Comparative Assessment of Central Electoral Agencies
The Canadian constitutional order and political system are based on the principles and conventions of Cabinet-parliamentary government, which, under modern political conditions, concentrate a great deal of authority, initiative and control in the hands of the prime minister and Cabinet. During periods of majority government, Parliament, in the form of the elected House of Commons and the appointed Senate, has influence but no real power. The House of Commons is elected on a simple plurality model, which tends to "over-reward" the political party with the largest share of the popular vote with the number of seats it obtains in the Commons. This pattern may be a source of voter discontent with the outcomes of the electoral process because they have meant that regions of the country lack strong representation in the caucus of the governing party and the Cabinet. At various times throughout Canadian history, there have been proposals calling for some type of proportional representation for House of Commons elections and for the creation of an elected Senate as ways to offset the majoritarian tendencies and centralization of power reflected in present electoral arrangements and other fundamental features of the political system.Footnote 3
The second leading constitutional feature of Canada's political system is federalism. The existence of two orders of government and divided legislative responsibilities reflects and reinforces regionally based economic, social and cultural differences in the country. Canada is thought by many to be the most decentralized federal system in the world, and the existence of strong provincial governments gives rise to complaints that regional concerns are being neglected in the national electoral and policy processes.
Centralized administration of elections in Canada began in 1920 under the Dominion Elections Act. The Act established the position of Chief Electoral Officer. The new position was given deputy minister status and, at the time, lifetime tenure. In 1927, the Act was amended so that the Chief Electoral Officer would be appointed by resolution of the House of Commons rather than by government. The Chief Electoral Officer was responsible for an independent, non-partisan Office charged with administering federal elections and by-elections – the first such agency in the world (Elections Canada 2007, ch. 3). According to John Courtney, the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer was established "in order ... to guarantee an electoral organization that would be distinguished by its managerial competence, administrative fairness and institutional non-partisanship" (Courtney 2007, 33).
The legislation governing the administration of elections was renamed the Canada Elections Act in 1951. The independence of the agency responsible for elections was established by provisions within the Act related to tenure and removal of the Chief Electoral Officer, various accountability mechanisms and its financial independence. Other significant improvements to Canada's electoral legislation occurred over time – expanding the franchise for Canadian citizens and making the vote more accessible. The most influential change came about in 1982 with the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter guarantees every citizen of Canada the democratic right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly of a province or territory as well as eligibility to hold public office.
The Chief Electoral Officer is one of a number of so-called officers of Parliament who are appointed to promote and uphold values and practices considered important to Canadian democracy.Footnote 4 Their offices carry out duties assigned to them by statute. They are accountable to Parliament and report to one or both of the House of Commons and the Senate, but they are also tasked with supporting individual Canadians by ensuring fairness and integrity in public life. In the case of Elections Canada, its role is to ensure free and fair elections. As discussed below, a number of mechanisms in its design and operation are meant to ensure that independence, especially from the government of the day, is balanced with accountability to Parliament.
The method of appointing the Chief Electoral Officer reflects the search for an appropriate balance. Following consultation with the opposition parties in Parliament, the government forwards to Parliament the name of a nominee for the position. Appointment takes place after a resolution of the House of Commons is passed, a method that differs from that of other officers of Parliament, who are appointed by the Cabinet. When the present Chief Electoral Officer was appointed in 2007, he appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to answer questions from members of Parliament (MPs).
While the position of Chief Electoral Officer is no longer a lifetime appointment, it still has a long tenure – until age 65 or upon resignation. The Chief Electoral Officer can be removed from office only for cause by the Governor General on address of the Senate and House of Commons; this is the same as the procedure for removing a judge of the Supreme Court of Canada. There have been six Chief Electoral Officers since the position was created in 1920. Both the rank as a deputy department head and salary of a Federal Court judge are fixed in legislation. The current Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, was appointed to the position in 2007; he was formerly a law professor and federal public servant. The past four Chief Electoral Officers have held the position for an average of 20 years, a duration that leads to a great deal of stability within the organization and consistency in the approach to electoral administration.
