Electoral Insight - Technology in the electoral process
Permanent List of Electors: The Quebec Experience
Research Officer, Directeur général des élections du Québec
In November 1997, Quebec wrote a new page in its political history. When it used its brand new, permanent list of electors (PLE) for the first time, in a municipal election, the province swept away an entire range of old electoral habits, customs and folklore.
Things would never be the same again. Gone were the days when an election call turned enumeration into a race against the clock; gone, the problems of recruiting enumerators, the door-to-door visits and lengthy re-transcriptions on a typewriter. There would be no more interminable electoral campaigns. The PLE would revolutionize the preparation of electoral lists.
Before the PLE
The concept of a permanent list of electors was not new in Quebec. In recent decades, politicians and administrative personnel had toyed with this idea on several occasions because of the many problems associated with preparing the lists of electors. At the beginning of the 1980s, the Directeur général des élections du Québec (DGEQ) even tabled a report on this issue. His conclusion was that such a list could not be prepared until it was possible to specify how the privacy of electors would be respected and to demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of a permanent list of electors managed with computer-based tools.
And so, election after election, the province, municipalities and school boards continued to prepare their own lists, in their own ways, by their own rules. The three levels of jurisdiction did not use the same methods and, even within a specific jurisdiction, there were variations among municipalities and from one school board to another. The qualifications of an elector were not consistent among the levels of government, nor were the electoral districts.
Between two elections, demographic shifts could modify the composition of the electorate within a district to such an extent that everything had to be started over again at the following electoral event.
The many enumerations posed significant management and operational problems. At the provincial level, it became increasingly difficult to recruit enumerators, who had to be continually available for four consecutive days. Returning officers appointed enumerators from lists provided by the political parties. As an example, during the 1992 provincial referendum, 25 percent of the people recommended as enumerators withdrew. In the Montréal region, the withdrawal rate was 32 percent. Two electoral districts had withdrawal rates of 80 percent and 90 percent.
The difficulty of the task discouraged many. In rural areas, enumerators sometimes had to travel long distances. In towns, they complained of safety concerns, language difficulties and problems of access to certain apartment buildings. Some people flatly refused to open their doors to enumerators. Then, they had to type up the lists... It was not uncommon for an inexperienced enumerator to have to start this process over more than once.
Since the cost of preparing the lists was prohibitive, it became necessary to make the process more efficient. At every electoral event, many thousands, indeed millions, of dollars were swallowed up in an operation dedicated to endless repetition, an activity whose results quickly became outdated. But there was still another issue. The methods used to prepare the lists were not consistent with sociological and technological realities at the turn of this century.
Given the lightning speed of progress in the computer field, serious and realistic consideration was given to preparing a computerized list. Representatives of the provincial, municipal and school board levels agreed on the need to find a lasting solution to the problem of preparing the lists of electors.
In June 1992, the National Assembly gave DGEQ the mandate to study the feasibility of a permanent list of electors.
The preparatory stages
In discharging this mandate from the legislature, DGEQ first consulted with representatives of the municipal and school board authorities and with political representatives. Because of the confidential nature of elector data, he also consulted the Chair of the Commission d'accès à l'information. A questionnaire was sent to all municipalities and school boards. Next, members of the DGEQ staff met with employees of various public organizations, in particular, employees of the Régie de l'assurance-maladie du Québec (RAMQ), the Société de l'assurance-automobile du Québec (SAAQ) and the Régie des rentes du Québec, which have expertise in methods for updating databanks and on maintaining the confidentiality of files containing identifying information.
The Directeur général des élections du Québec submitted his report to the National Assembly in March 1993. He recommended that a computerized list of electors be established for use by provincial, municipal and school board authorities. The report favoured the preparation of a list based on an enumeration followed by an update using RAMQ data.
In June 1995, the Quebec National Assembly adopted Bill 40, An Act to establish the permanent list of electors and amending the Election Act and other legislative provisions. The DGEQ got the green light: he was to establish a permanent list that would provide more accurate and complete lists at the three levels of government, while reducing implementation costs. In addition, registration mechanisms were to be simplified, to facilitate the exercise of the right to vote.
One list, two files
The first challenge was to establish the architecture for a computerized system and develop the processing units required for managing the data and producing the provincial, municipal and school board lists. Two databases were established, i.e. the electors database and the geographic database. The combination of the two databases would make it possible to produce the list of electors required to hold any vote.
