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Completing the Cycle of Electoral Reforms – Recommendations from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada on the 38th General Election


Introduction

This is the first of two reports following the 38th general election that will be made under section 535 of the Canada Elections Act. This first report focuses primarily on matters that are not related to the political financing reforms to the Act, which came into effect on January 1, 2004, with S.C. 2003, c. 19 (Bill C-24). The second report, to be submitted later, will deal primarily with matters related to those political financing reforms. The purpose of this unusual bifurcation of the reporting process is to allow sufficient time to complete analysis of a full fiscal cycle under the financial reforms of all regulated entities.

The electoral process is constantly under dynamic and evolutionary pressures to grow and adapt to the social circumstances of evolving Canadian democracy. Today, these pressures are particularly evident and come from many quarters: scrutiny of the basis of representative selection in the House of Commons, concerns about financial propriety, evolving democratic rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and speculation about possibilities offered by technical innovations.

The recommendations in this report aim to complete the natural evolution of a process that began in 1920 with the creation of the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer – an independent office with a national vision, taking on the functions of planning, preparation, supervision and reporting previously performed by the government in the delivery of elections. The completion of this evolutionary cycle is expressed particularly in the report's recommendations on the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer, the concept of candidature and the registration of electors.

Despite the evolution of the Chief Electoral Officer's role since 1920, elections at the electoral district level continue to be delivered through 308 separate and independent returning officers, whose powers and duties are geographically described and locally limited. The full integration of these 308 separate offices and the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer for the delivery of elections, and the enhancement of the powers of this integrated office, will provide a stronger, more efficient and flexible organization; together, the Chief Electoral Officer and returning officers will be better able to deliver modern elections and to respond to the substantive changes in the electoral process that may arise as a result of the ongoing evolution of Canadian democracy.

Since 1920, Canada has seen the evolution of many important aspects of the electoral process, particularly in the emergence of the concepts of registered political parties, registered electoral district associations and third parties. In each case, the legal status of these entities has evolved; this report recommends a similar evolution in the concept of candidature, which has changed little since its inception. The recommendations of this report will bring the legal status of candidature into line with the modern reality that being a candidate, in practical terms, is no longer solely a matter of the election and the immediate follow-up period.

The report's recommendations on the registration of electors will complete the evolution of the federal electoral registration process – from the use of provincial lists, to a federal, event-driven enumeration process, and then to the creation of a continuing electoral registry. These recommendations will facilitate the inclusion of electors in the National Register of Electors, enhance the operation of the Register as the basis of a national registration system, and maximize its use for the purposes of communication of electoral information to electors.

Thus, the recommendations of this report may be seen as the natural end to the cycle of electoral reform that began in 1920.

It may also be seen as the conclusion to a cycle of reform initiated through the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing (the Lortie Commission). When the Lortie Commission issued its report in 1992, it had considered and made significant recommendations on many areas of federal electoral practice, including the right to be a candidate, the role and the financing of political parties and their electoral district associations, election expenses controls, public funding, disclosure, enforcement, voting by special ballot, a voters register and broadcasting. In the 13 years since the Lortie Commission issued its report, reform has been introduced in the bulk of these areas. While the cycle of reform might not have always reflected the Commission's specific recommendations, the guiding spirit of the Commission report has been evident throughout the evolution of the electoral process since that time.

This cycle of reform can now be seen as coming to an end: much of either the Commission's specific recommendations or the spirit of those recommendations has been implemented or encompassed by the reforms of the past 13 years. This evolution has created an electoral reality quite different from that which existed at the time of the Commission's first hearings.

The further evolution of a fully modern, effective, independent and objective structure for the conduct of elections will facilitate the development and implementation of reforms to that system. As well, the recommendations in this report complement the evolution of substantive aspects of the right to vote – particularly in the equalization of political parties' ability to communicate with the electorate through the free-time broadcasting system. Recommendations such as the removal of the limitation on the right to vote by Canadian citizens abroad can be seen as a natural extension of the rights enunciated by the courts in decisions such as Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer).

Some of the recommendations in this report are also intended to enhance the confidence of Canadians in the process itself.

The recommendations in this report – notably those aimed at enhancing the review authority of the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer and extending the limitation period for the enforcement of the Act – are intended to enhance the transparency of the electoral process, which contributes to an informed vote, and to strengthen the enforcement and deterrence aspects of the Act.

One last point: while no recommendation is made at this time on the practice of bulk purchases of political party memberships – which take place, mainly, in the course of nomination contests – this issue remains a matter of concern given that it takes place in what constitutes the first step of the electoral process. This matter is not addressed in the Canada Elections Act except if the individual who makes these bulk purchases does so for an amount exceeding his or her own contribution limit or is not disclosed as the contributor. Still, I would like to reiterate my view that Canadians have a right to expect that each new member of a political party actually wanted to join the party, did so at least 30 days before the nomination contest, and has paid his or her own way to do so. My Office will monitor the practices of parties and the reaction of Canadians (negative up to now) and will address this matter more formally in a subsequent report, if required. The elimination of the practice of purchasing memberships for the recruitment of "instant" party members would be another way through which political participants may enhance the confidence of Canadians in the electoral process.

          Jean-Pierre Kingsley