Mandate, Powers and Responsibilities
Elections Canada's primary mandate is to be prepared to conduct a federal general election or by-election at all times. Within the five-year legal mandate of Parliament, the call of an election is at the discretion of the Governor General on the advice of the prime minister. An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act, fixing the dates of national elections, was passed into law in May 2007. While this law may introduce some degree of predictability in planning for electoral events, it did not change the rules that allow the prime minister to dissolve Parliament, and neither the October 2008 nor the May 2011 national election was held on the scheduled date indicated by the law. In addition to its responsibility for administering the Canada Elections Act, Elections Canada also conducts referendums according to the Referendum Act.
Elections Canada's duties are both operational and regulatory. On the operational side, the agency exercises general direction and supervision over the conduct of federal elections, maintains a voters list called the National Register of Electors, instructs and oversees election officers to ensure their compliance with the Act, implements voter education and information programs, conducts voter and election-related research and provides support to the independent commissions responsible for the periodic readjustment of federal electoral boundaries (according to the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act).
Elections Canada also regulates political entities and administers an extensive set of political financing rules. This includes registering political parties and their district associations, leadership contestants, nomination contestants and third parties engaged in election advertising and administering the candidate nomination process. The agency examines the financial returns of all political entities for compliance with the Canada Elections Act, ensuring that these entities do not exceed their election expenses and contribution limits. Elections Canada publicly discloses the details of these financial filings on its website. It is also responsible for reimbursing eligible election expenses to candidates and political parties and administering quarterly payments to political parties.Footnote 5
Elections Canada has responsibility for both gaining and enforcing compliance with the Act. In this regard, there is a clear separation of duties between its role in advising, educating and assisting political parties and candidates in their efforts to comply with the regulatory burden of the political financing provisions of the Act and its role in enforcement. A Commissioner of Canada Elections, who is appointed by the Chief Electoral Officer, handles enforcement of Canada's electoral laws but acts independently. The position was created in 1974. The Commissioner has a range of options at his or her disposal in order to bring anyone who has broken the law, or may break the law, into compliance with the Act. Caution letters and voluntary compliance agreements can be used for less serious or technical infractions. The Commissioner used to have prosecution powers, but this authority was removed in 2006; now he or she must refer prosecutions to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Chief Electoral Officer has recommended to Parliament alternatives to traditional enforcement tools that make greater use of adapted civil and administrative sanctions.
The Chief Electoral Officer also appoints a Broadcasting Arbitrator to allocate paid and free broadcasting time to the political parties. The Broadcasting Arbitrator prepares guidelines to clarify the responsibilities of broadcasters in allocating time and resolves disputes about the purchase of advertising time during an election.
Elections Canada is divided into six organizational units for the purposes of administering its statutory obligations: the Office of the Chief of Staff; Electoral Events; Integrated Services, Policy and Public Affairs; Legal Services, Compliance and Investigations; Political Financing; and Human Resources. These sectors, as they are called, handle all of the agency's various administrative, policy, technical, operational and human resource functions. Elections Canada, whose head office is located in Gatineau, Quebec, employs approximately 500 people. Employees are hired in accordance with the Public Service Employment Act, meaning that they must perform their duties in a non-partisan manner.
To stage elections, Elections Canada must recruit more than 230,000 temporary election workers from across the country to staff over 15,200 polling sites. The law still allows for registered parties whose candidates finished first and second in the last election in an electoral district to provide lists of names for some categories of election workers. However, in an era when many citizens are disengaged from the political process, parties have enough difficulty finding their own campaign staff, let alone finding extra workers to refer to Elections Canada,Footnote 6 and the number of names submitted by political parties dropped from 53,000 in the 2008 election to 33,000 in the 2011 election (Elections Canada 2013a, 14). Therefore, the vast majority of election officers are non-partisan appointees recruited by the returning officer, and all election officers must complete a pledge of non-partisanship. Election field management personnel, such as returning officers and field liaison officers, are appointed in an open, merit-based competitive process to work in what are now 338 electoral districts.
Elections Canada also works in collaboration with provincial and territorial electoral offices to address issues of common concern, and it has agreements in place to share elector data with agencies that maintain permanent voter registers.
