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Meeting Summary – Semi-Annual Meeting – January 26, 2017

Elections Canada Advisory Board

Meeting Summary

Semi-Annual Meeting
January 26, 2017

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Table of Contents


About the Elections Canada Advisory Board

The mandate of the Elections Canada Advisory Board (the Board) is to study and provide advice on matters related to Canada's electoral system, including the conduct of elections, electoral participation both by voters and political participants, regulatory compliance and electoral reform.

The Board held its most recent semi-annual meeting on January 26, 2017. Presentations were given on a number of topics including: Elections Canada's (EC) operating context; the agency's engagement strategy, including the public education and information mandate, and civic education renewal; the Prince Edward Island (PEI) plebiscite on electoral reform; and the use of Blockchain technology for online voting.

Members were given an opportunity to discuss each topic.


1. Elections Canada Update: Operating Context and Electoral Reform

Presentation

The Board was provided with an overview of the operating environment at EC, including the retirement of the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), the process for appointment of a new CEO, and the implications on the agency's agenda; upcoming by-elections; and future plans.

Members were also presented with highlights of the final report of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform (Special Committee), and reactions and conclusions of its findings, including the possibility of a referendum, EC's role and the six-month requirement for the agency to be ready for such an event.

In October 2016, the CEO appeared before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to present his recommendations report following the 42nd general election. The Committee is studying his recommendations, with the assistance of EC's Legal Services.

Some of the content of Bill C-33 An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts overlaps with some of the recommendations made in the report.

EC's modernization agenda includes the introduction of technology in the voting process to facilitate administrative tasks. This should make the process at the polling station quicker and easier for electors and poll workers, and help reduce long lines at advance polls, among other things. There are a number of key recommendations in the CEO's report that are critical if the agency is to introduce technology at the polls for the next election. Online voting is not part of the plan for the next general election; EC requires a clear mandate to explore this option for the future.

There are a number of emerging issues that the agency is monitoring, including third party spending and advertising, and its regulation by the Canada Elections Act; political fundraising events; and pre-writ spending. There could be emerging public policy discussions related to these topics. In addition to its role as administrator, EC could participate in these conversations by facilitating non-partisan, academic debate without taking a position on policy outcome.

Discussion

Members discussed the need for a comprehensive study on political financing and the role that EC could play. While EC is well positioned to speak authoritatively on improvement to the voting process and the administration of elections, it has a different role in policy matters related to political financing, which are intrinsically political. EC can act as a convener, providing expertise and research to allow people to have conversations about political financing. Members spoke about the importance of studying these issues, even if Parliament does not act on them.

Members discussed the importance of clear explanations and communication of the security of the Online Voter Registration Service and introduction of technology at the polls, as well as in the research and development of future technology, especially in the presence of allegations of hacking in the U.S. presidential election. Members also talked about the recommendation by the Special Committee that EC explore the use of technologies to promote greater accessibility in the voting process, balanced with the need for security, secrecy of the vote and the ability to recount. In addition, members pointed out that the introduction of technology, including online voting, should only be an option for electors in a longer-term outlook and should not replace traditional voting.

With respect to technology, members reflected on access to technology and the Internet for low-income Canadians and for those who live in areas of the country where there is less access, as well as the importance of ensuring that those Canadians are given information and options about how to vote. Members also asked about the effect of income on the National Register of Electors (NROE), especially for those electors who must move residence often, who have to work more than one job and have less time to be involved in the community, or who have no fixed address, and options to make it easier for them to vote.

Members also considered the possibility of future electoral legislation vis-à-vis the Government's election platform promises, the required legislative changes for EC's modernization agenda, and the speed with which such legislation might move through the House of Commons and Senate.


2. Engagement Strategy

Presentation

The Board members were provided with information on EC's engagement strategy including the public education and information mandate, and civic education renewal.

The agency is currently in the review phase of its overarching engagement strategy, which is aimed at ensuring an accessible framework that all Canadians can use. The strategy is being developed by considering the needs of the electorate, best practices by other electoral management bodies (EMBs), the impacts of EC's actions, survey results, election-related complaints and data about voter turnout. EC must invest considerable energy in the engagement strategy; however, EC is just one small player when it comes to the participation of electors. It will be important to measure the impact of the agency's engagement strategy on whether Canadians can access the electoral process.

