Statements and Speeches – Supplementary Estimates (B) 2019–2020
Remarks of the Chief Electoral Officer
Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs
Supplementary Estimates (B) 2019–2020
March 12, 2020
Check against delivery
Thank you Madam Chair.
I am pleased to be before the Committee for the first time during the 43rd Parliament.
Today, the Committee is studying Elections Canada’s 2019–2020 Supplementary Estimates “B.” These estimates are related to the implementation of Bill C–50, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (Political Financing) and Bill C–76, the Elections Modernization Act.
This is also an opportunity for me to talk about the conduct of the general election and current priorities for the agency.
Elections Canada’s Supplementary Estimates “B”
It is important to point out that my Office is funded by two separate authorities: an annual voted appropriation and an on going statutory authority. The annual appropriation covers the salaries of all indeterminate positions at Elections Canada and with the Commissioner of Canada Elections.
The statutory authority covers all other expenditures, including administrative expenses, such as office space and IT infrastructure, and the costs related to the preparation and conduct of an election. The statutory authority is important both to the independence of my Office and its ability to conduct electoral events that may occur at any time. Planned spending under the statutory authority is included in the estimates for reasons of transparency.
The Supplementary Estimates for 2019–2020 include an increase of $2.3 million for the implementation of Bill C–50 and Bill C–76. While most of the changes can be administered with existing resources, the agency requires additional capacity for the administration of the new political financing rules, the Register of Future Electors and the administrative monetary penalties regime of the Commissioner of Canada Elections.
In addition, the Supplementary Estimates provide for a transfer of $2 million from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer for the transfer of the Commissioner of Canada Elections.
Reporting on the 43rd general election
On February 18, my report on the 43rd general election was tabled in the House of Commons. This report, which is the first in a series of three post–election reports, provides a factual description of how the election was administered and identifies issues requiring further analysis.
Key positive aspects
While not without its challenges, the administration of the election was overall a success.
In particular, the quality of the data in the National Register of Electors allowed for the most complete and accurate preliminary lists of electors for any federal election on record.
The quality of the list impacts the overall delivery of the election. It ensures first that electors are assigned to the right polling location, second, that they receive the basic information they need on their voter information card and, third, that candidates and parties have reliable data for their campaigns.
Another positive aspect of the election was the conduct of the advance polls. This had been a major challenge in 2015 when voters experienced significant and systemic lineups across the country. This was the result of an ongoing trend as electors increasingly opt to vote at advance polls.
Important steps were taken in 2019 to address this problem, including a streamlining of procedures at advance polls, a 25% increase in the number of advance polling divisions and a legislated 50% increase of service hours for each of the four advance polling days. No major lineups were reported despite an increase in voter participation of 1.2 million voters (or 32%) at those polls.
A third area worth mentioning relates to cybersecurity and disinformation, which had been top of mind in preparing for the election. We experienced no cybersecurity threats of significance beyond those faced daily by any federal government organization.
Elections Canada also monitored social and traditional media for inaccurate information about the electoral process, and on some occasions contacted social media platforms or websites to bring inaccurate information or inauthentic accounts to their attention. None of these instances were concerning in terms of their scope.
That said, I believe that the measures we took concerning cybersecurity and disinformation were important to protect the electoral process and reassure Canadians.
While the election went well overall, we did encounter a number of challenges.
The delivery of a federal election is a major logistical event that relies on a very large temporary workforce. For this election, returning officers aimed at recruiting some 250,000 poll workers but were only able to recruit 214,000. They also faced problems as over 10,000 of these, having been trained, did not to show up for work, a marked increase from previous elections. In a number of locations, this resulted in polling locations not being opened on time.
The issue of recruitment and retention is a priority for us as we prepare for the next election. In the longer term, we will also need to look at ways to operate with a smaller workforce.
A second challenge for the election was the fact that polling day and a number of advance polling days coincided with Jewish High Holy Days. I made it a priority for returning officers to engage with the Jewish community in their riding and offer alternative options to vote either at an Elections Canada office or at special voting kiosks set up within the community and at a time convenient for voting.
I intend to do some consultations this spring on the issue of conflicts between religious holidays and the fixed election date. This may result in recommendations to Parliament in the fall to try and avoid similar conflicts moving forward, or to resolve them earlier in the electoral cycle.
Finally, there were an unusual number of severe weather incidents during the election, in particular in Manitoba, where extensive and prolonged power outages forced evacuations in a number of communities. We provided alternative or adjusted voting options for electors from the affected communities and for emergency workers. We are currently looking at preparing ourselves for more frequent weather–related events so we can quickly respond to them.
As we are closing out the general election, we are taking time to analyze these and a number of other aspects of the election. Our findings will be included in a second post–election report, which I intend to publish early this fall. This retrospective report will provide an analysis of the administration of the election informed by a variety of data, including stakeholder feedback and public opinion research.
Recommendations for legislative changes
As part of my statutory mandate, a third and final report will be provided to the Speaker later in the fall, which will provide recommendations for improvements to the Canada Elections Act.
In that context, I will be releasing next month three discussion papers to engage experts and stakeholders. The papers will address various aspects of the regime governing political communications in a federal election—notably the rules in the Canada Elections Act, the impact of social media platforms, and concerns that have been raised about the privacy rights of electors in the digital age. The discussions around those topics could lead to recommendations.
Readiness for the next election
As the general election resulted in a minority Parliament, our immediate priority is to ensure that the agency is positioned to deliver an election that may occur at any time. At a minimum, this means revising contracts, replenishing supplies and engaging returning officers so that contingency plans are in place. In the current context, it also means engaging with government experts on the possible impacts of COVID–19 on an election and developing mitigation strategies.
We will also be looking at improvements to our services and systems, but the extent of the changes will depend on the timing of the next election.
I look forward to working with this Committee and will be happy to answer any questions.