The Office of the Chief Electoral Officer operates under two separate budget authorities. The first is an annual appropriation, which covers salaries of the agency's permanent staff and in 2013–2014 was for $30.1 million. The second is statutory spending authority for all other expenditures, including the funding necessary for elections and referendums, which Elections Canada draws directly from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. This is an ongoing authority that is not subject to parliamentary approval. Statutory spending comprised 74 percent of the agency's total budget in 2013–2014, when Elections Canada projects drew $85.8 million in statutory funds. This type of funding mechanism highlights Elections Canada's independence from government and is necessary to manage the unpredictability of electoral events.
The Chief Electoral Officer chairs the Advisory Committee of Political Parties, consisting of two representatives from each of Canada's 18 registered political parties, to discuss administrative and legislative issues of common concern. In 2013, he established the Elections Canada Advisory Board to provide non-partisan advice on matters related to Canada's electoral system.Footnote 7
While Elections Canada does not have the mandate to fund international electoral assistance projects, it is widely recognized for the advice, professional support and technical assistance it provides to promote democratic development around the world. It also actively exchanges information with other EMBs and international electoral organizations for the purpose of identifying and contributing to best practices in the field of electoral administration. In response to increased pressure to contain its expenditures, Elections Canada has recently decreased its participation in regional and multilateral international organizations.
Accountability and Independence
Elections Canada has an international reputation as an independent and impartial EMB. The Chief Electoral Officer reports directly to Parliament rather than to a minister of the Crown and communicates with Cabinet through the Government House Leader. These reporting relationships are meant to emphasize that Elections Canada's primary accountability relationship is with Parliament, not with the prime minister and Cabinet or with the central agencies that serve the political executive of government. Within 90 days of an election, the Chief Electoral Officer is required to report on electoral administration; he can also submit a separate report that includes recommendations for changes to the Canada Elections Act. He also reports to Parliament each year on his budget and expenditures, although he is the only officer that is not obligated by law to submit an annual report to Parliament.
As noted earlier, the government nominates the Chief Electoral Officer, but he or she is formally appointed through a resolution of the House of Commons and can be removed only by a joint resolution of the two Houses of Parliament. The Chief Electoral Officer is given relative security of tenure and does not have to seek reappointment. The mandate of the agency is set by Parliament, and, when changes are introduced to electoral laws, they are debated in both the House of Commons and the Senate. The Chief Electoral Officer is authorized to recommend changes to these laws, but still depends on government to amend them through legislation.
The Chief Electoral Officer does not have the power to make regulations but has the power, under subsection 17(1), to adapt any provision of the Canada Elections Act during an election period, or within 30 days after an election, if satisfied that it is necessary because of an emergency, an unusual or unforeseen circumstance or an error. Another provision of the Act (section 179) authorizes the Chief Electoral Officer to issue instructions to adapt special voting rules where he or she considers it necessary. These provisions were used, for example, following a Supreme Court decision that struck down a prohibition on inmate voting, allowing the Chief Electoral Officer to adapt the rules and issue instructions to ensure that inmates could exercise their right to vote.Footnote 8
Any increases to Elections Canada's annual appropriation budget is subject to negotiation with the Treasury Board, a Cabinet committee and the Treasury Board Secretariat, which supports it. From 2005 to 2012, the ad hoc Parliamentary Advisory Panel on the Funding and Oversight of Officers of Parliament considered requests for new funding developed by officers of Parliament, including the Chief Electoral Officer, before the Treasury Board considered them. The panel was chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons and functioned as an advisory body only.Footnote 9 In 2012, however, the government discontinued the practice of seeking the advice of the panel concerning new funding requests.
That same year, under the government's expenditure review process, Elections Canada was invited, like the other agencies of Parliament, to reduce its appropriation budget, and Elections Canada did so, by 8 percent a year for the next five years. These reductions have had a considerable impact on its activities. The Report on Plans and Priorities for 2012–2013 states, "In the current climate of fiscal restraint, Elections Canada plans to undertake limited improvements over the next three years," and "Fiscal restraint and current priorities mean that Elections Canada will not invest resources in referendum readiness and remains unprepared to conduct a referendum" (Elections Canada 2012, 9).
