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 and Bill , which were passed during the previous Parliament.
This is also an opportunity for me to talk about the conduct of the general election and current priorities for the agency.
It is important to point out that my office is funded by two separate authorities: an annual voted appropriation and an ongoing statutory authority. The annual appropriation covers the salaries of all indeterminate positions at Elections Canada and at the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections.
The statutory authority covers all other expenditures, including administrative expenses, such as office space and IT infrastructure, and the cost related to the preparation and conduct of an election. The statutory authority is important both to the independence of my office and to 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 (B) 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 required by those two bills can be administered with existing resources, the agency needs 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 in Bill C-76.
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 that I think require further analysis.
While not without its challenges—and I will come back to this in a moment—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 lists 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. You may recall that this was 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 have been increasingly opting 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 in 2019, 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. However, 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 occasionally even 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 as I indicated earlier, 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 able to recruit only 214,000. They also faced problems as over 10,000 of these, having been recruited and trained, did not show up for work, which was a marked increase in the numbers from previous elections. In a number of locations, this resulted in polling locations not being opened on time. I'll come back to this in my next report, my retrospective report on the election. The issue of recruitment and retention is a priority for us as we prepare for the next election, but in the longer term, we will also need to look at ways to operate with a reduced 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 ridings and to offer alternative options to vote either at an Elections Canada local office, at the returning office, or at special voting kiosks set up within the community at times and locations that were convenient for those members of the community. I intend to do some consultations this spring on the issue of conflicts between religious holidays and a fixed election date. This may result in recommendations to Parliament in the fall to try to avoid similar conflicts moving forward or, at the very least, to make sure they are resolved earlier in the electoral cycle.
Finally, there were an unusual number of quite 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 as well as for emergency workers. We are currently looking at preparing ourselves for more frequent weather-related events so that we can quickly respond to them.
As we are closing 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 hope to publish in September, early in the 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.
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. I note that these reports are referred automatically to this committee for review. In that context, next month I will be releasing three discussion papers to engage experts and stakeholders, including political parties. The papers will address various aspects of the regime governing political communications in a federal election, notably the rules we currently have 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. Discussions around those topics could lead to some of the recommendations in my report.
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 could occur at any time. At a minimum, this means revising contracts, replenishing supplies and engaging with return 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—and we are doing that—on an election and developing some mitigation strategies. We will also be looking at improvements to our services and systems, but the extent of the changes will of course depend on the timing of the next general election.
Madam Chair, I look forward to working with this committee, and I'm happy to answer any questions the members may have.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I'll try not to ask you a question when you have no time to respond. I want to start by saying first that what you did in Elections Canada to encourage voting in educational institutions, post-secondary institutions, was hugely successful, at least in my riding of Kingston, where we have Queen's University.
What we saw were record numbers, at least from our anecdotal perspective, of individuals going out and voting and also having the opportunity to vote back in their home ridings so easily. I have a number of students from Alberta, for example, who had the opportunity at Queen's University to vote in their home ridings. There was a very easy way to do it, rather than a complicated process.
That was very much appreciated, and I want to applaud you on that work.
I do want to ask about election preparedness. You said that you're ready, given a minority government. I have to be completely honest with you, in that I don't know how ready we were this year.
When the writ dropped, there were some stories about people showing up the next day and saying they wanted to vote by special ballot and the returning officers saying, sorry, they were not ready for that yet. Can you comment on that at all?
I'll say a couple of things. If you look back at what happened in Manitoba, what was unique in this election compared with others in the past—because there have been floods in Manitoba, and there have been evacuations in the past—typically the evacuation was mandatory. This meant that the entire community was brought into, typically, Winnipeg at a single location. What we would do in those cases was essentially transfer the polling place to that location, and we had the entire community. We had the poll workers and the voters.
What was extremely challenging in this election is that the evacuation was not mandatory. Some people left; some people stayed. That was true of voters, and that was true of poll workers. Those who left did not all go to a single location. They were spread out around the Winnipeg area, not in a single location, so we could not use the traditional approach. Also, in some cases, the power was not back on, even on polling day, so it was a prolonged period.