The electors database includes information on the identity of individuals who wish to be registered on the list: family name, first name, date of birth, sex, address and date of establishment of residence in a municipality. This database was constructed using the list of electors registered for the 1995 referendum, the list of electors outside Quebec and the amendments made to the list at by-elections and provincial, municipal and school board elections.
Any person who, within the meaning of the Election Act, is qualified as an elector may be registered on the permanent list of electors. Elector qualifications vary at the provincial, municipal and school board levels.
The geographic database includes the geographic information required to manage and produce the various electoral lists, particularly the addresses and the descriptions of electoral districts.
For provincial electoral events, the geographic database supplies the descriptions of the polling divisions for each of the 125 electoral districts. It also supplies the descriptions of the electoral districts or neighbourhoods for municipal elections, and data on the 69 linguistic school boards for school board elections.
The geographic file also contains information on judicial districts. Under the Election Act, the DGEQ prepares the lists for jury selection.
Permanent and up-to-date ...
The second, and probably the major challenge for the creators of the permanent list of electors, was to ensure it remained up-to-date. It would, in fact, be impossible to design such a tool without reliable and effective update mechanisms to deal with relocations, deaths, and persons reaching the age of majority or obtaining Canadian citizenship.
Because the geographic data also evolve over time, the system must be able to quickly integrate into the geographic database any changes to municipal boundaries, street name changes and new housing developments.
The list is continually updated from several data sources. Because the data from RAMQ is coupled with the electors database, a crossreference code is allocated to each elector. This code allows the Régie to transmit any change in an elector's identity or address to the DGEQ.
The major source of information for updating the electors database is the RAMQ. The majority of amendments to RAMQ files come from its own recipients. It also receives close to 40 percent of address changes from the SAAQ and a smaller number from other organizations, like the Régie des rentes du Québec.
The second most important mechanism for amending the electors database is the revision process. Revision of the lists of electors is carried out following the issue of writs of election or referendum, or when the lists are amended for a municipal election or referendum. The other sources for updating the database are the federal Department of Citizenship and Immigration, the Public Curator and the individual elector. Finally, the DGEQ can recommend an enumeration or a revision to verify the list in full or in part.
The geographic database is updated with data provided by the RAMQ, municipalities, returning officers, school boards, the Commission de toponymie and the Gazette officielle du Québec.
Electors have access to information about themselves in the permanent list of electors. It is the elector's responsibility to communicate to the DGEQ any change in this information, as well as to indicate if he or she wishes to be removed from the list.
To ensure that the largest possible number of electors can exercise their right to vote, the legislature established a revision mechanism to handle specific cases: the Commission permanente de révision. Based on the results of only a few months of operation, the work of the Commission is encouraging. This mechanism, in conjunction with those already existing, contributes to the completeness and quality of the PLE.
Behind the list, there are, first and foremost, people ...
If the permanent list of electors displays exemplary completeness and quality, it is thanks to the people who produce it. A team of highly qualified personnel is dedicated to managing the PLE, and analysts and programmers, data administrators and technicians guide the maintenance, operations and development of the computer system.
To support their work, effective communications vehicles are absolutely vital, but first there have to be qualified and competent personnel.
The staff of the DGEQ Centre de renseignements is a major partner in the constant updating of the permanent list of electors. The Centre staff interfaces between the public and the list. In this period of new communications technologies, other staff members feed and develop the DGEQ Web site. The Web site, a section of which deals with the PLE, is an effective communications tool, particularly during an electoral event.
... and cyber tools!
The creators of the permanent list of electors wanted their computer system to be as simple as possible. Although computers are the foundation for the PLE, it does not require very complex systems to be effective. All that is needed is technology that is reliable and responsive.
The basic computer equipment consists of three minicomputers, each dedicated to a specific use: a production server, a development server and a computer used for technological testing. Each of these servers contains a database specific to its own environment.
The software programs used include a database manager (Oracle), a suite of Oracle development tools (Developer 2000, C, Pro C, SQL, PI/SQL, TCP/IP), an operating system (Digital UNIX) and utilities. For those well-versed in computers, we would add that the memory required for the database (more than 5 000 000 electors) is more than 18 GB. The applications were developed to be compatible with the existing computer environment in the DGEQ offices.