The annual appropriation budget is debated by and voted on by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. The statutory budget does not require a vote. The financial statements of the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer are subject to annual audits by the Office of the Auditor General, and the agency is subject to the reporting requirements of Public Accounts.
By and large, Canadians have a high degree of faith in their electoral agency. A recent survey of Canadians revealed that 77.6 percent had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in Elections Canada, and 82.6 percent indicated they were either "very satisfied" or "fairly satisfied" with the way it runs federal elections (Canadian Election Study 2011). Following the May 2011 federal election, a further survey indicated that 85 percent of eligible electors thought that Elections Canada had run the election in a fair manner (Elections Canada 2013d).
Despite its long history and the relative lack of political interference in its affairs compared with some other EMBs, Elections Canada still faces several organizational challenges.
- It is becoming increasingly difficult to attract and retain the approximately 230,000 election workers needed for federal elections in Canada. The turnover and replacement of workers from one election to the next makes skills and knowledge transfer more difficult and results in the need for continuous retraining and potential administrative errors at the polls.
- Elections Canada faces a major challenge in reversing the erosion of public trust stemming from a legal dispute that revealed serious procedural irregularities and exceedingly poor levels of procedural compliance on the part of election officers in the 2011 federal election.Footnote 10 A report resulting from a major review on compliance, commissioned by the Chief Electoral Officer, found multiple, interlinked causes for the levels of error made by election officers working at the polls and concluded that "fully addressing the compliance problem requires a fundamental redesign of the voting process" (Neufeld 2013, 6). Elections Canada has committed to developing a new voting services model by 2019 providing that it receives support to do so from parliamentarians. It has also committed to overhauling administrative practices in time for the (scheduled) 2015 general election to improve procedural compliance levels in the short term.
- The 2011 federal general election revealed a voter suppression scheme, commonly referred to as robocalls. The scheme involved placing automated and personal telephone calls to electors on or near election day, falsely informing them that the locations of their polling stations had changed, and it was allegedly designed to discourage electors from casting their ballots. Such deceit can seriously undermine the otherwise high degree of trust that electors have in the electoral system and how it is administered. The laws regulating political party communications with electors are inadequate to deal with the situation, and Elections Canada has recommended changes to the Canada Elections Act to prevent this kind of fraudulent activity in the future. From personal privacy and security perspectives, there are also concerns about the volume of information that political parties are accumulating about voters and how it is being used and protected. In addition, there is the issue of enforcement, which needs to be bolstered if the Commissioner of Canada Elections is to have the necessary tools to effectively investigate future occurrences. In the wake of the robocalls issue, in March 2012, Parliament voted unanimously in support of a motion to introduce legislation within six months that would strengthen Elections Canada's investigative powers.
- In terms of the regulatory framework that holds political parties and candidates to account, the rules are detailed, complex and burdensome. While Elections Canada does not set these rules, it is responsible for ensuring compliance with them, which contributes to public trust in the integrity of the regulatory regime. In June 2010, the CEO issued a report to Parliament (Elections Canada 2010) that included numerous recommendations to alleviate the regulatory burden on political participants and improve the integrity of the political financing regime. Thus far, there has been no indication from the government as to whether they are prepared to adopt any of these proposals.
- In Canada, participation at the polls has been waning steadily for the past 25 years. Elections Canada recognizes that it has a leadership role to play in addressing this issue by researching the factors involved in electoral participation; ensuring voter accessibility; educating the public; collaborating with other groups that can engage and support civic education with pre-voters, new voters and non-voters; reducing the barriers to equitable access to the electoral process; and leveraging new technologies to make voting easier (Elections Canada 2013a, 23–25).
Australian Electoral Commission
Australia's constitutional order and political system is similar in many respects to Canada's. Both countries have federal systems of government that are based on the principles and practices of Cabinet-parliamentary government. The Commonwealth (federal), state and territorial parliaments are all directly elected by the people in accordance with the constitutional and legislative requirements that apply to each. Each jurisdiction also has its own administrative body, which is responsible for conducting elections. However, the Australian Senate comprises an equal number of elected members from each state, unlike the Canadian upper house, which is appointed on a regional basis. Furthermore, both Houses of the Australian Parliament are elected on a form of proportional representation rather than a simple plurality model. These electoral features result in a stronger role for Parliament, especially for the Senate, where government majorities are rare.
