Two weeks ago, James fired the deputy Chief Electoral Officer Linda Johnston, claiming he was reorganizing the non-partisan office to be more efficient.
Critics speculated the real reason for the firing had to do with Ms. Johnson’s ruling preventing the government from advertising against the anti-hst campaign. To critics, the firing looked suspiciously like government ordered payback. That only added to concerns that James, the interim Chief Electoral Officer appointed by the government without consultation, was bringing a partisan flavour to the office during an unprecedented period.
Those critics won’t be stilled by Jonathan Fowlie’s report on his interview with James in today’s Sun. James goes on record with his views on the cost of recall campaigns and an initiative vote as well as the process he will follow to determine the nature of the initiative. And his views only add to the questions surrounding his neutrality.
According to Fowlie, James claims that recall campaigns are “expected to cost taxpayers at least $500,000 per campaign.” Fowlie goes on to add James’ estimate “means the province could expect to pay millions of dollars to count and administer a flurry of recall campaigns planned by former premier Bill Vander Zalm”.
James offers no material to back his estimate. That may be because it’s plucked out of the air.
In fact we already know how much it costs Elections BC for a recall campaign. Former Chief Electoral Officer Harry Neufeld studied the recall process and its cost in 2003, issuing a report that’s available on the Elections BC website.
According to Neufeld much of the cost of recall is already allocated because Elections BC has already invested in the software and other supports required. Neufeld went on to enumerate the incremental cost of actual recall campaigns.
In 2002/03, the year Neufeld studied, there were 9 recall petitions. And, all in, 9 recall campaigns cost $553,954 in 2003 or $61,555 per recall campaign.
Mr. James inflates the cost of recall almost ten times what Neufeld determined were the real incremental costs. The question is why? Will James’ wild estimates influence voters’ views of recall?
On the cost of the initiative vote, Mr. James is more circumspect, lowering his previous estimate of $30 million to $24 million. Still that’s eight times what Elections BC reported the cost of the 2002 Treaty Referendum to be. Maybe James is planning gold-plated ballots.
Finally, James told Fowlie how he intends to proceed on the initiative. “He expects,” Fowlie wrote, “to be in contact with the government within the next few weeks to determine exactly how the vote will be structured and the exact wording of the question that will be asked.”
“I expect,” James told Fowlie, “that there will be some collaboration to ensure what the government may have in mind for the initiative vote, Elections BC can properly and prudently accommodate,” pointing out he has made a recommendation that Elections BC craft the question, and then pass it to government for ratification.
Collaboration? An unfortunate choice of terms for a non-partisan official. But what does the government have to do with this independent, non-partisan process? The government ratifies the question? James seems to be improvising with the Recall and Initiative Act. Is there a better way to compromise the political neutrality of the office?