Thank you, Mr. Chair, for inviting me to discuss the 2015-16 main estimates for my office.
I am accompanied today by Stéphane Perrault, Deputy Chief Electoral Officer, Regulatory Affairs. I am also accompanied by Hugues St-Pierre, Chief Financial and Planning Officer, as well as Belaineh Deguefé, Deputy Chief Electoral Officer, Integrated Services, Policy and Public Affairs.
Today, the committee is studying our annual appropriation, which is $29.2 million. This represents the salaries of approximately 350 full-time-equivalent employees. Combined with our statutory authority, which funds all other expenditures under the Canada Elections Act, our 2015-16 main estimates total $396 million.
This includes $317 million for the October 19 election. In total and over four fiscal years, the cost of the 2015 general election is estimated at some $375 million. A number of factors may influence actual expenses, such as the duration of the campaign; the level of spending by political entities; adjustments to election worker fees and allowances; and prevailing market conditions for advertising and for the rental of local offices, furniture and equipment.
My office has just completed a three-year cycle of election preparation, modernizing its technological infrastructure and its approach to communications, and enhancing field training programs and business processes to respond to the ever-increasing expectations of voters and candidates that the electoral process be both accessible and trustworthy. We will be deploying resources progressively and just in time for the call for the October 19 election.
Returning officers will be instructed to rent their offices for September 1. That window of two weeks before local offices are open to the public will enable us to set up field equipment, including computers and telephones. Over the summer months, final preparations, including hiring and training key personnel, printing materials, and releasing pre-election advertising aimed at encouraging voter registration, will be completed. These activities are monitored closely so as to avoid unnecessary incremental costs.
During the upcoming election, electors will benefit from a number of new or improved services.
Elections Canada has established an online service that allows electors to verify, update or complete their voter registration. The ability for electors to do so before they arrive at the polls may contribute to improving the accuracy of the voters lists used on election day. We expect that it will also reduce the number of electors who have to register to vote at the polls on election day.
We have also made a number of changes to allow electors to vote in a timely manner. Polling stations will now have a “fast lane” for registered electors who have the required identification and are ready to vote. Another lane will be set aside for electors who require additional procedures, like registering at the polls or having another elector attest to their residence.
In order to improve accessibility leading up to the 2015 election, Elections Canada worked with the disability community to identify 35 accessibility standards that returning officers will apply to select voting locations. Information about the extent to which polling stations are accessible will be included on voter information cards and on Elections Canada's website. Electors will be able to contact returning officer in advance to inquire about accessibility and to make special arrangements if required. Moreover, electors will have more opportunities to vote, with an additional day of advanced polls and special ballot voting at Elections Canada satellite offices in 56 institutions across the country, including college and university campuses, YMCAs, and aboriginal friendship centres.
As per the document on the electoral reminder program that I shared with the committee earlier this week, frequent reminders will be issued using a variety of vehicles to advise electors on when, where, and how to register and vote. Elections Canada will also focus on reaching out to electors before the issue of the writs through targeted promotion of online registration, as part of its effort to increase registration before electors arrive at the polls.
Following the 41st general election, Elections Canada began working towards improving its ability to respond to electoral incidents that may interfere with voter participation. In this regard, we will monitor the election environment to be better prepared to detect and respond quickly to any incidents that threaten the integrity of the election.
We have also undertaken a number of initiatives to improve how poll workers follow procedures known to be complex. Some of these initiatives include enhanced recruitment practices, modernized training, simplified procedures, and clearer instructions for elections workers. We have also renewed the role of central poll supervisors, who will be able to provide guidance to staff at the polling station and ensure that procedures are followed.
We have also launched a procurement process for the independent audit of poll worker performance introduced by Bill . The agency is currently awaiting bids from interested parties. This process should be completed by the end of July, in time for the fall election.
In the 14 months following the election, I will publish three reports to provide a comprehensive perspective on the event. First, a factual chronology of the election will be published in early 2016 within 90 days of the return of the writs. This first report will include the measures taken by Elections Canada to improve the accuracy of the lists of electors.
In June 2016, a second report will present a retrospective of the 2015 election, drawing on the experience of electors and candidates. This report will include the official poll-by-poll voting results and the conclusions of the independent audit of poll worker performance.
By December 2016, I aim to table a final report that will recommend administrative and legislative improvements.
Mr. Chair, this brings me to the end of my remarks in relation to the main estimates. My colleagues and I are happy to answer any questions the committee might have.
Bill introduces a number of changes to the Canada Elections Act that relate primarily to the process of voting from abroad but that also touch upon various other aspects of our regime. I will keep my remarks relatively brief and, as always, will be happy to answer any questions that may assist the committee in its study of this bill.
The first change I wish to underline is the provision that would allow the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to provide information on non-citizens. This is an important proposal. It would improve the quality of the register of electors by preventing the inclusion of non-citizens and by allowing me to remove those who may have already been included.
Over the last few years, my office has had discussions with the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, as well as the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, about accessing the department's information on non-citizens in Canada. Unfortunately, in the absence of explicit statutory authority, privacy laws prevent Citizenship and Immigration from sharing this information with us. The amendment proposed in this bill would remove that obstacle.