The electoral authority in Australia was first formed administratively in 1902 as a branch of the Department of Home Affairs. It consisted of a Chief Electoral Officer for the Commonwealth, a Commonwealth Electoral Officer for each state and a divisional returning officer for each electoral division. All appointees were public servants, and electoral administration was distributed across various federal government departments. In 1973, a statutory body called the Australian Electoral Office was established, with senior staff appointed for fixed terms by the Governor General. While the status of the Chief Electoral Officer was elevated to the equivalent of a department head under this structure, the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer was still located within a government department and subject to ministerial direction and executive control. In 1984, major amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 established the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).
The AEC consists of three persons appointed by the Governor General, on the recommendation of the government, for a term of office not to exceed seven years unless the incumbent is reappointed. The chairperson of the AEC must be an active or retired judge of the Federal Court of Australia, and he or she is selected from a list of three names put forward by the Chief Justice of the Federal Court. The current chairperson, Hon. Peter Heerey, was appointed for a five-year term in 2009. This is a part-time position.
A second position is the Electoral Commissioner, who is the full-time chief executive of the AEC, responsible for the day-to-day direction and management of the agency. This position is currently vacant.Footnote 11 The third member of the commission, Brian Pink, is a part-time, non-judicial appointee. This appointee must be the head of a public service agency or hold an equivalent position. Since 1984, the Australian Statistician has occupied this position, an arrangement that is thought to be advantageous considering the AEC's responsibility for boundary redistribution.
Electoral commissioners can be removed from office for misbehaviour, mental or physical incapacity, bankruptcy, absence without leave, engagement in paid employment without approval, failure to disclose a conflict of interest or failing to comply with his or her statutory obligations without reasonable excuse. An independent remuneration tribunal determines the salaries of AEC members.
There is no set frequency with which the AEC must meet; it is at the discretion of the chairperson to convene meetings as he or she deems necessary for the efficient performance of AEC functions. Meetings are not open to the public, but minutes are taken, and decisions are usually made public. If there is no consensus on matters arising at a meeting, decisions are made by a majority vote by members present. If only two members are present, the determination of questions is postponed to a full meeting.
Mandate, Powers and Responsibilities
The AEC has one primary outcome for which it is funded – namely, to maintain an impartial and independent electoral system for eligible electors through active management of the electoral roll, efficient delivery of polling services and targeted education and public awareness programs (AEC 2012) – a mandate derived from the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. The AEC is organized into three service areas: electoral roll management, electoral management and support services, and education and communication. Its core business functions include:
- Managing the Commonwealth electoral roll
- Conducting elections and referendums, including industrial and fee-for-service elections and protected-action ballotsFootnote 12
- Educating and informing the community about electoral rights and responsibilities
- Providing research, advice and assistance on electoral matters to Parliament, other government agencies and recognized bodies
- Providing assistance in overseas elections and referendums in support of wider government initiatives
- Administering election funding, financial reporting, disclosure and party registration requirements
- Supporting electoral redistributions
- Providing international electoral capacity-building and technical support
The AEC has the power to investigate suspected contraventions of the Act, but no authority to lay charges, prosecute offences or impose penalties, except for an infraction of the country's compulsory voting laws. For example, the AEC may examine the annual and election-related financial disclosure statements required to be filed by registered political parties and candidates and can compel documents and other oral or written evidence to be produced when it suspects non-compliance. However, alleged offences must be referred to the Australian Federal Police for further action.
As noted above, the Electoral Commissioner is the Chief Electoral Officer of the AEC. Reporting to this position is a deputy electoral commissioner and eight electoral officers. The electoral officers for each of the six states and the Northern Territory are appointed by the Governor General for a term of office not exceeding seven years, and they are eligible for reappointment. The Electoral Commissioner appoints an electoral officer for the Australian Capital Territory, an appointment that ends following the election for which the electoral officer was appointed. The commissioner may also appoint assistant electoral officers, divisional returning officers and assistant divisional returning officers. Electoral officers for all states and both territories have delegated authority to manage election and referendum activities within their respective jurisdictions. At the electoral division level, these tasks are the responsibility of returning officers.
