I sold my vote—twenty times
In the first participant’s report on the long-suspected but unproved practice of ballotstuffing, a Montreal journalist reconstructs her illegal role in Quebec’s recent election
Copyright 1960, Maclean's Magazine
On Tuesday, June 21, the eve of Quebec’s provincial election, an occasional news source of mine who lives on the fringes of the underworld telephoned me. He asked if I would like to make $25. “It’s simple,” he said. “All you have to do is vote.”
This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a journalist to examine the workings of a ballot-stuffing machine from the inside. I took it.
Before the election was over I had voted twenty times —nineteen times for the Union Nationale, who paid me to break the law, and once for the candidate of my choice.
This was my part in what the Montreal police described as a quiet election day—a day on which police and journalists later reported that 71 ballot boxes were stolen from polling stations; four campaign workers went to hospital with injuries suffered in brawls; the police made 158 arrests in raids on committee rooms and seized two revolvers, 12 lengths of lead pipe, two knives and 19 baseball bats.
My role earned me $25, with which i bought a new dress and had my hair done. But it also g, ve me a look at the inner workings of Quebec politics I'll never forget.
At 7.30 in the morning a red and white haxitop Chevrolet picked me up at my apartment. The dr.'ver was a scrawny man with a mousy mustache. He told me he was a mechanic, 21 years old. As we drove toward the city’s tough eastern section he grumbled that he'd had only three hours’ sleep in the past two days. “Hard work, les élections,” he said.
I had been assigned to Laurier riding, a rundown northeast Montreal district that a printer named Arsène Gagné had carried by 7,000 votes for the Union Nationale in 1956. This time his chief opponent was René Levesque, a CBC commentator and first-time Liberal candidate.
We parked a few blocks off St. Lawrence Boulevard. I followed the driver-mechanic down an alley behind Dante Street. He knocked on a back door, and replied, “Larry” when a voice asked who was there.
The door opened and I was led down three steps into a concrete-block-lined basement room.
At two tables pushed together, a handsome, darkhaired young man in a flaming red shirt was talking. 1 gathered he was going over the fine points of how to rig an election. On one side of him sat a man with black hair trimmed into a brush cut, wearing horn-rimmed glasses. He looked like a sociology professor. On Red Shirt’s left sat a heavy, pot-bellied man with tight curly hair. Behind this group a door opened into another room, where 1 could see several men in shirtsleeves. One of them, in his undershirt, was lounging against the doorjamb. He wore a revolver in a belt holster.
Across the table from Red Shirt was his "class”: I counted fifteen, including three girls. Then I fixed my attention on the teacher and his lesson.
When a Quebec voter goes to the polling station he takes with him a white slip called an enumeration paper, which has been delivered to his house. On it is written his name, address, age and occupation. He gives this slip to the deputy returning officer. The DRO initials a ballot and gives it to the voter. The voter goes behind a screen and marks his ballot. Then he gives his marked ballot to the DRO, who drops it into the box.
What the young red-shirted man was telling us was how to impersonate legitimate voters—a practice known as telegraphing in Montreal politics—and how. when we had done that, to stuff five marked ballots into the box at once.
These Union Nationale workers would give us enumeration slips. There was a way to hand the slip to the DRO—who would, of course, be a UN appointee—so he would know' we were “telegraphers.” "Have your four fingers on top and your thumb underneath,” Red Shirt said. "Don't give it to the guy, let him take it out of
your hand. You’ve got your name and that stuff memorized off the sheet but they probably won't ask. They’ll hand you a ballot.
“Go behind the screen and mark an X after the first name.” (At no time in that room did anyone mention the name of the candidate or the party.) Then, “wrap the four ballots we give you here inside the one you get there. It has a black strip on it. Fold it so the black strip shows.”
Red Shirt showed us how to fold the package tight, so the five ballots would go into the box. Although he was one of the youngest men there, and his voice was already growing hoarse, Red Shirt dominated the room. Our eyes didn't leave him. If we didn't follow his instructions properly, I realized, the chances were fair we would be arrested.
Suddenly, the pot-bellied man barked: "If you doublecross us, we’ll know in ten minutes. You won’t get paid, you won't get cab fare, you won’t even get a bus ticket. You’ll walk home.”
