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Comparative Assessment of Central Electoral Agencies


Our case studies show that there is no simple institutional solution to the challenges inherent in ensuring independent, professional electoral management while also preserving accountability and responsiveness. In practice, there are no perfect EMBs and no perfect elections. Therefore, when assessing the effectiveness of electoral governance arrangements and administration practices, it is more realistic to examine performance and outcomes across multiple dimensions and over time.

Another integrating theme of this study is that modifications to election machinery will not work if so-called reforms neglect the wider configuration of power within the political system and the incentives and disincentives that shape the behaviours of various institutions and actors, especially political parties and politicians.

Independence has become, in the opinion of the experts and the public alike, the single most important attribute of a credible electoral authority. However, independence can never be absolute, and the condition of being independent matters more for some electoral management functions than others. Also, independence cannot be allowed to trump other important values such as transparency, responsiveness and accountability.

This study demonstrates that independence, balanced by other important values, can be achieved under a number of different organizational formats. It is now widely accepted by election professionals and scholars that locating electoral management functions in a government department does not provide sufficient distance from the partisan political process to inspire public confidence in the independence and integrity of the electoral process. Single-headed agencies and multi-member commissions can, under appropriate structural and procedural arrangements, achieve independence, effectiveness and credibility. Knowledgeable, capable professional leadership committed to electoral integrity can make an important difference to the performance and reputation of a national EMB.

At the outset, we sounded the cautionary note that generalizing from what appears to work in another national setting to the Canadian situation should be done very carefully. While mindful of the risks of drawing lessons from other countries, we will conclude by offering some brief comparative observations on the Canadian electoral management arrangements.

First, we note that the Canadian electoral governance arrangements are well established and mature compared to the other countries in this study. In 1920, Canada was the first country in the world to move the electoral management function into the hands of an independent agent or officer of Parliament. This reliance on a single, impartial, professional administrator has not been followed in any of the other countries examined in this study, but it does not negate Elections Canada's strong reputation for integrity, consistency, stability and independence among informed observers in Canada and in other countries.

As a mature organization, Elections Canada represents decades of experience and evolution in response to changing circumstances. Because of its stability and the continuity of its top leadership, the organization has become a repository of distinctive competencies. It has a clear professional identity and a shared professional culture of impartiality and professionalism. In short, Elections Canada operates on a strong foundation that both promotes and preserves the fundamental values of electoral management in a democracy that were set out at the beginning of this study. Any proposed modifications to Elections Canada should not jeopardize these organizational strengths. All of these observations, however, should not be read to imply that Elections Canada could not perform better or that modifications to its structures and processes should never be contemplated.

Independent electoral commissions are a relatively recent invention, and, elsewhere in the world, the preferred electoral management model has become the multi-member commission, with members appointed in a number of different ways. As the discussion of the two bipartisan commissions in the US makes clear, the commission model is not a panacea for ensuring independent, effective or credible performance. However, forming a generally negative conclusion about commissions based on the US case would be wrong. The problems involved with the operation of the two commissions reflect more the realities and constraints of the US political system than the organizational model itself. As the examples of the other four countries with commissions reveal, if an appropriate structure, membership composition and procedures for balancing independence and professionalism with accountability and responsiveness are put in place, these EMBs can achieve a strong performance and inspire public confidence.

The important consideration is to ensure that a commission is not open to undue political pressure. As the UK example indicates, a hybrid model can be created with a mixed membership of independent and politically aligned individuals and still be effectively insulated from political pressures, especially from the governing party. Some of the institutional features of the UK governance model, such as the transparent public appointment process for commissioners and the existence of a parliamentary body (the Speaker's Committee) that serves as a buffer between the commission and the government, as well as an accountability forum, could usefully be considered for Canada should a government and Parliament decide to adopt a commission model.

Elections and referendums are complex countrywide events that are compressed into short time frames. More numerous laws, changing technologies, evolving political practices and rising expectations of citizens are adding to the complexity of these processes. In particular, technological change is both driving and enabling greater integration of the various functions performed by EMBs, including such activities as registering voters, authenticating voter identity, counting votes and interacting with political parties. There is room for debate, but generally, there seems to be a persuasive case for consolidating functions within single organizations, with some internal divisions to avoid conflicts, rather than a more dispersed approach of creating separate specialized bodies.

Finally, in all countries, there are challenges in keeping the legislative, regulatory and administrative frameworks up to date and adequate to deal with changing conditions in the political system. Elections Canada and the commissions in the other parliamentary countries have limited or no subordinate law-making authority, and, in some cases, the sanctions they can apply to deal with violations are limited to criminal actions before the courts. Laws developed over time can be inconsistent and become outdated. The UK is undertaking a review and modernization of its electoral laws, something that all countries would be advised to do periodically. To face the challenges ahead, electoral authorities will need a wider range of tools to deal with these changing conditions.