As the statutory head of the AEC, the Electoral Commissioner has the authority to decide the agency's staffing level within its approved budget and to determine the remuneration of the senior executive staff, consultants and such temporary staff as he or she thinks necessary to conduct an election and carry out mandated education and information programs. The vast majority of the AEC's roughly 900 personnel are permanent public servants selected through a merit-based hiring process and paid according to public sector position classifications. These and other staff are expected to refrain from engaging in political activities and to be politically neutral in performing their duties. All AEC staff are bound by the Australian Public Service code of conduct.
In 2013–2014, a non-election year, the AEC's total revenue was A$134.4 million. The majority of this amount (A$116.7 million) is appropriation funding for ongoing operations. The remainder is revenue from Australian state and territorial electoral commissions, which contribute to the maintenance of the electoral roll; funds received from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for electoral support work conducted in the Asia-Pacific region; and income generated from various industrial, commercial and fee-for-service elections.
Accountability and Independence
The AEC reports to Parliament through the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, a multi-party body with members from both chambers of Parliament. Committee meetings and inquiries are open to the public. Over the years, the committee has conducted a wide range of studies of election bills and inquiries into aspects of the electoral process.Footnote 13 It is an advisory body only so that, while the AEC must give due consideration to its views and recommendations, it cannot issue binding directives to the AEC on how to perform its duties. The government is required to respond to the committee's reports, and government-supported recommendations form the basis of the electoral reform agenda during any parliamentary term.
The AEC reports to the government through the Special Minister of State. It is not subject to ministerial direction in how it conducts electoral events; it is, however, required to report to the minister on electoral matters and such other matters as it sees appropriate. It must also report to the minister each year on its operations and following any general and Senate elections in relation to election funding and financial disclosure of the political participants. In addition, it must provide information and advice on electoral matters to Parliament, the government, departments and other Commonwealth authorities. All reports are tabled in Parliament. The AEC is expected to undertake regular research and analysis to build a strong evidence base for improving electoral participation, support the delivery of electoral services and contribute to electoral policy reform.
The AEC's annual operating budget is submitted as part of the Department of Finance budgetary portfolio and is subject to the same routine Treasury Board scrutiny as government departments. Once its budget is appropriated, the AEC has discretion to spend it as it sees fit, within the limits approved by Parliament. Additional funding is available through separate submissions for preparing the electoral roll and conducting elections as well as for the payment of per vote reimbursement to political parties. These funds are usually provided without significant alteration provided the AEC's budget has conformed to restraint targets established by central government. All accounts are subject to annual audit by the Australian National Audit Office, and audits are published in the annual report.
The entire process of selecting and appointing commissioners to the AEC remains within the government's oversight and control (Kelly 2012, 35). There is no requirement for a multi-party committee recommendation, a supporting resolution from Parliament or consultation with party leaders before an appointment can be made. However, having none of these interposing mechanisms in place can leave appointees open to claims of partisanship. Thus, Australia made the conscious decision to have the AEC chaired by a judge or former judge to bolster the perception of non-partisanship. The other two members are also known for their integrity and impartiality, and this reinforces public confidence in the integrity of the AEC. In the Australian model, there are no legislative restrictions on partisan appointments, but political parties are not directly represented within the AEC or electoral administration.Footnote 14
Under the law, the AEC is authorized to do "all things necessary or convenient" for the performance of its functions. However, it does not have the power to independently develop the electoral regulatory framework, nor does it have statutory authority to make recommendations to government and Parliament, although this happens informally. The AEC's main opportunity to influence the electoral reform process is through the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. The AEC is able to make independent submissions and is one of the main sources of evidence throughout the public hearing process. The AEC may also make recommendations to the minister, who would then need to seek government approval to initiate any legislative change. Although this does not appear to be a major issue, it has the potential to give the political party in government the advantage of having earlier access to critical information before it is made available to the other political parties, and this can lead to the criticism that the AEC has a closer relationship to government.