With access to information on non-citizens, Elections Canada could first match it against persons in the register of electors and contact them to clarify their status. If they are not citizens, they would be removed from the register. Second, we would ensure that on a going forward basis, when individuals wish to be included in the register, they would be checked against information on non-citizens.
The second and perhaps most significant change proposed by Bill is the elimination of the International Register of Electors. All electors abroad who wish to vote by special ballot, other than military electors, will now be required to make an application after the writs are issued. They would have to provide proof of citizenship, in addition to proving their identity and residence. If they no longer reside in Canada, they would have to prove what was their last place of ordinary residence here in this country.
It is clear that these new rules will make it harder for electors abroad to vote. The requirement to prove citizenship confirms a pre-existing administrative practice for electors who reside abroad.
It would now also apply to people temporarily away, such as snowbirds. These people normally have a passport, and this aspect of the proposed regime is not a concern.
Proving their last place of ordinary residence in Canada, however, is likely to be much more problematic. This is especially true for those who have been away for a number of years and who will not likely have kept any acceptable ID with their former address. Given that their former address will not change until they resume residence in Canada, it is unclear why it must be proven for each election that occurs while an elector is abroad.
Although the bill allows for the attestation of residence by another elector when no documentary proof is available, this procedure is burdensome. It requires attesting electors to provide documentary proof of their place of residence in the same electoral district. It also requires electors and attestors to each take oaths or make statutory declarations administered by a qualified third party. This administrative burden may well be a barrier for some electors.
Another concern for electors abroad, and probably the most significant one, is timing. Currently, once electors residing abroad have established entitlement to be included in the international register, they will automatically be mailed a voting kit after the writs are issued. In this regard, the international register was designed to reduce the number of situations in which an elector is unable to return a completed ballot in time for the election day.
Under Bill , electors would now have to make an application after the issue of the writs and send it to Elections Canada from whatever part of the globe they find themselves in. The application will have to be processed, a voting kit mailed out, and their completed ballot returned by 6 p.m. on election day. While we would strive to reduce the delays as much as possible, the challenge for electors abroad would be unavoidably increased.
Both of these concerns—that is, the problem with having to repeatedly prove a former residence and the difficulty for electors to return their ballot in time—result from the abolition of the International Register of Electors. I see no reason why the International Register of Electors should be abolished or how maintaining the register isn't compatible with the objectives of the bill.
As a third significant change, Bill proposes to harmonize the voter identification rules by extending to those who vote by mail the rules applicable to those who vote in person.
My concern is not so much with harmonization, which I support, as it is with a new requirement under Bill C-50 that would apply to voter identification, whether in person or by mail. This is the requirement that documents authorized by the Chief Electoral Officer be only documents issued by an entity that is—and I quote—“incorporated or formed by or under an Act of Parliament or of the legislature of a province or that is otherwise formed in Canada”.
First, it's not clear from a legal point of view what this actually means. Certainly, it is broader than simply entities incorporated under Canadian law, but what exactly is meant by “otherwise formed in Canada”? Does it include entities incorporated abroad but registered in Canada? What else does it include?
I cannot see how election officials, especially deputy returning officers at ordinary polls, will be able to decide whether a particular bank or credit institution, such as Amex or Visa, was incorporated or formed in Canada. This is equally true of a telephone service provider, such as Virgin or Koodoo, or any insurance company, especially when they operate both in Canada and abroad. It is not realistic to expect that election officers will be able to make these determinations or that candidates' representatives will have a clear understanding of what is acceptable ID and what is not. It is also difficult to see how this requirement can be easily communicated or understood by Canadian voters who want to make sure they have the right pieces of ID.
In the absence of clarity, the proposed rules will lead to confusion, inconsistent application, and, quite possibly, controversy at the polls. This begs the question of whether such a new restriction on acceptable pieces of ID is necessary. Documents, including utility bills and bank statements that include an elector's residential address in Canada, will most likely be issued by entities that operate in and have a connection with Canada. But in the event they do not, it is not clear how a communication from a bank or a university abroad is any less trustworthy as a proof of identity and address than a communication from a Canadian university or bank.
I strongly encourage the committee to examine this aspect closely, keeping in mind the fact that election officers will be required to administer these complex requirements. My view is that such a restriction is unnecessary and would not improve the integrity of our system, and that it should therefore be deleted from the bill.
The fourth point I would make relates to a number of more minor, but nevertheless significant, technical and operational concerns I have with the bill as currently drafted. I have brought a table that identifies these concerns and, to the extent possible, proposes solutions. In many, if not all, cases, you will see these are merely drafting adjustments to make sure the bill achieves its intended purpose.
While I do not think it is necessary for me to go through the table with you today, the proposed changes are nevertheless important. For example, with respect to expanding the mandatory procedural audit to include the administration of the special voting rules, the proposed wording may inadvertently prevent auditors from having access to election documents that are critical to the audit of the regular polls. I do not think this is the intent.
Finally, I wish to speak to the implementation of Bill and the proposed period of 60 days for its coming into force. This is an exceptionally short period for implementing changes to the electoral process.