We practised folding and presenting the ballots for a couple of minutes. Then the class filed out through a glass-paneled door. A new class filed in as we left.
In the front room where we stood now there were about sixty “telegraphers.” I counted eight women, most of them hard-looking women in their early thirties. They were B-girls and strippers from a nightclub, I was told later. About half the men looked like members of any crowd. The others seemed to be recruits from flophouses.
Separated from the “telegraphers” was a group of about fifty-five men. Most of them were goons, the hired toughs. They came in assorted types, young, old, fat, wiry. Most had ominous bulges in their pockets. Later, I was told that among this group—and difficult to separate from it—were the Quebec provincial policemen assigned to this riding. They were in plain clothes, but each of them carried a badge identifying him as a provincial police officer, and a gun.
I spoke to a small, pretty girl in a voluminous black dress. She told me her name was Donna and that she was a stripper. Most of the goons, she explained, came from a downtown nightclub, one of Montreal’s toughest. It had been assigned by the UN to supply manpower in Laurier riding.
"The clubs get a good rate on protection if they cooperate,” Donna said, "and their guys get eighty bucks each for helping out. Voters get twenty-five, drivers fifty, and the guys at the polls, who take the biggest chance, get plenty—maybe three hundred, and a bonus when the party wins.” It hadn't occurred to anybody, yet, that the party could lose.
At nine o'clock a skinny man in a brown suit beckoned me into the back room. Red Shirt glanced up and nodded, "She'll do,” he said. He pushed one of the white slips toward me. “You’re Bertha Thruelsen, 35, a waitress. You got that?” I repeated the name. “Okay,” said Red Shirt. He gave me four ballots, already inscribed with the deputy returning officer’s initials and with an X opposite Union Nationale candidate Arsène Gagné’s name. "Now this is your husband Frederic, 40, a driver.” He pointed to a chunky man with wavy blond hair. "You go in together — a married couple looks good. Don’t worry, it'll be our boy taking the vote and anyway you’ll have a cop with you.” He shouted to the armed man in his undershirt, still lounging on the doorjamb. "Frank, gimme a provincial and a driver.”
The four of us—a young nondescript driver, a very large policeman in a blue tweed suit, "Frederic” and I—drove four blocks to a poll.
It was in a ground-floor apartment on St. Lawrence, near Jean-Talon Street. Around a table sat four officials: deputy returning officer, poll clerk, UN scrutineer and Liberal scrutineer. The Liberal scrutineer was a wom-
an. As I waited in line, I read a notice on the wall that set out the penalties for violating the Election Act. I counted eleven offenses I was committing—from impersonating a voter to accepting money for my vote. Convicted of all eleven, I could have gone to jail for twenty-two years.
A housewife ahead of me in a cotton dress was taking an oath on the Bible. If one of the scrutineers challenges a voter the voter must swear to his identity. My “husband” whispered nervously to me. "Don’t swear on the Bible whatever you do. Just walk out or tell them you’re not a Catholic.” (I was given the same advice about the Bible later in the day.)
"When you finish, wait for me,” my husband continued. “But if I have any trouble, make a run for it.” Then it was my turn. I held out my enumeration paper, gripping it so firmly that the DRO could scarcely pull it from my fingers. “Okay, okay, ça marche, he muttered nervously.
No questions were asked, no Bibles were presented. The workers read my name from the slip (I murmured “Oui,” unnecessarily) and checked it off on their lists. The DRO initialed my ballot, and gave it to me. I went behind a yellow-flowered screen to fill it in.
I had to open my purse to slip out the four extra ballots. Since the clasp of my purse makes a loud noise in closing, I walked back with it hanging open, a dead giveaway to any observant, suspicious woman, 1 thought. But the Liberal scrutineer did not notice.
I had folded my ballots so hastily that the DRO had trouble pushing them into the box. When he finally did, I went out to the hall to wait for my “husband” to exercise his democratic privilege; then we strolled around the corner to the waiting car.
The provincial cop beamed at me. “No trouble?” he asked. "It’s lots of fun, eh?”
