At the beginning of December 1926, the Conservative government of George Howard Ferguson was returned to power in a General Election with an overwhelming majority in the Ontario Legislature. Although the Conservatives lost three seats from the previous election, they won over 57 per cent of the popular vote and claimed 73 of the Legislature’s 112 seats.
The principal issue of the election was prohibition. Ferguson, who had already eased the ban on liquor by permitting the sale of low-alcohol beer, promised to repeal the Ontario Temperance Act and replace it with Liquor Control Act which would allow alcohol sales in government-owned liquor stores. The two major opposition parties, the Progressive Party under William Raney and the Liberal Party under William E.N. Sinclair, supported continued prohibition.
In Ottawa, Conservatives took two of three city seats. Conservative Thomas Birkett took the South Ottawa riding with a large majority over his Liberal rival, Robert Russell Sparks — 9,171 votes to 5,526. In North Ottawa, Conservative Albert Honeywell also triumphed with a large majority. In East Ottawa, Joseph Pinard, an Independent Liberal supporter of liquor control rather than prohibition, eked out a narrow victory in a three-way contest.
Ten months later, at the beginning of October 1927, George Landerkin, a civil servant working for the Ministry of the Interior living at 171 Fifth Ave., was walking along Alymer Avenue which runs parallel to Sunnyside Avenue.
As he strode along the road, he spotted black-edged papers lying on the pavement and blowing in the wind. He reached down and picked one up. On it was printed two names—Thomas M. Birkett and Robert Russell Sparks. It was a blank ballot from the previous year’s provincial election for the South Ottawa constituency. Counting at least 75 ballots littering the roadway, he picked up nineteen and took them home.
The matter might have gone no further except Landerkin, not knowing what to do with the ballots he found, gave them to his solicitor, Alexander Smith, of the Ottawa legal firm Smith and Johnson. Smith sent the ballots to Russell Sparks, the losing Liberal candidate for the South Ottawa constituency, who in turn forwarded them to W.E.N. Sinclair, Opposition Leader and leader of the Liberal Party.
A few months later, in mid-February 1928, (the reason for the delay is unclear) Sinclair stood in the Ontario Legislature and announced that he had in his possession a number of ballots from the 1926 provincial election for the South Ottawa constituency. Suggesting that a crime might have been committed, he demanded an explanation from the government. Premier Ferguson replied that this was the first time that he had heard of the matter. He added that his government would make every effort to investigate and invited Sinclair’s co-operation.
Approached by the press after the news broke, Francis M. Scott, the returning officer responsible for conducting the election in the South Ottawa riding, emphatically denied that there had been any election irregularities on his watch.
“There were positively no irregularities and so far as I am concerned, a careful check was made throughout election day on all ballots and polling places.”
Other prominent Conservatives (Scott was a Conservative appointee) in Ottawa expressed their “full confidence in the manner in which the election had been carried out by returning officers and other election officials.” Thomas Birkett, the South Ottawa deputy, denied having any knowledge of the ballots until the Liberal leader “sprang” the issue in his speech. Birkett, who wasn’t in the House at the time, hurried into the chamber when colleagues told him that his riding was being discussed.
The mystery of the wandering ballots was referred to the Privileges and Elections Committee.
Sinclair, who was a member of the Committee, insisted that it conduct a complete scrutiny of the South Ottawa ballots, tracing their movement from the Office of the King’s Printer in Toronto to the polling booth and then their return for safekeeping with the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, the civil servant responsible for elections’ administration. Conservative members demanded that Sinclair produce the ballots before launching an investigation.
Several days of political wrangling ensued with Sinclair unwilling to cough up the ballots until the government started a scrutiny of the South Ottawa ballots. A motion to subpoena Sinclair and force him to produce his ballots and tell the committee where he got them easily passed given the Conservative majority on the committee.
Only the Liberal and Progressive members dissented. Sinclair protested, calling the motion “political byplay.” He added “I haven’t got them about me. Do you suppose I’d walk around in this crowd with all those ballots?” Sinclair did admit, however, that he received the ballots from Russell Sparks, the defeated Liberal candidate. He later added that Sparks got them from the law firm Smith and Johnson.
Meanwhile, Sinclair allowed journalists to see and photograph one of the wayward ballots, something that offended members of the Privileges and Elections Committee who had been denied a similar opportunity. Conservatives said that Sinclair’s stance was “unprecedented” and “farcical.” Sinclair replied that he didn’t understand why the Conservative Party didn’t want the inquiry to proceed, “but the man in the street is believing more and more every day that there is something wrong.”
With Sinclair refusing to hand over the nineteen ballots, the Committee was deadlocked. The issue returned to the Legislature unresolved. To break the impasse, and sooth those who had become “agitated and high strung,” Premier Ferguson agreed on February 28, 1928 to appoint a Royal Commission headed by two Ontario Supreme Court Justices, The Honourable James Magee and The Honourable Frank Egerton Hodgins, to examine the matter. “Nothing should be left undone to preserve that sacredness [of the ballot] or to protect it against suspicion,” said the Premier in the Legislature.
The Commission quickly got down to work in Toronto calling witnesses and perusing evidence. Sinclair, the first witness, finally produced the nineteen ballots. After the clerk of the Crown in Chancery verified their authenticity, the Commission traced the ballots’ movements starting from the King’s Printer who supplied the specially watermarked ballot paper to the United Press in Toronto who printed blank sheets of black-bordered ballots for the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery.
The Clerk in turn supplied blank sheets in packages to constituencies for a local printer to add the names of candidates to the ballots and cutting. Each sheet has spaces for twelve names. Consequently, in the South Ottawa riding where there were only two candidates, each sheet could be cut into six ballots.