Quality, speed, completeness, reliability
Expectations were high and the project was ambitious, but the permanent list of electors seems to have met the challenge. Its most visible and measurable benefits are a reduction in the cost of preparing lists of electors (more than $17 million saved over 5 years, despite the costs associated with the implementation and management of the PLE); use by the different levels of government; and an appreciable reduction in the electoral period (from 47 to 33 days). We have also found a constant improvement in the quality of the lists of electors and gained better control over the preparation and updating of the lists.
The rate of amendments when revising the lists of electors during an electoral event is an eloquent indicator of quality: the amendment rate of 8.5 percent during the 1995 referendum compares well with the 5.7 percent rate during the November 1998 provincial election.
The number of electors registered represents another favourable indicator for the PLE. In total, 4 639 860 persons were registered during the 1994 enumeration, compared to 5 254 482 for the 1998 election. On November 30, 1999, the names of 5 311 347 electors appeared on the PLE.
A recently implemented mechanism facilitates the registration of electors attaining the age of 18 years, persons who obtain Canadian citizenship, and persons already possessing Canadian citizenship who come to live in Quebec. This mechanism makes it possible, further to the Election Act, to directly register these persons on the list of electors after obtaining the information from the RAMQ. The DGEQ communicates with them later to advise them that, unless there is notice to the contrary from them, they are registered on the list.
This new mechanism has helped to resolve certain difficulties associated with the registration of young people who turn 18. A significant proportion of these young people delay returning the registration form.
The rate of registration requests during an election has noticeably decreased, declining from 6.5 percent in 1994 to 4.6 percent in 1998. During the initial overlap that made way for the first version of the PLE three years ago, 7 percent of potential electors did not "overlap" with the RAMQ file. In June 1999, this rate was 1.2 percent and in February 2000, 0.87 percent. Another benefit, and not the least, is that the list of electors for a specific election can be prepared at 12 hours notice.
A memorandum of understanding concluded between DGEQ and Elections Canada allows the forwarding of new registrations, deaths and other changes in Quebec elector information to the staff in charge of the National Register of Electors. The updating of data on Quebec electors in the National Register is done in part based on the PLE information.
For administrators of elections in Quebec, the real test of the PLE, however, occurred during the provincial election of November 1998. The experience proved conclusive. The permanent list of electors prepared for the general election was of undeniably better quality than the lists resulting from a door-to-door enumeration.
The recognition of this success came in November 1999, when the DGEQ was awarded the Prix d'excellence de l'administration publique québécoise for the permanent list of electors. The Prix d'excellence is intended to highlight noteworthy achievements in the public sector and pay tribute to their prime architects. The criteria for awarding this prize include the impact of the achievement on clients, its innovative character, its potential for application in other organizations and the quality of management during implementation.
Prospects for the future ...
Despite the difficulties that still exist and for which we continue to seek solutions, the results are convincing. The permanent list of electors is fulfilling its promise.
Given the list's success, it might be tempting to try to expand its uses. However, the legislature did not intend the PLE for broad use. The permanent list of electors was designed to meet very specific needs and it does that very well. What is more, pursuant to An Act respecting access to documents held by public bodies and the protection of personal information, information on electors is not of a public character and is strictly reserved for electoral purposes.
If there should be new uses, these will be in relation to the geographic file, which does not contain identifying information. We might, for example, consider potential partnerships with certain government organizations that already manage geographic databanks.
Because of the completeness and accuracy of the information in our geographic database, on, among other things, the spelling of place names, this database could certainly augment the information in other geographic databanks. In fact, a citizen may have many addresses, but only the principal residence of the elector is registered in the PLE. This is the principal residence that qualifies the person as an elector.
The concept of developing a unified management system for identity and addresses has been the subject of discussions for some time in government circles. Could we think about using the geographic database as part of such a project? This remains to be assessed and analyzed from all angles. The development of geomatics also leads us to anticipate other interesting partnerships.
In the immediate future, however, efforts will continue to be invested in improving the list. Certain functions already anticipated in the Election Act could be improved, particularly in regard to adapting the PLE to the rules of the school board environment. There is still room for improvement of the updating mechanisms. The foregoing exceptions should not, however, lead us to lose sight of the overall picture. Taken as a whole, the permanent list serves the Quebec democratic system very well, by encouraging the exercise of the right to vote by the largest possible number of electors.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.