With respect to receiving information to remove non-citizens from the register of electors, this will take some time to implement. We will need, first, to put in place an information-sharing agreement with the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. Once this is in place, we will be able to receive and process the data on non-citizens in order to match it with the register. Finally, we will need to write to those in the register who are identified as possible non-citizens and ask them to confirm their status. This is clearly not something that can be done in 60 days.
With respect to implementing the proposed changes to the special voting rules and to the voter identification rules at the polls, this is possible, but not without important challenges and some risks. As you are aware, we have been busy implementing the changes introduced by Bill and getting ready for a general election.
The further amendments proposed by Bill would require changes not only to manuals, but also to instructions, forms and public information material for both the special voting process and the regular vote. With respect to the special voting rules, we will also need to develop workarounds for our IT systems, which cannot be redesigned immediately. While we will spare no effort, it can be expected that there will be some confusion, as well as procedural errors.
I will conclude by reiterating that there are aspects of Bill that I welcome, in particular the new provision allowing the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to provide information on non-citizens to Elections Canada. I also support the requirement to prove citizenship when applying to vote from abroad. I am, however, concerned with the fact that the bill will make it more difficult for electors abroad to vote, and I expect that many will not be able to do so under the new rules. I am also very concerned with the new requirement that pieces of ID be issued by entities incorporated or “formed in Canada”—a criterion that is unclear and that cannot be administered by election officers. I urge the committee to consider this aspect of the bill, and also to consider other changes set out in the table I submitted that are in line with the bill's objectives.
Mr. Chair, I would be pleased to answer any questions from the committee members.
Thank you. That's helpful.
In my remaining time, I will note that the problem of dealing with overseas voters is one that Canada is not unique in having to face. Other countries in fact have much larger expatriate populations as a percentage of their own population, and indeed just in absolute numbers, including a number of European countries that have been the source of large numbers of immigrants.
A number of these countries have dealt with this by creating what are known as “overseas constituencies”. For example, I'm looking at a map right now of how Italy deals with this. They have one constituency for the Americas, one for North America, one for South America, one for Europe, including Russia and Turkey, and another one for Africa, Australia, and most of the rest of Asia. Similarly, France has this and Macedonia has it, as do a number of other countries. There's even a Wikipedia article that provides a helpful list of about a dozen countries that have such things.
That's one way of dealing with the problem. It's not the status quo, and it's not what's being proposed by the government, but the danger is always that you get the way that Canada dealt with this a century ago. Temporarily, we had a large number of overseas voters in the form of soldiers serving in the battlefields of Europe. Something called the Military Voters Act was proposed at that time and put in place. It allowed for large numbers of voters to have their votes moved to ridings chosen by the parties. This gave the incumbent party, Robert Borden's national government, a huge and, I think we would all agree, unfair advantage.
That's the danger that one has to worry about, albeit on a much smaller scale. There are places in the world where there are large numbers of Canadians, legal Canadians, Canadian citizens with a nominal or no real connection with Canada. We saw what happened in 2006 in Lebanon when large numbers of people purporting to be Canadian—some of whom were, some of whom may not have been—said that they expected their government to help them move out of that country. I thought we dealt with that difficult situation competently.
The danger is that something similar could occur with regard to voters being collected and their names and identities being submitted. I believe that is the issue that we would need to deal with.
That's problematic for a whole bunch of reasons on your end in terms of time, resources, and the ability to get people in a position such that they can vote. But it also makes it more difficult for people to vote, which takes us right back to some of the problems we had with Bill .
So I want to say to the government right now that on these two issues, unless they have a good explanation of why they're here—I'm going to raise the other issue about voter ID—both of these things look just like the problems we had with Bill . The government is doing whatever they can to put in bureaucratic hoops that make it more difficult for people to vote by virtue of the steps that are involved, so that eventually they'll just say, “Aw, to heck with it.” That's what this looks like.
If we're wrong and I'm impugning the motives of our government, then I'm quite ready to hear quickly from Mr. Lukiwski that this is wrong and that is not the case, but so far it's looking like that to us.
Now, on the other one, voter ID, this was an even bigger issue in Bill . We went through this whole thing. This whole issue of voter ID was part of why we had filibusters. Now it looks as if the government's trying to bring in through the back door with Bill what they couldn't achieve through the front door in Bill C-23.
My understanding is that the language is pretty clear, and you're very clear in your language, sir, and as an agent of Parliament, you folks are always very careful about words you use. You state in your analysis sheet that:
|| There will be no way for deputy returning officers or those receiving applications for special ballots to readily ascertain whether an entity is incorporated in or otherwise formed in Canada. The restriction is likely to cause confusion at the polls on the part of election officers, candidates' representatives and voters.
This sounds like the makings of a huge problem. I'm trying to understand—and my sense is that you are too—what it means when the law is now going to say “an entity that is incorporated or formed by...an Act of Parliament” or a provincial legislature “or that is otherwise formed in Canada”. That doesn't make any sense to me. What I'm hearing from you, sir, is that you're not clear on what that means either, or am I missing the point?