The Clerk sent Francis Scott, the South Ottawa returning officer, 8,000 sheets of ballot paper. On their arrival in Ottawa, the packets of ballot paper was dropped off at Scott’s residence. He subsequently sent them to Modern Press in Ottawa to print 30,000 ballots made into pads. Once printed with Birkett’s and Sparks’ names, the ballots were sent back to Scott. Each ballot consisted of a numbered stub, a counterfoil similarly numbered, and the actual ballot itself.
On election day, returning officers tore off a ballot from the stub, and gave it with the counterfoil to each voter. After the ballot was marked in secret, the voter returned to the returning officer and gave him the ballot. The counterfoil was then torn off and the ballot placed in the ballot box. Left behind would be stubs and counterfoils that could be verified against each other. The number of ballots cast could also be compared to the number of counterfoils or stubs to ensure against ballot-box stuffing. The Commission’s lawyer noted that the Sinclair ballots did not have attached counterfoils. Consequently, he argued that “with ordinary care” they could not have be used.
The Commission determined that a lot more than Sinclair’s nineteen ballots had gone astray. Other people came forward with stories of finding ballots. The daughter of Mrs Charles Dore of 16 Alymer Avenue brought home more than 100 ballots, some loose, some still in packets. Charles Mullin and Thomas O’Neil also saw ballots lying on the same roadway. Fred Taggert of Fairburn Avenue testified that a newsboy collecting money from his wife had showed her a pad of clean ballots.
Another newsboy, Nelson Wilkins, gave W. J. Lowrie of Ottawa in February 1927 a pad of twenty ballots, complete with counterfoils and stubs. Lowrie in turn gave the ballots to Thomas Birkett, the Conservative winner. Wilkins had found the ballots in a back room of the Hill building at 282 Sunnyside Avenue where Scott had rented rooms prior to the election as his office and a polling station. After the provincial election, the rooms had been used as a polling station for Ottawa’s municipal election held a few days later. They then were occupied by a Conservative Club.
In early 1927, the rooms become a newsboy’s newspaper distribution centre. Finding pads of unused ballots on the floor of a back storage room and in a waste paper basket, the newsboys began to play with them. Harry Nicholson, one of the newsboys, told the inquiry that he and his friends took away 15-20 pads of ballots “for fun.” Many found their way outside—the apparent source of the ballots littering nearby Aylmer Avenue.
Called to testify, Francis Scott, the responsible returning officer, admitted that he did not verify the number of ballots received from the Modern Press, nor did he note how many ballots he provided to each polling station. He swore, however, that after the election he returned all used and unused ballots along with unused sheets of ballot paper to the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery in sealed boxes as required under the elections legislation.
However, when boxes containing election materials were opened up at the inquiry, Scott was shocked to discover one box was empty and another contained only three packets of ballot stubs without counterfoils. To add to the mystery, the seals on the boxes had been previously broken. Scott told Justices McGee and Hodgins that there was a “long story” behind the missing ballots which he could not reveal for family reasons, claiming that his wife was sick to death of the affair.
“I will take the blame of the whole thing rather than say anything,” he is reported to have said. He added that a number of persons had tampered with the boxes. Scott wrote down three names on a piece of paper and gave it to the Justices. He ominously remarked that the story will reflect on “somebody in Ottawa.” Their motive was jealousy or spite. His initial suspicion was somebody in the Liberal Party but when Birkett brought in his ballots, he thought both parties might be involved.
The Ontario Provincial Police were called in to investigate. Inspector Stringer examined the rooms on Sunnyside Avenue, and personally found additional blank ballots. Testimony from newsboy Nelson Wilkins and a number of Conservative Party workers, including the three whose names were on Scott’s piece of paper, did not shed much further light on the issue. None of the three were in the rooms on election day.
In subsequent testimony, Scott declined to give his “long story.” Contrary to what he had said earlier, he admitted that he might not have packed up and shipped to Toronto the unused ballots and excess ballot paper. Indeed, a worker from the Modern Press testified to having found the blank election paper in the company’s storage four months after the election. The worker burnt the sheets.
As for the unused ballots, Scott considered them “waste election paper” and simply threw them away. Finally, Scott admitted to the Commission that he had been “in a particular frame of mind” when he alleged that jealous persons had broken into the sealed boxes. His stories were untrue. In order to clear himself of wrongdoing, he had tried to blame others.
In the end, the Commission found many irregularities in the handling of the ballots and ballot paper, but concluded that the outcome of the South Ottawa election had not been affected. The Justices believed that the unused ballot paper had been fully accounted for—the paper had been burnt at the premises of the Modern Press. While only a portion of the unused ballots were ever found, the Justices were also satisfied that they had been strewn about the street by the newsboys.
However, the Justices were concerned that the discovery of loose ballots might have created suspicion and uncertainty about the election outcome. While deciding that no criminal act had been committed, the Commission declared Francis Scott, the returning officer, to be “guilty of carelessness, irregularity, negligence and incompetence as well as unintentional wrongdoing.”
The Justices also remarked that returning officers needed to be honest and “thoroughly competent and careful.” Some blame for the incident was also placed on the Modern Press which couldn’t say with certainty how much ballot paper it had received, and how many ballots it had printed. It also didn’t return unused ballot paper to the returning officer as required by law. However, this again was judged as an unintentional wrongdoing rather than a criminal act.
The Justices made a number of recommendations to protect the integrity of the election process including a recommendation for strict accounting of ballots and ballot paper with receipts issued at every stage of the printing and distribution process.
The Justices’ decision was accepted by everybody including Russell Sparks, the defeated Liberal candidate. Of course, the two political parties tried to spin the outcome in their favour. Premier Ferguson called the mystery of the wandering ballots a “dud.” Liberal Leader Sinclair saw the outcome as a “condemnation of the government.”