Elections & Voting

Canadian Democracy Survives Cinnamon-Bun Scandal

Image: Simon Law (a Canadian) via Wikipedia

The second-place candidate … alleges that the victor … breached the Local Government Act through vote buying and voter intimidation, and seeks an order requring a fresh election….

I find that, absent special circumstances, no reasonable voter would be induced to vote differently by the mere provision of a cup of [coffee] or a cinnamon bun.

Michetti v. Veach, 2023 BCSC 43 (Jan. 10, 2023).

Democracy (such as it is) in the United States seems to have temporarily survived a violent attack on its legislature. This story reminds us that democracy is vulnerable everywhere, but maybe less so in places where election-rigging allegations involve bribing voters with cinnamon buns.

The buns in question were two (2) buns provided to potential voters at a “Tea and Talk” event in Pouce Coupe, British Columbia, by mayoral candidate Danielle Veach. Veach later defeated the incumbent, Lorraine Michetti, by just two percentage points (32.2% to 30.2%). Two percent of the popular vote is about the margin Hillary Clinton had over what’s his name, but in Canada the person who gets the most votes wins, if you can believe that. (The Electoral College—which I remind you is not actually an institution of higher learning—has awarded the presidency to only two bigger losers: Rutherford B. Hayes (-3.0%) and John Quincy Adams (-10.4%).) More to the point, because only 261 of Pouce Coupe’s 800 citizens voted, the margin in absolute terms was just five votes.

As the court noted in its January 10 opinion, Pouce Coupe “has recently been the subject of several political firestorms well out of proportion to its size.” These date back to at least 2015, when Michetti, then a private citizen, sued the village’s mayor and an administrator for defamation. The mayor later resigned, and Michetti won the election to replace him. She was then elected for a full four-year term in 2018. In early 2021, Michetti made some controversial social-media posts, for which the council censured her. She challenged the procedure in court and won. Shortly thereafter, two new council members were elected, one of whom was Danielle Veach. Veach brought another motion to censure, which also passed, but was also reversed. Then Veach decided to run for mayor herself.

This led to the fateful Tea and Talk.

Before scheduling the event, Veach read an official election guide that told her “meet and greet” events are fine but “incentives” might not be. This referred to section 161 of the Local Government Act 2015, which makes it illegal to “pay, give, lend, or procure inducement” for the purpose of inducing someone to vote, not vote, or vote in a particular way. The law defines “inducement” as “money, gift, valuable consideration, refreshment, entertainment, office, placement, employment and any other benefit of any kind.” The election guide paraphrased this and then offered a somewhat poorly worded example involving coffee:

Vote-buying includes buying coffee for patrons or volunteering to drive an elector to a voting place in exchange for their vote. These activities are permitted as long as there is no obligation on the elector, whether overt or implied, to vote for a certain candidate.

In advertisements promoting her event, Veach told voters they could “[e]njoy tea or coffee with a delicious cinnamon bun and ask questions, get to know me, and my plans for working towards bettering our community….” (Emphasis added.) It’s not clear how many people attended, but Veach later admitted she bought refreshments for some of them, distributing a total of five (5) drinks and two (2) cinnamon buns. (Veach bought six (6) buns for the event, but “ended up bringing the remaining four [(4)] buns home for her family.”)

In the election a month later, Veach received 84 of the 261 votes, beating Michetti by five. Michetti went to court, contending Veach had “intimidated” voters by making false statements about her at campaign events, and also that her provision of coffee and cinnamon buns constituted illegal “vote buying.”

The court held a hearing during which at least eight witnesses testified, in a matter that you may recall concerned a local election in which only 261 people voted. Besides Michetti and Veach, the witnesses included the owner of the coffee shop hosting the “Tea and Talk” and three potential voters who attended it. After hearing this dramatic testimony, the court denied Michetti’s petition.

Under the Act, “intimidation” can include influencing a voter by “fraudulent means,” but the court found the evidence did not support that charge. We of course are more interested in the cinnamon-bun-vote-buying allegations, and those also fell short.

Michetti alleged that Veach “provided the refreshments … for the purpose of inducing those who attended her Tea and Talk event to vote for Veach” and not for Michetti. Under the Act, it is illegal to “give inducement” to vote, “inducement” specifically includes “refreshment,” and there can be no dispute that coffee and/or cinnamon buns qualify as “refreshments.” So Michetti was right that Veach “gave inducement” to voters. But under the statute, this is only illegal if done for the purpose of getting someone to vote in a particular way. The court found the evidence did not show this was Veach’s intent.

Veach denied this, of course, and all three voters testified that they had not actually been induced by the alleged inducement. The court found their testimony relevant, but also suggested an objective test might be a good idea “to avoid the spectre of having to call evidence from many eligible voters.” The court accordingly held as a matter of law that “absent special circumstances, no reasonable voter would be induced to vote differently by the mere provision of a cup of caffeine or a cinnamon bun.”

The court speculated that “[s]pecial circumstances might include specific evidence of a corrupt intent on the part of the candidate, or evidence of an obvious need for sustenance on the part of the voter.” There don’t seem to have been any obviously starving voters at the Tea & Talk, and no evidence of corrupt intent was offered. The court therefore found the evidence suggested Veach’s purpose for supplying the buns and coffee for a morning meeting was “simple human decency and politeness,” not election-rigging.

By resolving it this way, the court avoided the issue of whether a potential “inducement” could be so trivial that the statute would not apply as a matter of law. Put another way, the opinion leaves open the possibility that, given “special circumstances,” giving someone a cinnamon bun could constitute illegal “inducement to vote” under Canadian law. On these facts, it didn’t. But I assume it’s only a matter of time before someone puts that to the test.