The lack of authority to recommend legislative changes and issue binding regulations may be intended to preserve the policy-setting roles of government and Parliament and may serve to protect the AEC from claims of partiality. While more limited administrative rule-making authority would give the AEC greater autonomy and enforcement capacity, Norm Kelly (2012) points out that granting it such authority could lead to administrative actions that have "significant partisan impacts and the Australian experience has generally been that the governing political parties keep tight controls over this area of electoral regulation."
In recent years, the neutrality and independence of the AEC have come under attack by the previous opposition Liberal Party. Numerous references can be found in Hansard of committee meetings in which the AEC's submissions have been accused of being partisan, biased, tainted and supporting policy decisions of the then governing Labor Party. It is a troubling situation at any time for an EMB to have its integrity questioned by a major political party, but it is particularly distressing after a Liberal-National Coalition government was formed following the 2013 general election. From comments made in committee meetings, it would appear that the current government's view is that the AEC should focus its efforts on administering elections and not on recommending reforms to Parliament. Fuelled by the early reappointment of the Electoral Commissioner for a further five-year term before the Labor Party left office, the Coalition government recently indicated that it would initiate a "hard" review of the AEC, focusing on its structure and paying close attention to the recommendations (Kelly 2012).
As noted above, budgetary allocations for the AEC are appropriated through the regular governmental budget process. With regard to financial independence, Dundas (1994, 40) points out that the need for an electoral authority to negotiate its budget can subvert the authority from its primary role as an independent agency. Wall et al. (2006) also suggest that it would be ideal for an EMB to be free from day-to-day interference in how it spends its budget within the parameters of the vote approved by Parliament. In this regard, while the AEC remains reliant on the government budgetary process for its funding, there is little recent evidence that the government restricts the flow of funds to constrain the AEC or gain political advantage. The AEC is, however, expected to fully participate and co-operate in the overall budgetary reduction exercises affecting all government departments, and it has had to defer investments to replace outdated IT.
The following is a list of the challenges that the AEC currently faces:
- Securing the legislative change necessary to improve and modernize electoral processes has often been contentious. For example, there has been considerable debate about a recent legislative amendment that would allow the AEC to update details for enrolled electors and add persons to the electoral roll from "trusted" government data sources. The current government (then in Opposition) opposed the legislation on the grounds that the veracity of the data could not be relied upon and that its use could threaten the integrity of the electoral roll. It remains to be seen whether the government will repeal this legislation. Parliament has also been quite reluctant to amend electoral legislation to permit electronic voting to be expanded beyond its use with visually impaired voters, despite increasing public demand for this option.
- Australia's political parties disagree on the role of the AEC in providing advice on electoral policy matters. Certain members of the current government, while in Opposition, voiced the opinion that the AEC's role should be restricted to providing advice on specific technical and administrative matters and not on electoral policy or advocating for electoral reform. The AEC recognizes that it is within the government's purview to determine electoral policy and the extent to which it seeks the agency's input and advice. However, there are occasions when the lines blur between technical and policy issues.
- Parliamentary expectations for more convenient early-voting opportunities have been welcomed by voters because they try to avoid voting on polling day. Early voting has increased in every election, and it is difficult to accurately predict early-voting service volumes at election time. It is also difficult to make resource adjustments to compensate for the early-voting uptake on polling day. Early voters must declare their eligibility for this option, and the process of scrutinizing some of the ballots, which must be placed in envelopes, is more resource-intensive at the vote count. Despite the increased volume of early voting during each election and the time-consuming process for counting these ballots, political parties still expect the AEC to provide final election results within the same time frames.
- Despite having compulsory voting, there is concern that the turnout for national elections in Australia is only about 93 percent, and it has been slowly declining. There is concern as well that the number of eligible electors missing from the electoral roll has been increasing. The legislative mandate of the AEC, "to promote public awareness of electoral and Parliamentary matters by means of the conduct of education and information programs and by other means," and its responsibility to administer the compulsory voting provisions of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, justify a role for the AEC in trying to increase democratic participation. There is no shortage of ideas as to how to go about this challenging task, but no easy solutions.
- Maintaining a complete and current electoral roll is becoming more of a challenge as traditional updating methods, such as door-to-door and mailed-out enumeration, are becoming less effective. Online enrolment, which was introduced before the last election, now accounts for approximately 80 percent of enrolment transactions. Despite the fact that coverage of the roll is estimated to be at 89 to 93 percent (due to compulsory enrolment), there is constant political pressure to improve the coverage and maintain it between national elections for use in state and territorial government elections.
