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Speech of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada at the the Economic Club of Canada
on September 25, 2012

Maintaining Trust and Engagement in Canadian Elections:
A Call to Action

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Good day and thank you very much for having me here today to discuss issues of great importance to all Canadians, and of course, to me as well.

Fall is upon us and with it a fresh perspective – we are starting anew once again with schools and the return of Parliament. It is a time for looking forward – to a new school year, a new session of Parliament, and forthcoming by-elections. However, it's also a time to pause and to take stock of where we are and of recent events.

First, a bit of context.

According to any international democracy index you look at, Canada's democracy is consistently ranked among the top 10 in the world. On standard indicators of democratic health –such as the protection of civil liberties, control of corruption, or a free and accessible electoral process– Canadian democracy scores very high. By all comparative standards, Canada has an enviable record of good governance.

That being said, we cannot be complacent. In my view, there are two areas where the health of our democracy is increasingly under pressure. One of these is citizen engagement; the other is citizens' trust in their electoral institutions.

First, with respect to citizen engagement, on the most basic democratic indicator – voter turnout – Canada has been in steady decline for over two decades. Turnout fell to a record low of 58% in the 2008 election. And while it rebounded slightly in 2011, we are still well below the historical post-war average of 75%.

And the recent Quebec election notwithstanding, the story is generally the same at the provincial level, where we have already witnessed turnout rates of less than 50% in some elections. Indeed, our country now ranks near the bottom among 20 western democracies, ahead only of the United States and Switzerland.

Declining voter turnout might be the most striking example of citizen disengagement in Canada, but it's not the only one. Very few Canadians play an active part in election campaigns or belong to political parties. Indeed, the role of political parties has changed significantly over the years. The growing professionalization of political parties and the growing difficulty they have in recruiting volunteers and members has an impact on how election campaigns are run.

My second reason for concern is prompted by certain recent events that could undermine public trust in the electoral process. I am speaking of allegations of deceptive phone calls during the May 2011 general election and of the ongoing legal challenge regarding irregularities at the polls in the riding of Etobicoke Centre. As a result of these issues, over the past months, we have seen the interplay between some of the most important institutions in our country: Parliament, political parties, the media, electoral bodies and the courts, including the Supreme Court. And at the heart of this interplay is our electoral system and our democracy.

Democracy isn't just a set of institutions. It's also a set of activities: we learn of democracy in our schools, we debate democracy in our Parliament, we observe and discuss it in the media, we argue it in the courts, and we ultimately hold our elected representatives to account by voting in elections.

So the question I would put to you today is this: What can and should we do, as leaders, to help maintain the health of our democracy in the face of declining citizen engagement, and possible declining trust in our most basic democratic processes?

Civic disengagement

As I mentioned earlier, at this time of the year I, like most parents, can't help but think of the young people in my life. The storyline we often hear is: they are disengaged, they don't care, they aren't aware.

Many from my generation would call this a youthful rebellion, something that will be outgrown once they attain the usual markers of "adulthood" – such as getting a job, owning a home, starting a family.

Although that used to be the case, it isn't anymore. Much of the decline in voter turnout is the result of generational replacement. Put simply, today's young Canadians are much less likely to vote than their parents or grandparents were at the same age. In 1965, about two-thirds of first-time electors voted in their first election. By1984, just over half of first-time electors were voting. And by 2004, that number had fallen to just over one-third. At the same time, today's young electors are also more likely to become habitual non-voters. Together, these two trends are the driving force behind a systemic and long-term voter decline that is quickly approaching 50% (and in some provinces, has already fallen below that threshold). What impact will this have on the legitimacy of our elected officials and governments?

And youth disengagement is not confined to voting. While the recent student protests in Quebec might lead one to conclude that youth are simply opting out of traditional politics in favour of more direct forms of action, the long-term evidence suggests otherwise. In fact, research shows that young Canadians are less likely to take part in almost every form of community activity, traditional or otherwise, than they are to vote.

University of New Brunswick professor Paul Howe conducted an in-depth study on the democratic disengagement of Canadian youth. His award-winning book, Citizens Adrift, provides the most comprehensive analysis of the problem. In it, he shows that the generational decline in voter participation and other forms of democratic engagement is driven by five factors: a lack of political interest; lack of political knowledge; sporadic use of news media; a rise in individualistic values; and weaker community attachments.

These characteristics are strongly linked to age, but risk becoming entrenched features that will follow them their entire lives. The good news is that there are things we can do to address these issues and reverse the decline. But it will take a concerted effort over a sustained period of time. We didn't get to this point overnight – and it will take more than one election cycle to reverse the trend. I'll have more to say on what I think should be done in a few moments.

Trust in the electoral process

So declining citizen engagement is one problem. The other problem relates to trust. Events during the May 2011 general election have led to more pointed questions regarding the quality of our electoral system, and this concerns me.

Here again, context is important. The heavy focus on problems – whether it be the so-called robocalls issue or the procedural failures in Etobicoke Centre – overshadows a far less newsworthy but incredibly important fact: the last general election, by and large, went very well. And the vast majority of voters – more than 95% according to our post-election survey – were satisfied with their experience and the services provided at the polls.

Does this mean that we can't and won't make the electoral system better in the face of problems? Absolutely not.

For one thing, we know that there were some voters – around 2 to 3% – who for one reason or another, were not satisfied. We also know that 40% of eligible electors didn't vote. But I don't want us to lose sight of the fact that Canadians are, by and large, well-served by an electoral system that depends on them to work.

