I call the meeting to order.
Good morning. Welcome to the 32nd meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs of the first session of the 42nd Parliament.
Today we begin our study of the Chief Electoral Officer’s report, entitled “An Electoral Framework for the 21st Century: Recommendations from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Following the 42nd General Election”.
I would like to remind members that today's meeting is being televised. Allow me to introduce our witnesses.
From Elections Canada we have Marc Mayrand, Chief Electoral Officer; Stéphane Perrault, associate chief electoral officer; and Michel Roussel, deputy chief electoral officer, electoral events.
In case there are any journalists listening and for the public, I will set the context. It is that after an election, the Chief Electoral Officer for Canada does a report, and in the report there are recommendations. Those recommendations come to this committee. Traditionally, this committee goes through the report. There are well over 70 recommendations. Apparently, it took 25 meetings the last time, so it's a lot of work. Then that goes as a recommendation to the government to implement, and often much of it gets implemented into legislation.
Just so people are not confused, this is totally separate from the electoral reform committee. There's another committee making proposals and going across the country at the moment. A number of members of this committee are on that committee. It is looking at revising the electoral system to have another voting method.
This particular report is on the technicalities of the voting, such as how you appoint poll clerks, how you do ridings, whether you have electronic voting, and all the technicalities that would fit into any system of Parliament.
After we have the opening remarks, we'll go into the regular round of questioning. The Conservatives would prefer that. Each party should pick who's going to speak first for their round of questioning.
Welcome back, Mr. Mayrand. I know this is your last report. We've enjoyed having you here many times. You've stimulated us with a lot of good new ideas. I know there's a lot in this report. It will take us a lot of meetings, but it'll improve the electoral process in a modernized and vastly changing world. Whatever system we're going to have in place, the technicalities that I know you're proposing would fit in all those systems. We want to make sure that voting is fair and that everyone can vote as easily as possible. I know you have lots of recommendations to that effect, and we look forward to hearing from you.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and good morning.
I am very pleased to be here today to present my recommendations for improving the administration of the Canada Elections Act. The changes proposed in the report aim at building a more modern and inclusive electoral framework. I believe these amendments are essential to bring the Canada Elections Act into the 21st century, irrespective of any change to the voting system.
The report comprises two parts. The first part, consisting of two chapters, is a narrative that describes what I see as the most important recommendations and their objectives. The second part contains three tables of amendments. Table A covers the recommendations discussed in the narrative; table B offers additional substantive recommendations that would improve the administration of the act; and table C lists a series of minor or technical amendments.
I have structured it in this way to facilitate your work, given the number of recommendations contained in the report. I would urge you to concentrate your immediate attention on the narrative, as it covers the most pressing issues. You may even wish to consider reporting on this series of amendments before any other.
I believe we are at a critical point in the administration of Canadian elections. If we do not act to modernize several core aspects of our electoral process, I fear we will fail to meet Canadians' expectations in 2019.
Elections Canada is committed to an ambitious modernization agenda that aims to leverage technology to improve election delivery and services. Legislative changes must be in place well in advance of the 2019 election for us to fully realize these improvements for the benefit of Canadians.
The recommendations I have made to modernize the act are inspired by three main themes. The first is accessibility and inclusiveness, the second is flexibility and effectiveness, and the third is fairness and integrity. Before I address these three themes, however, I would like to make a general observation about the Canada Elections Act.
It is well known that many components of the act are anchored in the 19th century, when the first elections in Canada took place. While it has served us well over these many long years, it is clear from recent experiences that the electoral process set out in the act is showing signs of strain. It many respects it has failed to keep up with the times.
The Canada Elections Act is not a law that lends itself well to technology, for instance. It provides little opportunity to scale voting services to meet local and changing needs. It also fails to provide the flexibility required to improve the working conditions of election officers or the flow of voters at polling stations. This was obvious in the last election, with significant lineups at advance polls.
On the regulatory side, the political finance regime has expanded dramatically in scope and complexity over the last decade, and yet its requirements are still mostly met by volunteers. If these volunteers contravene the act, they may face criminal prosecution, as this remains the only form of sanction. This is out of step with modern regulatory regimes.
It is time to bring the act into the 21st century. It is possible to do so without losing any of the essential safeguards that protect electoral integrity and fairness.
