Statements and Speeches
Remarks of the Chief Electoral Officer
on the Recommendations Report Following the 42nd General Election
Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs
October 4, 2016
Check against delivery
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and good morning.
I am accompanied today by Mr. Stéphane Perrault, Associate Chief Electoral Officer, and Mr. Michel Roussel, Deputy Chief Electoral Officer, Electoral Events.
I am very pleased to be here today to present my recommendations for improving the administration of the Canada Elections Act. The changes proposed in the report aim at building a more modern and inclusive electoral framework. I believe these amendments are essential to bring the Canada Elections Act into the 21st century, irrespective of any change to the voting system.
The report comprises two parts. The first part is a narrative that describes what I see as the most important recommendations and their objectives. The second part contains three tables of amendments. The first table covers the recommendations discussed in the narrative; the second offers additional substantive recommendations that would improve the administration of the Act; and the third lists a series of minor or technical amendments.
Committee review process
I have structured it in this way to facilitate your work, given the number of recommendations contained in the report. I would urge you to concentrate your immediate attention on the narrative, as it covers the most pressing issues. You may even wish to consider reporting on this series of amendments before any other.
I believe we are at a critical point in the administration of Canadian elections. If we do not act to modernize several core aspects of our electoral process, I fear we will fail to meet Canadians' expectations in 2019. Elections Canada is committed to an ambitious modernization agenda that aims to leverage technology and improve election programs and operations. Legislative changes must be in place well in advance of the 2019 election for us to fully realize these improvements for the benefit of Canadians.
The recommendations I have made to modernize the Act are inspired by three main themes. The first is accessibility and inclusiveness; the second is flexibility and effectiveness; and the third is fairness and integrity. Before I address these themes, however, I would like to make a general observation about the Canada Elections Act.
Canada Elections Act
Constraints of the Act
It is well known that many components of the Act are anchored in the 19th century, when the first elections in Canada took place. While it has served us well over these many long years, it is clear from recent experiences that the electoral process set out in the Act is showing signs of strain.
The Canada Elections Act is not a law that lends itself well to technology. It provides little opportunity to scale voting services to meet local and changing needs. It also fails to provide the flexibility required to improve the working conditions of election officers or the flow of voters at polling stations. This was obvious in the last election, with significant lineups at advance polls.
On the regulatory side, the political finance regime has expanded dramatically in scope and complexity over the last decade, and yet its requirements are still mostly met by volunteers. If these volunteers contravene the Act, they may face criminal prosecution, as this remains the only form of sanction. This is out of step with modern regulatory statutes.
It is time to bring the Act into the 21st century. It is possible to do so without losing any of the essential safeguards that protect electoral integrity and fairness.
Accessibility and inclusiveness
A key theme that you will see reflected in many of the recommendations in my report is accessibility and inclusiveness. These concepts underlie Canadians' ability to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights to vote and be a candidate.
Voters with disabilities
Of particular concern to me is access for voters with disabilities. Canada has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which guarantees people with disabilities the right to fully and actively participate in political life. While we have made significant strides in Canada in recent years, more still needs to be done.
My report contains several recommendations aimed at removing barriers to the full electoral participation of voters with disabilities. Among them is my suggestion that Parliament provide a clear directive, and a simplified approval process, for Elections Canada to conduct pilot projects on voting technologies that would benefit voters with disabilities. Many of these voters rely on technology as a necessity, not just as a convenience, in their daily lives. We need to explore ways to give these voters better opportunities to vote independently and in secret.
I have also recommended that parties and candidates receive a higher level of reimbursement for campaign expenses they incur to accommodate voters with disabilities, such as by providing closed caption videos and by hosting events at accessible locations with sign language interpretation. This measure would give Canadians with disabilities more opportunities to participate in political life.
Another important group, in terms of accessibility and inclusiveness, are young electors, who are often hard to reach. Although the National Register of Electors includes 93% of Canadian electors overall, the average coverage of electors aged 18 to 24 is only 72%. Allowing young people to pre-register with Elections Canada, so that their registration activates on their 18th birthday, would greatly improve the quality of the voters list for this demographic. Once they turn 18, these young electors would receive a voter information card during an election, telling them when and where to vote and bringing them into the electoral process.
Voter information card as proof of address
I also recommend that the voter information card be accepted as proof of address at the polls—not as a stand-alone document, but together with another piece of identification. Youth, as well as other groups like seniors and Aboriginal voters, continue to experience difficulties in proving where they live when they go to vote. Allowing the voter information card to be used as proof of address, along with a second document, would increase access to voting for a number of electors.
A final recommendation that I want to highlight under the theme of accessibility is moving the vote from Monday to a weekend day—either Saturday or Sunday. This would benefit a large number of voters, who would not have to fit voting into their busy workdays. Weekend voting would also make it easier to recruit election workers, and allow us to use more schools and public buildings as polling places.