The public education and information strategy has four complementary parts:

Research shows that there is a sequence in the decision to vote: the elector needs to be motivated to vote before seeking information about how to do so. Research also shows that first-time voters require more encouragement, such as discussions with family, being contacted by a campaign, and discussions with teachers or colleagues. However, the agency does not measure the success of its programs by voter turnout—success is determined by how informed electors are about their options.

Moving ahead, youth and Indigenous electors will continue to be priority audiences. There will also be a need to make additional investments in remote Indigenous communities, as they face particular barriers.

The agency also plans to invest in civic education, which is currently focused on kindergarten to grade 12. The current programming is dated and in need of renewal, while the updated programming will provide more focus on the importance of voting, more digital presence and more instruction, as requested by teachers, on how to teach about citizenship. Bill C-33 proposes an expansion of the agency's public education role, as well as the opportunity to pre-register future electors, as young as 14 years old. The registration of future voters will provide a good opportunity to use the civic education program in a broader context as pre-registration provides a clear link between registration, receipt of a voter information card, and understanding of the electoral process. The agency plans to focus on 16- to 17-year-olds, which narrows the number of schools and students on which to focus and ensures that those who are closer to being eligible to vote are registered.

In renewing the civic education program, EC will consult with EMBs, the Library of Parliament and Canadian Heritage, and will continue to speak with educators. The agency will also work with provincial and territorial departments of education, all of which have unique curricula, to ensure an impactful program that can be used across the country on a regular and ongoing basis.

Discussion

Members discussed the way in which political parties and candidates are reaching out to voters and if there are segments of the population, for example older versus younger voters or voters more likely to have landline telephones, that are being contacted at a higher rate.

Members also wondered about the effect of lower inclusion on the NROE for younger people and how that might affect the ability of political parties and candidates to reach younger electors. The Board also talked about the effects of the Student Vote program, the role of parents in talking to young people about voting or in taking their children to the polls, and how these activities might affect the motivation to vote.

Members discussed the importance of informal settings and how entire groups of young people could be missed if EC only concentrates on formal settings, like schools. The Board spoke about looking for informal places like youth organizations that work with young people who have left school, or that aren't involved in citizen engagement, but nonetheless work with and have established relationships with young people. Members also suggested that EC could contact groups that work with families as a way to reach young people through their parents. It was also proposed that EC reach out to those who turn 18 with a celebratory message about attaining the right to vote.

Members spoke about the importance of civic education about how the country is governed and how Parliament works, and pointed out that focusing on elections and voting presupposes that electors understand how government works. Members also discussed other aspects of civic engagement that young people, who may be turned off by partisan politics, are involved in and the importance of civic education in encouraging an engaged society.

Members discussed issues affecting voter turnout. It was suggested that voter turnout is correlated to income level, which EC does not target in its outreach framework. Members discussed the role and challenges for EC in reaching electors and encouraged the agency to work with community organizations that have solid relationships with groups that are underrepresented in the electoral process, or that face particular barriers to voting. Members pointed out that many of these community groups would be happy to work with EC in providing information to their memberships. The Board also talked about the importance of an ongoing relationship with these groups, including between elections.


3. Electoral Reform: Voting Methods

Presentation

The key findings of the Independent Technical Panel on Voting Integrity (the panel) for the PEI plebiscite on electoral reform were presented to members. The plebiscite was a unique event in which the CEO of PEI made use of telephone and online voting. The concerns raised about the use of these technologies were the same as those normally raised when talking about Internet or online voting; however, the panel deemed that the controls used by Elections PEI were appropriate for the event.