A key theme that you will see reflected in many of the recommendations in my report is accessibility and inclusiveness. These concepts underlie Canadians' ability to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights to vote and be a candidate.
Of particular concern to me is access for voters with disabilities. Canada has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which guarantees people with disabilities the right to fully and actively participate in political life. While we have made significant strides in Canada in recent years, more still needs to be done.
My report contains several recommendations aimed at removing barriers to the full electoral participation of voters with disabilities. Among them is my suggestion that Parliament provide a clear directive and a simplified approval process for Elections Canada to conduct pilot projects on voting technologies that would benefit voters with disabilities.
Many of these voters rely on technology as a necessity, not just as a convenience, in their daily lives. We need to explore ways to give these voters better opportunities to vote independently and in secret.
I have also recommended that parties and candidates receive a higher level of reimbursement for campaign expenses they incur to accommodate voters with disabilities, such as providing closed-caption videos or hosting events at accessible locations with sign language interpretation. This measure would give Canadians with disabilities more opportunities to participate in political life.
Another important group in terms of accessibility and inclusiveness is young electors, who are often hard to reach. Although the National Register of Electors includes 93% of Canadian electors overall, the average coverage of electors aged 18 to 24 is only 72%. Allowing young electors to pre-register with Elections Canada so that their registration activates on their 18th birthday would greatly improve the quality of the voter list for this demographic. Once they turn 18, these young electors would receive a voter information card during an election, telling when and where to vote and bringing them into the electoral process.
I also recommend that the voter information card be accepted as proof of address at the poll, not as a stand-alone document, but together with another piece of identification. Youth, as well as other groups such as seniors and aboriginal voters, continue to experience difficulties in proving where they live when they go to vote. Allowing the voter information card to be used as proof of address, along with a second document establishing their identity, would increase access to voting for a number of electors.
A final recommendation that I want to highlight under the theme of accessibility is moving the vote from Monday to a weekend day, either Saturday or Sunday. This would benefit a large number of voters who would not have to fit voting into their busy workday. Weekend voting would also make it easier to recruit election officers and allow us to use more schools and public buildings as polling places.
The second theme I would like to address is flexibility and effectiveness in election administration. Long line-ups in the last election, particularly at advance polls, frustrated a lot of voters. This was especially true when voters arrived at their polling place and were told they had to wait in line for service at a specific table, when election officers at other tables seemed to be free.
Many voters, especially youth, were surprised to see election officers striking their names off a paper list with a pencil, with no computer or technology in sight. The act is very prescriptive as to who does what, when, on which form and in what manner at any given polling station. And the polling station is, by definition, the precise table at which each individual elector is assigned to vote. This is why voters are required to line up at one table, even when others are free.
I have recommended changes to allow for efficient voting operations that are scalable to local demand; take advantage of technology; and, as a result, are less labour-intensive. Specifically, I recommend that while the act should continue to prescribe functions at polling places, the activities and the distribution of labour among staff at a site should take place according to instructions from the Chief Electoral Officer, instructions that are moreover public and known long in advance.
Other amendments are needed so that voters may vote at any table in the school gym, for example, rather than only at one place where their name is on the list. Providing election officers with a searchable voter database, as opposed to paper lists, would ensure that the controls prescribed by the act remain intact.
From a voter's standpoint, these changes would result in faster service in a more modern and efficient environment. And there would be two other positive outcomes. With the ability to assign tasks in a more flexible manner, working conditions for election officers would improve. Also, with a more efficient process in place, Elections Canada would be able to fully leverage the benefits of technology to electronically manage not only the voters list but other forms and documents at the polls. Computerization, when well implemented, is a proven method of reducing record-keeping errors. It would contribute to increasing the confidence Canadians have in the integrity of voting operations. In addition, I recommend that returning officers be given more flexibility in hiring election workers. As you know, running an election is a massive undertaking; it requires some 285,000 people to be hired in a very short time frame.
Over the last decade, returning officers have had difficulty finding enough qualified and eligible people to work. It would help if the act's barriers to the timely hiring of the best people for the job could be removed.
Currently, returning officers are precluded from filling many key positions until they have considered names submitted by the candidates and political parties who came first and second in the last election. While parties and candidates should continue to be encouraged to submit names of capable workers, returning officers should be able to fill these positions from any source as soon as the writs are issued.
