Statements and Speeches
Remarks of the Chief Electoral Officer
on Bill C-76
An Act to Amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make certain consequential amendments
Senate Committee of the Whole
November 6, 2018
Check Against Delivery
It is a privilege to be here today to speak about Bill C-76, which proposes a major reform of the Canada Elections Act. While the bill could be improved in some areas—and I will speak to that shortly—it is overall an important and very positive piece of legislation.
Many of the changes in Bill C-76 reflect proposals made by Elections Canada following the last general election.
Modernizing the electoral process
Chief among them is a range of amendments that allow increased flexibility on the part of Elections Canada to adapt and modernize the process at the polls, while still retaining the procedural safeguards that are essential to the integrity of the vote. The changes would assist us in making the process at the polls more efficient, reduce lineups and improve working conditions for poll workers.
While I will not have sufficient time to leverage the full flexibility permitted under the new bill for the next general election, I am confident that the changes will serve Canadians well over the long term.
Another critical area of modernization is with respect to compliance and enforcement mechanisms, in particular the introduction of an administrative monetary penalty scheme and the power of the Commissioner to compel testimony. From my perspective, these are much needed improvements.
A more inclusive election
The bill also provides for a more inclusive electoral process. In this regard, a number of amendments have been included to benefit voters with disabilities. For example, political parties and candidates who qualify for reimbursement would now receive an extra amount for offering their electoral communications in accessible formats.
Electoral integrity and transparency
The bill also includes a number of measures to address emerging concerns around foreign influence, disinformation and cyber threats to the electoral process.
For example it provides for a much more robust regulatory regime for third parties. All partisan expenditures by third parties, and not only their election advertising, would be subject to limits and controls on funding. The bill would also reinforce prohibitions on the use of foreign funds by third parties and collusion, as well as ban the sale of advertising space to foreign entities.
Another important change that Bill C-76 would bring is the requirement for social media platforms to create and publish archives of election and partisan ads. This is an effort to address rising rising concerns around the use of social media to disseminate disinformation or manipulative micro-targeted campaigns.
A final important feature in the bill is a new pre-writ period, during which expenses of third parties and political parties would be regulated, beginning on June 30 in a fixed election year. Limiting the amount parties and third parties can spend during this period, and requiring them to report on it, will contribute to transparency and help to level the playing field. I am pleased to see that the regulated pre-writ period is short. This reduces concerns regarding freedom of expression and limits any advantage that may otherwise result for the governing party.
While I believe that Bill C-76 is overall a very significant improvement to the Canada Elections Act, it is also my role to draw your attention to weaker aspects of the bill. These are privacy, computer crime and the authority of the CEO to request receipts from political parties.
Along with the Privacy Commissioner, I have recommended strengthening the proposals in this bill that relate to the protection of personal information held by political parties. In my view, parties should be subject to minimum standards through legislation and proper oversight by the Privacy Commissioner.
I recognize the importance of voter information for political campaigns and that privacy principles should be tailored to the realities of political parties. The absence of any standards, however, does not serve the interests of electoral democracy, in particular the trust of Canadians.
While it may be late in the cycle to impose any major changes on political parties in this area, it is something I would invite Parliament to address in the longer term. In the meantime, parties have a responsibility to adopt robust privacy policies that protect the personal information of Canadians.
Unauthorized use of a computer
Bill C-76 creates a new offence of computer interference. This responds to concerns arising from other jurisdictions where hacking of systems has undermined the electoral process.
While I support this addition, I note that the provision would require proof that the offender had the intention not only of interfering with the systems, but also "of affecting the results of an election." I am concerned that requiring such proof will greatly restrict the application of the new offence. Recent history suggests that interference may be designed with the intent to sow distrust and confusion, potentially undermining voters' confidence in the process or willingness to vote—not necessarily to affect the results. The intent to interfere with a computer system used in relation to the election should be sufficient to constitute an offence.
Political party expense receipts
Finally, I want to highlight a new amendment to the bill that, in my opinion, is unfortunate. It relates to the supporting documentation for political parties' election expenses. Unlike candidates or even third parties, political parties are not required to provide any supporting documentation for their expenses, even though they are eligible for reimbursement.
This is a long-standing anomaly that Bill C-76 was initially going to correct. It was amended to provide the Commissioner with the power to request receipts from political parties during an investigation. This is unfortunately of no assistance to the administrative audit function performed by my office and does not allow us to effectively exercise stewardship of the millions of dollars in public funds that are paid out to parties after general elections.
Despite some weaknesses, Bill C-76 remains overall an essential reform and I hope to see it become law soon.
Because of where we are in the electoral cycle, time is of the essence as we need to prepare for the next general election.The bill requires changes to 20 of our IT systems. It also requires us to amend training material and guidebooks for poll workers, as well as the manuals provided to political entities on political financing requirements. These changes are significant. In particular, there are considerable risks in introducing last-minute changes to complex IT systems if there is not enough time to test them thoroughly.
For these reasons, we have had to begin work this fall in preparation for the implementation of the bill, understanding that its content may still evolve. Our current plan is for final integrated testing of all our IT systems, including systems changes required by the bill, in January 2019. This would then allow us to run a field simulation in March in some ten electoral districts across the country, and leave time for any necessary adjustments. I urge you to keep these dates in mind as you study this important bill.