference Centre called police claiming her ballot being spoiled.
“If you voted by pencil. Your vote may have been tampered!,” she posted on Facebook on Oct. 24. “Revote? 1st world countries need a better system?”
McAllister said she filed a complaint with Elections Canada and called the political parties’ offices to spread the word.
CBC News told McAllister that Elections Canada officials have said there is no evidence to suggest a ballot security problem with the pencils. She said she hasn’t changed her mind.
“I don’t agree with the idea of voting in pencil,” McAllister said. “To me, that sounds like an archaic practice and it could be compromised. It’s not rocket science. I do art and I have little children and number 3 pencils. You use them because you can smudge them off.
“I think generally, If there’s a little bit of smoke, there’s a bit of fire there. So potentially there was the possibility that some people’s votes may have been compromised … Why bother trying to make your vote count?”
Elections Canada said in a statement to CBC News that no part of the allegations has been substantiated.
“The events as described are implausible and do not match our records,” the department wrote.
Pencils are required by law at polling stations because they are “practical,” Elections Canada said.
“Unlike pens, they can be stored between elections without drying out,” the agency said. “Also, ink pens can blot paper; if a blot mark can be seen through the ballot paper, someone else might be able to guess who the elector voted for, thereby compromising the secrecy of the vote.”
Elections Canada added that workers at polling stations work in full view of the public and are never alone: witnesses would have reported seeing poll workers tampering with votes. Two scrutineers and party representatives are posted at every polling station, and as long as there is a mark beside a candidate’s name — even if it’s smudged — the vote counts.
No one charged with altering ballots
The agency said similar stories about poll pencils spread during recent elections in the U.K. and Australia.
CBC News tested an official pencil on a sample Elections Canada ballot. The ‘X’ smudged slightly, but not enough to distort the original mark.
The office of the Commissioner of Elections Canada confirmed it received complaints about ballots being smudged. It said no one was charged with violating the law by altering, defacing or destroying a ballot during this election.
“The complaints received did not provide factual information that would have allowed investigators to pursue the matter further,” the commissioner’s office said in a statement to CBC News.
Dubois studies the impact of disinformation on voters. She said it’s too early to tell what impact the story had without a full analysis.
She warned, however, that such messages can do damage over time, especially if the rumours aren’t dispelled before the next election.
“The vast majority of voters went, cast their ballots, no problem,” she said. “But these kinds of questions that get planted … can erode trust in democracy more broadly.
“We risk next time there being a much larger impact.”