A final theme touched on by many recommendations in my report is fairness and integrity. This theme is particularly relevant with respect to the political finance regime. The 42nd general election was one of the longest in Canadian history. Although the election date is now fixed under Canadian law, the start of the election period is not. This creates uncertainty for political participants and allows the governing party to determine the spending cap, which is now adjusted to the length of the election. Providing a maximum length for general elections would help to reduce this uncertainty and increase fairness for all involved.
Another consideration is the complexity of the political finance regime, which has increased dramatically over the last 10 years. The official agents of candidates are volunteers who work hard to meet the myriad of reporting and other requirements that are imposed under the act. While a subsidy is provided to auditors for their work, nothing is provided to official·agents. Granting official agents a modest subsidy for their work would recognize the importance of what they do. Tying the subsidy to certain requirements, such as filing returns within deadlines and participating in Elections Canada training sessions, would also improve the quality and timeliness of returns. This measure would promote transparency and encourage compliance with the regulatory regime.
It is also important to uphold compliance by means that are effective and proportionate. Currently, non-compliance is addressed using a criminal process model, where those who contravene the act's provisions are investigated by the commissioner of Canada Elections and, if appropriate, charged with an offence. They are then tried in the criminal courts.
This is a sensible process for the most serious offenders. It is slow, however, and carries a significant stigma. Many contraventions of the act do not merit such a heavy-handed approach. Several federal and provincial regulatory regimes now use a more streamlined approach for regulatory offences, which is to impose an administrative monetary penalty or AMP. Implementing an AMP regime would help to encourage compliance, furthering the important goals of transparency and fairness.
As well, allowing the Chief Electoral Officer to administer an AMP regime would permit the commissioner to concentrate on investigating the most significant offences under the act. To successfully pursue offenders, the commissioner has made it clear that he needs a number of additional tools, and I am therefore recommending them in my report. These tools include the power to compel testimony in the investigation of election offences, with attendant safeguards, as required by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
You may wish to ask the commissioner to appear before you to present his views on recommendations that touch on his enforcement responsibility. I also suggest that you invite the broadcasting arbitrator, who has statutory responsibilities linked to the broadcasting regime.
Mr. Chair, this completes my overview of the key themes and recommendations in my report. I strongly believe that federal election administration has reached a tipping point, and that action is required now to ensure we can continue to meet electors' expectations.
Lastly, changes will have to be in place well in advance of the next election for my successor to deliver an event that is inclusive, fair, and responsive to the needs of Canadians.
I am well aware of the number of recommendations that are being submitted to the committee and of the scope of those recommendations.
I want to stress that my staff remains available at any time to assist the committee in its work. It's also available to individual members who wish to receive a more detailed briefing on any aspects of the recommendations.
If I may, considering the scope of the report and the risk of disruption by extraneous events that could happen at any time and would take precedence over your study, I would suggest that the committee organize its review around the two chapters in the narrative, paying particular attention to table A. We would be happy to offer a technical briefing to the committee before it starts work on chapter 1 regarding the electoral process.
Upon conclusion of your review of chapter 1, I would suggest that you consider inviting the commissioner, the broadcasting arbitrator, and probably also representatives of the CRTC, as these three organizations play a role in the administration of our regime. Consideration could be given to staging reports, given the very tight agenda that exists. As various phases of the work are completed, it might be helpful to advise the government of your views on the recommendations so it can proceed as quickly as possible in designing a proper response.
I will leave that with you, Mr. Chair, but, again, rest assured that we are available to assist in any way possible in your work.
I thought so. I couldn't find it. It also links with the issue of—just cut me off, Chair, when my time comes, as I know you'll do.
It's compelling testimony. Again, you can take an investigation only so far, but if you tell the police—and as a former solicitor general I know a bit about this too—that at the end of the day they can't force and compel, or the courts compel, to get the testimony, how far are you really going to get in an investigation?
We saw evidence, time and time again, of people who refused to be interviewed, refused to give answers, and there was no ability on the part of our officials to compel them to give that testimony.
Again, simple things like receipts to back up requests for tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money seem to me to be something we should fix. If there's an investigation going on, there needs to be the ability to compel testimony. That's something I hope we close off and improve.