Flexibility and effectiveness
Voting services modernization
The second theme I would like to address is flexibility and effectiveness in election administration. Long lineups in the last election, particularly at advance polls, frustrated a lot of voters. This was especially true when voters arrived at their polling place and were told they had to wait in line for service at a specific table, when election officers at other tables seemed to be free. Many voters, especially youth, were surprised to see election officers striking their names off a paper list with a pencil, with no computer or technology in sight.
The Act is very prescriptive as to who does what, when, on which form and in what manner at any given polling station. And the polling station is, by definition, the precise table at which each individual elector is assigned to vote—this is why voters are required to line up at one table, even when others are free.
I have recommended changes to allow for efficient voting operations that are scalable to local demand; take advantage of technology; and, as a result, are less labour-intensive. Specifically, I recommend that while the Act should continue to prescribe functions at polling places, the activities and the distribution of labour among staff at a site should take place according to instructions from the Chief Electoral Officer.
Other amendments are needed so that voters may vote at any table in the school gym, for example, rather than only at one place where their name is on the list. Providing election officers with a searchable voter database, as opposed to paper lists, would ensure that the controls prescribed by the Act remain intact.
From a voter's standpoint, these changes would result in faster service in a more modern and efficient environment. And there would be two other positive outcomes. With the ability to assign tasks in a more flexible manner, working conditions for election officers would improve. Also, with a more efficient process in place, Elections Canada would be able to fully leverage the benefits of technology to electronically manage not only the voters list but other forms and documents at the polls. Computerization, when well implemented, is a proven method of reducing record-keeping errors. It would contribute to increasing the confidence Canadians have in the integrity of voting operations.
Hiring election workers
In addition, I recommend that returning officers be given more flexibility in hiring election workers. As you know, running an election is a massive undertaking; it requires some 285,000 people to be hired in a very short time frame. Over the last decade, returning officers have had difficulty finding enough qualified and eligible people to work. It would help if the Act's barriers to the timely hiring of the best people for the job could be removed.
Currently, returning officers are precluded from filling many key positions until they have considered names submitted by the candidates and political parties who came first and second in the last election. While parties and candidates should continue to be encouraged to submit names of capable workers, returning officers should be able to fill these positions from any source as soon as the writs are issued.
Fairness and integrity
A final theme touched on by many recommendations in my report is fairness and integrity. This theme is particularly relevant with respect to the political finance regime.
Length of election
The 42nd general election was one of the longest in Canadian history. Although the election date is now fixed under Canadian law, the start of the election period is not. This creates uncertainty for political participants and allows the governing party to determine the spending cap, which is now adjusted to the length of the election. Providing a maximum length for general elections would help to reduce this uncertainty and increase fairness for all involved.
Another consideration is the complexity of the political finance regime, which has increased dramatically over the last 10 years. The official agents of candidates are volunteers who work hard to meet the myriad of reporting and other requirements that are imposed under the Act. While a subsidy is provided to auditors for their work, nothing is provided to official agents.
Granting official agents a modest subsidy for their work would recognize the importance of what they do. Tying the subsidy to certain requirements, such as filing returns within deadlines and participating in Elections Canada training sessions, would also improve the quality and timeliness of returns. This measure would promote transparency and encourage compliance with the regulatory regime.
It is also important to uphold compliance by means that are effective and proportionate. Currently, non-compliance is addressed using a criminal process model, where those who contravene the Act's provisions are investigated by the Commissioner of Canada Elections and, if appropriate, charged with an offence. They are then tried in the criminal courts.
Administrative monetary penalties
This is a sensible process for the most serious offenders. It is slow, however, and carries a significant stigma. Many contraventions of the Act do not merit such a heavy-handed approach. Several federal and provincial regulatory regimes now use a more streamlined approach for regulatory offences, which is to impose an administrative monetary penalty or "AMP." Implementing an AMPs regime would help to encourage compliance, furthering the important goals of transparency and fairness.
Tools for Commissioner
As well, allowing the Chief Electoral Officer to administer an AMPs regime would permit the Commissioner to concentrate on investigating the most significant offences under the Act. To successfully pursue offenders, the Commissioner has made it clear that he needs a number of additional tools, and I am therefore recommending them in my report. These tools include the power to compel testimony in the investigation of election offences, with attendant safeguards, as required by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
You may wish to ask the Commissioner to appear before you to present his views on recommendations that touch on his enforcement responsibility. I also suggest that you invite the Broadcasting Arbitrator, who has statutory responsibilities linked to the broadcasting regime.
This completes my overview of the key themes and recommendations in my report. I strongly believe that federal election administration has reached a tipping point, and that action is required now to ensure we can continue to meet electors' expectations. Changes will have to be in place well in advance of the next election for my successor to deliver an event that is inclusive, fair and responsive to the needs of Canadians.
I would now be pleased to answer any questions that you and your colleagues may have.