Good-bye (and Thanks) Merrill Wigginton

Every once in a while — usually deep inside an election campaign, and usually when something controversial was happening — you would see Merrill Wigginton, Chief Electoral Office of Prince Edward Island, on television and in the newspaper.

You’d see him on TV on election night too, reassuring everyone, for example, that even though there had been a hurricane the night before, everything was okay election-wise.

And if you choose to participate in any of the various public meetings on electoral boundary changes and electoral reform, you would see Merrill up at the front always prepared to answer questions.

What you didn’t see — and what I had the privilege of seeing right up close, for almost a decade — was Merrill Wigginton’s work “behind the scenes” ensuring the proper and efficient conduct of Prince Edward Island’s elections.

Merrill’s last day on the job is today, April 28, 2005; he’s retiring after many years of service to the public. We citizens of Prince Edward Island owe him a great debt of gratitude.

I first met Merrill back before the 1996 provincial general election. I was working on the provincial government’s website at the time, and that election was the first one to happen after the website came into being, so we met with Merrill to discuss the possibility of putting election results online.

Merrill was sceptical, resistant to the notion of having anything to do with the Internet, and I believe I came away from our first meeting feeling he was sort of a luddite.

What I came to realize over the years of working with him is that what I saw in evidence that day was the core of why Merrill has been the right man to be running the Island’s elections: he has always had his eyes firmly focused on ensuring the integrity of the process. What I (foolishly) took to be a knee jerk anti-technology stance was simply (understandable) doubt about whether results online would be timely and accurate to the standard he was comfortable with.

We did end up putting results online that year, and for all of the provincial elections that have followed; indeed in recent elections you’ll have found the results online before they appear on TV or on the radio because the system used to generate results for them is web-based, and also drives the results website.

And around those results we built a comprehensive website, containing everything from voter education materials to historical election results running back 100 years.

And so over the years Elections PEI moved from that initial “ah, I’m not sure” to become one of the most innovative users of web technology in the province.

Merrill has not done this alone, of course: his staff of Lowell Croken, Deputy Chief Electoral Officer, and Elections Officer Norma Palmer are an effective team in their own right, and they have always shared Merrill’s focus on what’s important about the electoral process.

Besides his willingness to hire me to craft web tools for Elections PEI — something I’ve enjoyed thoroughly, more so because of Merrill’s insistence that they be excellent tools — there are two additional things I take away from my years working with Merrill.

First is the degree to which Merrill was affected by his work overseas as a monitor of elections in places like Africa. It’s not every Islander who will jump at the chance to put themselves in harm’s way to help foster democratic elections half a world away; Merrill did jump, and what he brought back with him not only affected who he is as a person, but also made for better elections here.

More than anything, though, was the degree of humour, wit and patience that Merrill exercised throughout. You might think, for example, that life inside Elections PEI on the post-hurricane election day in September 2003 would have been a swirling, chaotic, stressful maelstrom. While the day did, indeed, have its challenges, Merrill was as calm as though it was just another day, and we all benefitted from this.

My enduring memory of that day is walking along Victoria Row, sometime after midnight, with Merrill and Lowell, wheeling our servers (Wallis and Edward) back to the office from the Confederation Centre where they had just powered the election. We were all exhausted, but we sat around Merrill’s office talking about how things had gone, what we’d learned, what we would do better next time.

There are many dedicated people in the public service of Prince Edward Island, people who take their duties and responsibilities seriously, who truly do feel that they are working in service to the public. Among that group there are a select few who “eat, slept and breath” their responsibilities; Merrill Wigginton is one of those, and he’ll be sincerely missed.