I want to mention too that I liked your idea of the interim reports. This can go on awhile. As I said, it's tedious and it can go on for a while. There may be merit, Chair, in looking at breaking it off into chunks that we could then forward to the government, hopefully for their consideration or to put before the House, and then on to the government for their consideration to start putting it into legislation.
I think that's our goal. Rather than wait for the whole thing, all or nothing, let's get what we can in chunks and pieces, get it enacted, and then at the same time keep working here.
Anyway, I'm looking forward to this exercise. I want to end where I began in thanking you sincerely, sir, for all that you've done for Canada. It has made a difference. Thank you.
I have just two things. I wanted to mention, on providing a subsidy to the official agents who complete Elections Canada training and file the returns, that this is a growing job. I'm so glad that you're starting to concentrate on that.
Tyler Crosby, behind me here, my staffer, was my campaign manager. For all intents and purposes, nobody worked harder than he did, hopefully with the exception of me. Nobody worked harder than he did. I have to tell you, for the chief financial officer after the campaign it is flat out, and no one sees it. It's a thankless job, and if you make a mistake, the seat is on the line. It's huge.
Richard MacKinnon is my guy now. We can't give him a subsidy, but I can give him a shout-out and tell him thanks. Every one of us has someone like that who gives a big part of their life, and quite frankly they have to be really competent, high-functioning people who get it. It's not child's play, so I'm really glad to see you moving on that one.
The last thing I wanted to mention was that notwithstanding the fact that we're seeing more and more evidence that referendums are not necessarily the magic elixir for every question in front of a democratic nation, we should at least have a referendum that works if we need it, but right now we are not in any kind of condition, really, to conduct a modern referendum.
A lot of work was done—and Mr. Reid, of course, was here then—during the minority governments. We spent a lot of time doing good work on referendums and on prorogation, for instance.
I just want to mention to colleagues that if we do start to look the Referendum Act, rather than reinvent the wheel, there's an awful lot of that good basic foundational work from constitutional experts and other people like Mr. Mayrand. It's there and available.
If anybody thinks right now that we can just pull a referendum off the shelf and have a state-of-the-art fair referendum process that works, that person is mistaken. I will just leave that with the committee.
Maybe we can hear your thoughts on how much work is needed for it to to be state of the art and to have something that would reflect the kind of referendum process we would like to have.
There is certainly a range views on that issue. I can speak of our experience.
First of all, we need to not forget that we still do enumeration during an election campaign. We do it in a targeted fashion, in neighbourhoods with high mobility and all these things. We do targeted revision on reserves, for example. There is still a form of enumeration taking place for exactly the reasons you mentioned—people are highly mobile or hard to reach—so we do enumeration there.
One of the reasons—and think my colleagues across the country at the provincial level would agree—is that it's increasingly difficult to reach out to people through enumeration. We often knock at doors, but nobody answers. People are busy. They have different schedules. It's a challenge to recruit workers to do that kind of work. Even StatsCan is moving away from those surveys. The other thing—and it's unfortunate—is that in many cases, we can't find staff, for security reasons, who would go into certain neighbourhoods, yet they're probably the neighbourhoods that would most benefit.
As an alternative, we have the permanent register. What we did last time around also was launch our online registration service. That allows any Canadian at any time, at their convenience, to add themselves to the register or change their address, for example, if they've just moved recently.
Of course, looking at it from a cost perspective, the national register as a permanent list is much cheaper than enumeration. Yes, we lose contact with electors. Perhaps one way to offset that is to beef up the civic education program that exists.
I just want to take up one point. You inquired about the cost, which is absolutely legitimate. Of course, many of those recommendations don't bring any additional costs. Some of them bring extra costs, of course; an example is opening advance polls for longer periods of time. We estimate it's probably $500,000 an hour to have those polls open. With what we're proposing, we're talking about $6 million per election.
Civic education, registering youth at 16 or 17, would also have a cost. It's very preliminary, but we estimate that it's between $5 million and $10 million. We estimate that the first round would be more expensive. When the system stabilized, it would be a regular program, and the costs would come down. These would be the larger cost increases caused by those recommendations.
Of course, I can't speak for modernization. Now technology at the poll will be something else, but until we have devised a system, it would be premature to talk about it.