However, as many of you know, even the perception of problems can be detrimental to trust, and maintaining the trust of electors in their electoral system is essential.

This is not the first time our electoral process has been put to the test, and it likely won't be the last. Over the past 145 years, Canada's electoral system has undergone many changes, in response to changing social values, public pressure, court rulings, and even the occasional scandal. Examples include the gradual extension of the franchise, the introduction – and expansion – of political finance rules, and the creation of an independent process to review and adjust electoral boundaries. These and other changes have made our electoral process more inclusive, participatory and transparent. And I believe this is how we should approach the current challenges – as opportunities to review our procedures and the law – and see where improvements can be made.

As the election administrator,I accept responsibility for what occurred in Etobicoke Centre and my agency is conducting the necessary reviews to avoid similar situations in the future. But while we can make administrative changes to enhance our processes, these likely won't be enough. Legislative changes may also be necessary to respond to Canadians' concerns regarding the electoral process and make the system less prone to errors.

At the same time, new technologies have changed the approach used by parties and candidates to communicate with electors. These technologies are not, in themselves, problematic and in fact can and are used in positive ways to reach out to electors. However, I am concerned by how they can be misused during an election.

As we have seen this past year, deceptive telephone calls, both live and automated, have arrived on our electoral landscape and their use will have an impact on how Canadians view the electoral system.

We know that Canadians were rightfully offended by news reports regarding possible electoral fraud relating to such calls, and they need to know and trust that there is a process in place to address these issues. In this regard, I will be bringing forward recommendations to ensure that the Canada Elections Act has the right measures to deal with this new reality.

I feel strongly that an electoral system and an electoral law that do not reflect the concerns and values of a modern Canadian electorate will only, in the long term, help fuel disillusionment and disengagement from the political process. That is why modernizing the Canada Elections Act speaks to our need to maintain the integrity of the electoral process in order to ensure trust and encourage civic engagement.

However, prompt action is required. At best, we have a 12- to 18-month window of opportunity to integrate any new changes, including legislation, into the preparations for the 42nd general election to be held in 2015.

We've already made some progress. Following the 2008 general election, I made a number of recommendations to improve transparency, integrity and fairness in the electoral process. I have had ongoing, continuous engagement with Parliament on these recommendations, and would like to commend the Procedure and House Affairs Committee for their diligent work on this file.

In light of recent events, I will be making another report to Parliament next spring on communications with electors.

Ultimately, modernizing the Canada Elections Act is a key step in maintaining trust in the electoral system and thus keeping our democracy healthy.

Consequences and risks of disengagement and lack of trust

As you can see, these issues are all interconnected. If we do not act to address the problems identified in the last election, there is a risk that trust in our electoral process will be undermined and this could further fuel declining citizen engagement.

So the real question is: Does citizen engagement in a democracy matter?

In my view, the answer is yes. And I'm not alone. I am encouraged by the fact that this is an issue of concern to many of you present today.

When large portions of the citizenry are detached from the political life of the country, it is almost certain that the legitimacy of governments will, at some point, be called into question. Legitimacy is a continuum and is a critical resource for governments to make tough decisions and to take action. Without it, governments may be more inhibited.

Democratic disengagement that is concentrated in distinct groups of electors can also lead to inequalities in terms of public policy focus. Such policy differences could lead to growing social unrest, as we saw last year with the Occupy movement, or more recently with the issue of tuition fees in Quebec.

I would suggest that growing disengagement, regardless of its reasons, could lead to the erosion of our political institutions and ultimately, to the erosion of the social fabric of our country.

I don't intend to be dire in my predictions – Canada has a long history of democracy – but we must be mindful that we are not immune to the consequences of citizen disengagement. This is why it is so important to give Canadians, and young people in particular, the tools they need to participate in our democracy.

Safeguarding our democracy (call to action)

So, who has the responsibility for keeping our democracy healthy? The answer is simple: we all do. These are public policy issues that concern us all.

Electoral management bodies and elected officials must work together to keep electoral legislation up-to-date, clear and responsive to the values and expectations of the electorate. This, I believe, is an important foundation in creating trust.

When it comes to declining voter turnout it becomes more complex. Electoral management bodies have a defined, but limited role to play. We can address access issues and reinforce trust, but this will not re-engage those citizens who are, as Paul Howe described them, adrift.

As leaders in our respective fields, it is incumbent upon us to address the underlying motivational factors – especially the lack of political knowledge and civic literacy – that are driving long-term, habitual non-voting and the corresponding disengagement from democracy. We each have role to play.

Here are the concrete steps I believe we should be taking:

First, we know that it is essential that "political influencers," such as elected officials, increase their contact with youth, both during and between elections.

We also know that political parties need to be involved – playing a far greater educational role than they currently do, and involving youth in more meaningful ways during policy development.

And as a country, we need to do a much better job of building civic literacy in our citizens. This means more informative reporting on politics from our media, both during and between elections.

And it means more, and better, civic education in our schools. To do this, we need civics to be a mandatory part of the curriculum in every province and territory – and we need to give teachers the right training and tools to deliver it. We know that real world, experiential learning is key – whether it be in the classroom with mock votes, in the community with service learning, or at home talking to our kids about current issues.

Conclusion

Building and maintaining a healthy democracy is a responsibility we all share – citizens, political parties, electoral management bodies, Parliament and the media.

How we choose to react to these issues today will define the scope of the problem for generations to come.

When I look at students returning to school, when I speak to young Canadians preparing themselves for their future, and when I listen to concerned Canadians who care about our democracy, I think it is something that we can no longer delay.

Thank you.