Observations showed that electors appreciated being able to vote from home or other places, and positive comments were made by those who voted. Over 80 percent of electors used the online option (with the highest use among those 60 years and older); however, the online and telephone voting options were found to have no impact on turnout. The panel found that the physical logistics for online voting were much less burdensome and less costly than paper ballot voting (e.g. no need to rent office space; plan for polling place materials and paper ballots; hire election workers to manage the voting). However, this did not necessarily mean less of a burden overall, as the online and telephone voting options were additional ways to vote over and above the requirement that remained to still support an in-person voting day, with all of the associated physical logistics to administer the vote in polling places. In fact offering simultaneous online and telephone voting options during the period of in-person voting added the necessity to have an integrated system that ensured voters were flagged as having voted instantly, regardless of whether they voted online, by phone or in person.

Discussion

Members wondered about the requirement for increased rigour should this type of technology be offered for a binding event or a federal election and about the capacity of EMBs to find the systems to serve in their particular contexts. It was noted that the CEO of PEI recommended against using the same technology in a provincial election as the risk accepted for the non-binding plebiscite would not be acceptable in a provincial context. Members also discussed the need for security assurances from a number of perspectives, including auditability of services and the importance of testing. Members also spoke about the need for electors to have the same level of trust and confidence in the technology being used as they do in the paper ballot process.

Members asked about the lack of effect on turnout and the efficacy of online voting in that regard. Members also talked about the increase in accessibility offered by online voting and the importance of balancing accessibility and integrity.

Presentation

Mr. Alex Tapscott, Board member and co-author of Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business, and the World, gave a presentation on Blockchain technology and its use in online voting. Members were introduced to the technology behind Blockchain technology, its evolution and some of its current uses.

Mr. Tapscott explained that centralized information is vulnerable to being hacked, and that Blockchain technology, while not completely unhackable, is better than anything else devised thus far in terms of value and moving and storing information. This technology could improve the state of democracy by increasing transparency and citizen engagement by allowing for better protection of rights and privacy.

Mr. Tapscott also described two needs related to the use of technology in voting: individuals want to know that their vote was cast for who they voted for, and that it's auditable and anonymous; and government wants to know that people voted once, that the system can't be hacked, and that the results can be audited.

Members were also offered a number of reasons that the technology may not work for voting, including the ability to scale the technology to demand, the malicious intent of those who may wish to restrict access or use malware to highjack highly visible targets and affect the reputation or perception of the technology, and job loss as fewer workers are needed to run elections.

Discussion

Members discussed whether government should always be on the leading edge, or if it should take an inherent precautionary stance in adopting new technology. Members also spoke about whether or not government should move faster when it comes to policy and laying out principles, while moving slower when it comes to regulations. Finally members deliberated the importance for government to show openness to innovation while being cautious with moving critical services to new technology.


4. The Way Forward: Roundtable Discussion

The Board discussed potential future meetings, including regular semi-annual meetings in the fall of 2017, as well as the possibility of cluster meetings focused on specific topics and members' areas of expertise. It was agreed that no meetings would be scheduled for spring 2017.


Appendix A: Agenda

AGENDA

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

6:30–7:30 p.m.

Dinner


Thursday, January 26, 2017

7:30–8:30 a.m.

Breakfast

8:30–8:45 a.m.

1) Welcome from Co-Chairs and Adoption of Agenda

8:45–10:15 a.m.

2) Elections Canada Update: Operating Context and Electoral Reform

10:30a.m–12:00 p.m.

3) Engagement Strategy

  • Public Education and Information Mandate
  • Civic Education Renewal

12:00–1:00 p.m.

Lunch

1:00–2:30 p.m.

4) Electoral Reform: Voting Methods

  • Executive Summary and Debrief Report from the Independent Technical Panel on Voting Integrity (ITPVI) for the Prince Edward Island (PEI) Plebiscite on Electoral Reform (ER)
  • Online Voting: Blockchain Technology

2:30–3:00 p.m.

5) The Way Forward: Roundtable Discussion


Appendix B: Meeting Participants

Mr. Ian Binnie, Co-Chair

Ms. Sheila Fraser, Co-Chair

Ms. Lise Bissonnette

Mr. Roy Romanow (by telephone)

Mr. Hugh Segal (by telephone)

Mr. David Smith

Mr. Alex Tapscott

Mr. Paul Thomas

Ms. Cathy Wong