An Essential Transformation
This report to Parliament, after the second general election of my term of office, gives me a welcome opportunity to put in perspective the changes that have taken place in Canada's electoral system and its management during the past five years.
The general election in 1993 followed significant amendments to the Canada Elections Act. At that time, attention was focused on voting rights and access to the electoral system. Bill C-114 brought in broader access to the special ballot and polling day registration. The Bill also widened Elections Canada's mandate to carry out public information and education programs, first introduced by Bill C-78. We had already introduced new planning tools at Elections Canada and were beginning to explore the uses of technology to create efficiencies in electoral administration. Over the course of the following year, Elections Canada developed and published the agency's first strategic plan.
Four years later, great strides have been made, both in Canada's electoral system and in its administration. The 36th general election followed closely on the heels of further amendments to the Canada Elections Act. Bill C-243 rationalized reimbursements to political parties of their election expenses, basing eligibility for repayment only on the number of votes gained. Bill C-63 created a computerized National Register of Electors to replace enumeration and a shortened 36-day electoral calendar. Both of these changes will reduce the costs of future federal elections. Improvements were also made to the voters list revision process, and staggered voting hours were introduced across the country to help ensure that polling results would be known at approximately the same time everywhere in Canada.
Less than four months elapsed between the passage of the new legislation, in December 1996, and its implementation by Elections Canada in a final enumeration in April 1997, followed by a general election called for June 2, 1997. A new representation order was in force for these events, giving Canada 301 electoral districts in place of the previous 295. With the change in electoral district boundaries came a significant turnover in returning officers. Seventy-five percent of the returning officers for the 36th general election were new appointees, with little or no previous experience in election management. The changes in legislation and electoral district boundaries necessitated large-scale revisions to technical and operational systems, public information materials, and training materials for electoral officials, all on a demanding schedule.
Our organizational processes have matured. Elections Canada now routinely uses information technology, automated business systems and integrated planning to deliver high-quality electoral services and achieve greater efficiency in our internal operations. Monitoring and assessment mechanisms help us measure the results of our efforts and design improvements. For the recent electoral event, we implemented a variety of innovations, such as our completely computerized election management data capture and retrieval system.
The computerization of our cartographic services allowed us to produce approximately 55 000 new computer-generated electoral maps for this election, including detailed polling division maps for the 301 electoral districts, together with related products such as riding profiles and street indexes.
Since October 1995, Elections Canada has increased public access to electoral information through a number of mechanisms, including our site on the Internet. During the 36th general election, electors with computer access could obtain information on their electoral districts, the addresses and phone numbers of their returning officers' offices, lists of candidates, key dates in the election calendar and other information via the Internet. An application form for registration under the Special Voting Rules could also be printed from the site by Canadians who wanted to vote outside their ridings. On June 2, 1997, preliminary voting results were posted on the Elections Canada site after the last polls closed at 10:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
For this election (and the preceding enumeration), the modem took over functions that had previously been handled by fax. For the first time, all returning offices were electronically linked to Elections Canada, enabling direct data transmission and e-mail communication, speeding up information exchange and decreasing the paper burden. We also redesigned the system to process financial returns from candidates, and developed an electronic version of the return.
We field tested these and other operational innovations, to the extent possible, in the 10 federal by-elections during the 35th Parliament and also in the 1995 general election in the Northwest Territories.
Elections Canada's relationship with the Northwest Territories has also reached a new stage. To facilitate timely and efficient management of the NWT election, I delegated specific powers to the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly and Chief Plebiscite Officer. This approach proved to be successful. NWT electoral officials have professionally managed two general elections and two by-elections in the past five years, and accordingly I have recommended that my role as overseer of NWT electoral events come to an end and that a Chief Electoral Officer for the territory be appointed.
The road to operational innovation has not been without its challenges. A particular area of concern remains the process for selecting and appointing returning officers; the increasing sophistication of the electoral system and the electorate it serves puts great demands on the managerial abilities of these officers.
Our experience at this election underlines the fact that, while much has been achieved in the past four years, much still remains to be done, both in terms of legislative improvements and management practices. The Canadian electoral process has served us well for more than three quarters of a century. Amendments to the legislation over that time have more fully expressed the principles of participation, fairness and transparency, and Canada has earned international recognition for the quality of its electoral management.
However, the requirements of the modern age are straining the seams of this venerable structure. We have a more sophisticated, knowledgeable electorate; we continue to be guided by the principle of fiscal restraint; and while increased reliance on technology can help provide the quality of service electors demand, the electoral process must be supported and directed by streamlined and modernized legislation. It is essential that the Act reflect the technological, demographic, political and socio-economic changes occurring in Canadian society.
It is also essential to fill the gaps in our electoral legislation. The provisions governing election financing, for instance, were introduced more than 20 years ago and are now outdated. Certain elements of party and election financing continue to be unregulated by the Act. The time has come to take a new look at election financing, to ensure that the public's right to know and the right of all participants in the electoral process to a level playing field are met. Also to be addressed are inequalities in the representation in the House of Commons of certain groups in society, including Aboriginal persons, women and members of ethnocultural groups. The provisions governing publication of the results of public opinion polls received widespread media attention during the election, as did the issues of proportional representation and use of the Internet for party advertising and publication of opinion poll results. There is a need to empower the Chief Electoral Officer to test new procedures and technology during by-elections, to speed up the transition of innovations from theory to practice in a controlled manner.
These and other issues have been raised before by the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, by the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform, and in Strengthening the Foundation, the Annex to my report on the 35th general election. The recommendations made previously and those outlined in the Recommendations section of this report are based on a commitment to the participation of all Canadians in the electoral process, to a fair and inclusive system that is accessible to the entire Canadian electorate, and to the integrity and openness of an electoral process that is managed in a modern, cost-effective and professional manner.
Our strategic plan identifies this Office's support for parliamentary efforts to revise electoral legislation as a top priority. In fact, Elections Canada has played an increasingly important role in electoral reform in recent years, particularly as a source of expert advice and counsel to the House and the Senate. It is in this context, to initiate dialogue and assist Parliament in its work as it relates to electoral matters, that I draw the attention of Parliament to the need for further legislative change.