A powerful and hopeful pencil mark

Today’s blog post comes from my good friend and mentor, Michael von Herff. By the way, Michael and I recorded a podcast with election predictions last week (click here to be taken to that post). I’m hoping he and I are able to connect to do a follow-up podcast this week.

I know that Monday night’s election results left a lot of people feeling either wildly happy or profoundly shaken — delighting in the wisdom of a thoughtful electorate or looking around at their fellow citizens and wondering how this could have happened.

Friends who saw my pictures on Facebook of the euphoric celebrations at a friend’s election HQ near Toronto know which end of the spectrum I was at. But I have been at the losing end of election nights often enough to recognize a special moment and savour it before it dissipates.

And there was plenty of reason to feel proud. My friend of some 25 years stepped forward 20 months ago to enter public service and — some would say foolishly — expose his family to the demands and sacrifices of public life. He has chosen this path at the expense of significantly more lucrative alternatives.

All because of a desire to serve. Serve his constituents. His country. And his ideals.  And he was rewarded for it. Given that this is politics, I don’t expect everyone to share my enthusiasm for his election success. But I hope his decision to serve will be an inspiration to others of great ability to take the step and try to make things happen.

But Monday night was special for another — largely unexpected — reason. At the last minute I was asked to serve as a scrutineer, that is someone who on behalf of a candidate observes the hand counting of election ballots. (For all of my US friends, our system in Canada still involves putting a cross on a paper ballot which is then folded and put into a corrugated cardboard ballot box. These are counted by hand at the end of the night.)

My job was to watch the returning officers count the ballots and ensure that their count is accurate and they don’t wrongly qualify or disqualify ballots that may be spoiled. Observers from other parties are also present and the system is a pretty good one.

A few minutes after the polls closed, the moment arrived for the boxes to be unsealed. The returning officer roughly opened the ballot box with the end of her Bic pen and turned it over. Out spilled hundreds of folded slips of paper each marked with a choice, a decision, a preference.

As I stood there, I marvelled at how each person’s mark was different and how some probably took a lot of time deciding. Others probably were in and out in a few seconds. Some were marked with an X others a check mark, others filled in the whole dot.

But each represented something similar: a hope for the future, an expectation that a small stroke with a stubby HB pencil would make things different. And their hope was invested in another person. “I choose this person — not those ones.” “He can do it.” “She’s the one.” In a world of so much fuzziness and hues of grey, my fellow citizens expressed their choices in stark black and white.

Breathtaking clarity.

Long after I had left the polling station and headed out into the May night for home, I kept seeing the image of those tiny slips of paper cascading over that public school lunch table at the polling station. I could still hear the soft clicking sound of folded paper corners bouncing off each other and clattering on the hard plastic surface.  And it seemed to me I was being allowed to participate in something uniquely private and public all at once. This was a glimpse into the prayers of some 300 of my fellow citizens.

And while each may have prayed for different things, each came to the same place, using the language to express what we want from the world.

So, for those of us who are happy and those who are upset we mustn’t lose sight of the things that bind us together. That may be hard in the days and weeks to come. But those things are far more numerous than we often recognize and greater in power than the few things we disagree about.

And never forget: in four year’s time we get to do it all over again. If we didn’t get it right this time, we can try again. As a great idealist once said it’s never too late to build a better country.

Michael von Herff is Managing Director of Public Affairs Advisors.

Featured image: Project 365 – Year 2 : Day 160 : 09/06/10 uploaded to Flickr by Peter Gerdes.

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About the Author:

Michael von Herff is one of Canada’s foremost public affairs advisors. He has spent two decades assisting Canadian and international organizations in advancing their agendas with government, stakeholders and the general public. As Managing Director of Public Affairs Advisors, he assists organizations in the financial services and natural resources sectors to manage reputational and public policy issues in Canada and internationally. Over the course of his career, his work has encompassed a wide range of industries including transportation, chemicals, energy, as well as communications and distribution. He has particular experience developing and implementing international campaigns requiring the integration of government relations, public policy and strategic communications.