- Securing sufficient funding to prepare for and run elections is not a major problem for the AEC. However, in each budgetary cycle, it (along with all other government departments and agencies) is expected to return an efficiency dividend, and this has made it more difficult to acquire sufficient funding for ongoing programs, services and infrastructure. Recent budget increases resulting from a government review of the AEC were almost completely recouped by an increase in the efficiency dividend expected from the AEC. Also, government policy requires proposals for any new expenditure to be funded from the anticipated efficiencies or offset savings that it will achieve. To address the issue of aging IT systems, the AEC is now looking at having to collaborate more widely with other agencies to leverage their systems and infrastructure.
- The AEC's ability to attract election workers has become more difficult in recent elections because people appear less inclined to work for 14 hours or longer on election day for the low wages it is able to offer. As a result, the AEC is contemplating dividing election day work into shifts, but it is not certain that this will resolve the issue. It could be that the higher amounts that state and territorial governments can pay for election work will continue to make it difficult for the AEC to recruit and retain election staff.
Return to source of Footnote 3 For collections of articles that examine regionalism, representation, political parties and the electoral system, see Aucoin 1985 and Bakvis 1991. See also Law Commission of Canada 2004.
Return to source of Footnote 4 The other officers of Parliament (and the dates of their creation) include the Auditor General (1868), the Official Languages Commissioner (1970), the Information Commissioner (1983), the Privacy Commissioner (1983), the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner (2007), the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner (2007) and the Commissioner of Lobbying (2008).
Return to source of Footnote 5 Public funding of political parties on a per vote basis was introduced in 2004 in conjunction with new restrictions on the source and amount of contributions – eliminating corporate and union donations and restricting contributions to individuals. Following a gradual reduction imposed in April 2012, the public subsidy will be completely eliminated in 2015.
Return to source of Footnote 6 In 2010, the CEO recommended a change to the law that would allow returning officers to begin recruiting revision and other local election officers earlier than the 17th day into the election campaign. See www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=rep/off/r40&document=index&lang=e.
Return to source of Footnote 7 For more information, see www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=med&document=oct1513&dir=pre&lang=e.
Return to source of Footnote 8 Sauvé v. Canada (Attorney General),  3 S.C.R. 519.
Return to source of Footnote 9 For a discussion of the panel's work up to 2010, see Stilborn 2010.
Return to source of Footnote 10 See Opitz v. Wrzesnewskyj  3 S.C.R. 76 at http://scc.lexum.org/decisia-scc-csc/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/12635/1/document.do and Wrzesnewskyj v. Canada (Attorney General), 2012 ONSC 2873 (CanLII) at www.iijcan.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2012/2012onsc2873/2012onsc2873.html.
Return to source of Footnote 11 The former commissioner, Ed Killesteyn, was a career public servant with a background in accounting. He was appointed in 2009 and reappointed for another five-year term, to begin in January 2014. He resigned from the position in February 2014 following a controversy involving lost ballots in a close Senate race in Western Australia.
Return to source of Footnote 12 The AEC is mandated to conduct all elections for office in registered organizations, such as trade unions and employer organizations, unless the Industrial Registrar grants an exemption. An industrial action, such as a strike, work stoppage or lockout, is generally unlawful and prohibited unless it is a protected industrial action, which is industrial action taken by employees or an employer for the purpose of supporting or advancing claims in relation to an agreement under the Fair Work Act 2009. A protected-action ballot is a process by which employees can choose, by means of a fair and democratic secret ballot, whether to engage in a particular protected industrial action.
Return to source of Footnote 13 For a list of reports prepared from 1996 to the present day, see the committee's website at www.aph.gov.au/parliamentary_business/committees/house_of_representatives_committees?url=em/reports.htm.
Return to source of Footnote 14 The reason for this may stem from the fact that the AEC was formed before a strong party system developed in Australia. Political parties were largely ignored under federal legislation until 1984, when amendments permitted a candidate's party affiliation to be printed on the ballot (Maley 2001).