At headquarters I reported to Red Shirt: “Everything went fine.” I added, surprised. "They were all fixed.” “Sure,” he smiled at me proudly. “1 told you, they're our boys.” He glanced at the door to the back alley and bellowed, "Roy, we got to have protection in that alley. Put two of your biggest boys out there, and tell them to knock three times if they want to let somebody in.”
Roy, a portly man who looked as distinguished as a Montreal city councilor, hustled past to do the job. He leaned over to me and confided, “We got to watch for the stool peegeons, you know.” Inside the door he posted an ancient goon, jockey-small and peculiarly devoid of any expression, who hefted a blackjack nervously up and down inside his blue serge cuff.
Through the morning, 1 waited in the back room. There was a constant traffic of groups going to vote. Then, about ten, Frank burst in from the adjoining room. "I just got the word,” he barked. “Number 219 is a free poll!”
"Great!” Red Shirt grabbed a stack of enumeration papers and shuffled them jubilantly, like a lucky deck of cards. “We’ll send everybody over—we’ll pack them in. Frank! Gimme a couple of provincials for 219.”
In a lull I asked him, “What’s a free poll?”
“Our guys just got together and tossed out the poll clerk,” he explained. “Here, honey, you go over too. You'll be Salvatore Grimaldi, 24, a presser. Just let us know if they give you any trouble, and we’ll go in and break a couple of fingers.”
Four voters were jammed into the back seat this time, and our driver whisked us off to nearby Poll 219. “ I hese guys are having a wonderful time today,” a slightly jaded nightclub bar girl remarked. Our protector from the provincial police, a young redhead with a contagious, innocent grin, cheerfully agreed.
There was a delay outside the poll. I asked one of the half-dozen men 1 recognized from the back room what was holding us up. "Oh, some Liberal is riled up about
the poll clerk,” he shrugged. “Nothing to bother about.” Our provincial strolled in to straighten things out, and gave me a wink.
A fewminutes later I was standing before the poll clerk's empty chair. A pretty girl, the DRO, reached over and took my slip. Apparently not noticing that Salvatore is a man's name, she passed me a ballot.
This time I had taken advice from Donna, and slipped the extra ballots into my bra instead of my purse. There was no trouble.
As I marked my ballot I noticed for the first time that there were two René Levesques on it. One, the Liberal candidate, was listed as a journalist. The other was listed as an artist. This is a time-tested device in Quebec elections. It is intended to split the opposition's vote by confusion. In the riding next to Laurier this June there were three Bisaillons and three Rochons running. I never did discover who the second René Levesque w'as and I heard later that the Liberal party had been unable to ascertain whether he ever existed at all.
I w'as still grinning at the coincidence when I emerged from behind the screen and began jamming my ballots into the box, with some help from the pretty DRO. A red-faced Liberal scrutineer stood in the hall, glaring helplessly. “Put the ballot in yourself,” he told the girl sharply. We gave a final push and, as the ballots dropped with a thump, the fat man frowned at us both. “After this, put them in yourself,” he repeated, and the girl calmly assured him that she would.
Back in the Dante Street headquarters, the organizer in horn-rimmed glasses moaned, “Somebody get me a coffee and an aspirin. I haven’t slept in two weeks. I gotta have an aspirin.” Red Shirt told him to get it himself. “I can’t,” he muttered, clutching his head. “If I step outside I'm gonna pass out.”
There were only two failures. At one poll, my former “husband” had tried to impersonate a man who was in fact a friend of a Liberal scrutineer, and had quietly left when this was brought to his attention; at another, a “telegrapher” had not noticed in time that the address on his enumeration slip was the same as the address of the polling station, and he was not allowed to vote in his own house.
I made one brief trip to a nearby poll as Mary Yonkovig, a 21-year-old housewife, and chalked up five more votes for the Union Nationale. “See, you got good protection,” noted the provincial who went with me.
“And even if you are picked up, they only hold you under the name you're using to vote, until the polls close at seven o'clock.”
The white slips on Red Shirt's table dwindled, and the pressure eased. Finally he was left with three, for women aged 42, 44 and 60. Among the available ballotstuffers a buxom redhead might have passed for 60 in a strong light, but the rest of us. like me at 24, were on the short side of 40.
