About half of the 83 returning officers in next month's provincial election have past connections to the Conservative party, said an Elections Alberta spokeswoman.

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On her Flickr page, Edmonton-Meadowlark returning officer Allie Wojtaszek, wearing a blue PC party T-shirt, and her husband, left, pose with former Alberta trade representative Murray Smith, centre, in Washington, D.C.

Returning officers are supposed to be neutral electoral referees, hiring poll workers and ensuring election rules are followed. Appointed by the government, they can actually cast a ballot to break a deadlock in the rare event of a tie.

Among the returning officers hired for the Alberta election are:

  • A failed candidate for a Progressive Conservative nomination.
  • The secretary of a Calgary Conservative constituency board.
  • The wife of the head of the nomination committee of a Tory riding association.
  • A woman who posted to a website photos of herself at Conservative party functions and wearing Tory T-shirts while campaigning for a leadership candidate.

Conservative Leader Ed Stelmach said he doesn't believe the Tory connections are a problem, especially since all returning officers are picked by the chief electoral officer.

"They're all interviewed by the chief electoral officer and were selected by the electoral officer," Stelmach said Tuesday in Strathmore.

'They come right from the premier's office with these names that they are recommending that they be appointed' —Jacqueline Roblin, Elections Alberta

But Jacqueline Roblin, spokeswoman for Elections Alberta, said the names of returning officers actually come directly from Stelmach.

"They come right from the premier's office with these names that they are recommending that they be appointed," she said Wednesday.

Alberta's Election Act states that returning officers may not "engage in political activity on behalf of any political party or candidate" while holding those positions — but does not say anything about before or after elections.

Opposition question appointments

Both the Liberals and New Democrats are questioning the appointment of people with Conservative connections, and have called for some of them to be removed from their positions.

"[Ed Stelmach] is perpetuating a politically partisan patronage system that benefits his political party and in some cases there are very apparent conflicts on interest," said NDP Leader Brian Mason Thursday.

Robin Darsi, who was appointed as Calgary-Currie's returning officer in January after he lost the Tory nomination in the riding, told CBC News Thursday he swore an oath to be fair and impartial.

"The oath pretty much means that I am non-partisan and that I have cut all ties to any political party and or candidate — which I have," he said.

No plans to replace returning officers

Roblin said candidates for returning officer jobs are interviewed by the chief electoral officer to ensure they follow provincial law. She said about half of the returning officers questioned have connections to the Tories, while the other half said they don't have ties to any political party.

Roblin said there are no plans to replace any of the returning officers who have ties to the Tories.

"About half of them have. So if we had to eliminate all of the returning officers who have had past affiliation, we'd be scrambling for bodies to do the job."