Red Shirt chewed his lip reflectively. “Frank,” he yelled. “Phone 217 and say I'm sending three women and not to ask questions about age."
Then he changed his mind. Like most of the headquarters personnel, Red Shirt seemed to enjoy the election immensely. In a quiet moment, he had told me that in spite of his easy patois, he was not a French-Canadian at all, but a Lebanese from Flint, Michigan. With pride, he said he was not a hireling of the Union Nationale, but that “I got my own business.”
For 217, he decided to practise his business in person.
“Who’s got a badge?” he said. “Somebody gimme a badge.” One of the provincials tossed over a small leather wallet, and Red Shirt slipped it into his pocket with a boyish grin. “Come on, girls.” He picked out three of us.
The poll was only a block away, and as we walked over Red Shirt explained that the DRO was fixed at this station, and that he was on Red Shirt’s personal payroll. “We won't have any trouble; I'll just stand in the doorway.” He motioned me in first. “God,” he said, “I’d like to smash a hundred of them in myself.”
The young men sitting beside the ballot box glanced up, saw Red Shirt glowering behind me and seemed to find nothing remarkable in the fact that I was a 44-yearold housewife named Claudette Picard. A woman scrutineer frowned and asked who Red Shirt was.
“Provincial,” growled Red Shirt. “That’s right, he’s a provincial,” echoed the DRO. Behind the screen I took a chance and marked one ballot for René Levesque, journalist.
“Now we’re really gonna stuff the boxes,” confided Red Shirt on the way back. “Up to noon we’re polite and just do five at a time. After 12 we take 15 of our big boys around the polls, stake two or three outside, walk in and make our votes.”
“But don't the officials yell about it?” I asked.
“Sure, but once our votes are in the box they can’t tell them from the legal ballots, and they have to count
them all. If things start to look too tough we just muscle back in and take the boxes.”
With cab fare supplied by Red Shirt, the girls went home. Three hours later, I reported to the downtown nightclub where we were paid off. I am not reporting its name here, as 1 am not reporting the full names and identity of some of my fellow election workers, simply to protect my own safety.
A husky bouncer took me to a rear office, where an enormously fat man and three flunkies presided over a pile of bills. “How many votes did you make?” the fat man asked, and grunted satisfaction with my total. He counted two crisp tens and a new five-dollar bill into my hand.
I went back to my apartment to wait for the election results. As they rolled in I discovered I had seen only part of what had happened. In addition to the violence and injury I mentioned at the beginning of this report, 1 learned that at 1.10 p.m.—scarcely an hour after l had left the dim back-alley headquarters on Dante Street— city police, prodded by Liberal candidate Rene Levesque, had raided the premises. They picked up two cars, several hundred dollars in bills, scores of illegal ballots— and inspector Frank De Lavo of the Quebec Liquor Board. De Lavo, 1 was told later, was the armed man 1 had seen lounging in the doorway, ordering up provincial policemen for Red Shirt.
Quebec Provincial Police Director Hilaire Beauregard (who resigned two weeks later for reasons of health) explained that De Lavo w'as only working as a clerk in the committee room, and had arrested three young men for election irregularities. “He was waiting for help from QPP headquarters to transport the suspects downtown when city police arrested the group in the room,” the director said.
De Lavo was not held.
In spite of 910 ballots counted for the red-herring René Levesque whom the Liberals could never find, the journalist René Levesque was elected—by 137 ballots. He got 14,015 votes, including my one; the UN's Arsène Gagné got 13,878. including my nineteen. The fourth candidate, an Independent, got 483.
How could the Liberals win in spite of the tactics I observed? Frankly, / don't know'. But I asked Red Shirt that afternoon. This was his answer:
“Well, they got their boys out too. In this business, you always gotta make sure the fix is in.” ★
“In the basement room off Montreal's Dante Street, I perched on a table and watched the man I called Red Shirt. Flanked by two of his co-workers, he was showing us how to get five ballots into the box at once. Later, I learned that the armed man lounging in the doorway, who summoned up provincial policemen for Red Shirt, was a Quebec liquor inspector."