We had a central megapoll in Convocation Hall in Winnipeg for all of the displaced voters, but they had to travel there. There was transportation organized. We also opened the polls in the evacuated communities for the people who stayed behind. Where there was no power, we had to have reduced hours because it was getting dark, there were security concerns and we needed to coordinate the process.
I think, in these very difficult circumstances, we did quite well. If you look at the turnout, there was a small dip in turnout in the communities. Churchill was the most affected. There was an 11% dip, but for the others, we're talking about 3%, which is in line in some cases with what you see in other provinces, and it depends on which province.
I think there was tremendous work done at the local levels. Returning officers shared their staff. They coordinated their work. I'm extremely satisfied with the work that was done.
Looking forward, we had three major weather incidents during the election, and we need to plan for more of that. We had one out east when we tried to open the polls, the RO offices. We had one in Montreal on polling day, and we had Manitoba. This is a significant challenge on the organization and on the workforce, because when these things happen, you lose not just the voters but the workforce as well.
As we said earlier, this was a fixed-date election with a majority government, so we had many years to plan. Of course, when you have those years to plan, you take advantage of that.
In the summer leading up to the election—so in the summer of 2018—we considered the situation of the conflict with Jewish holidays. We had some conversations with members of the Jewish community. Our impression there, at that point, was that having some accommodation for observant members of the Jewish community would be satisfactory.
Based on that—and I'll come back to that in a moment—we began a number of planning exercises that were important for the population as a whole. We began having conversations with school boards to have PD days to allow access to schools, which are accessible, and to have young workers, who are typically good workers. We examined the polling divisions and used some technology to do some proximity analysis in terms of potential polling locations. The entire planning of the election was based from that point on—basically from September 2018—on a fixed date of October 21.
In the spring of 2019, I started receiving representations that there should be a move of the date, that it would be preferable—that, in fact, it would be necessary—for some voters, and particularly one potential candidate, to have a different voting day.
At that point, I made what I consider a very difficult decision: to maintain my recommendations, to basically not recommend to the Governor General a change of polling day, but to have a very ambitious action plan for accommodating observant Jewish electors. In 54 ridings where there was a 1% Jewish population, we engaged with the representatives of the Jewish community. We offered a range of services, and they determined for their community what was most suitable to them.
I can say, looking at the turnout, that there was a small downward variation, but not a major variation. It was a 2% or 3%, sometimes 4%, variation in the top 10 ridings where there was an important Jewish community.
I think the way forward is that we need to do a better job at engaging earlier. If we're going to have a fixed-date election, we need to clarify these issues well in advance. The law currently provides that I can make a recommendation to the Governor General until, I believe, some time in August—August 5 or something like that. That is much too late in the calendar, so we will need to revisit that. We need to do a better job of consulting, but we need a process that provides certainty for everybody a year out from the election.
As per usual, I have about 10 questions. I won't get through all of them today, I know, but....
My previous experience before being a member was being a campaign manager three times at the federal level and at the provincial level, so some of my questions are a little more technical. I know that we're meeting later this month, and I have a full list to go over with you on some things.
I want to build a little on the social media influence and your comments on voter registration and getting people there. I agree with the initiative or the goal. I think that the way of going about it—obviously, you pulled back—wasn't the best way.
From a technical perspective, what work do you do with post-secondary institutions in advance? Are there privacy rights issues that you have in terms of going to, for example, Carleton University, where I went? Do you go to the residence organization or association and say, “Give us a list two weeks before the writ drops of the people who are currently in this building”, or does privacy mean that they can't give you that information? Is that an issue? There are seniors homes—and it goes on and on—where this is an opportunity. Can you outline what that is?
Mr. Perrault, I just want to say thank you for being here and for the work that you do. To echo my colleague, Mr. Alghabra, we really appreciate the work you do.
So far in your answers I've heard a real commitment to constant improvement, which I really appreciate. I have three questions. Let's see if we can get through all of them, but I'll definitely probably get to ask two.
Related to contingency planning, I know there were extreme weather events. In Ontario we actually had the potential for a teachers' strike leading up to the election, which would have caused quite a bit of reshuffling to identify additional sites for polling stations, etc. For me these were top of mind. I found the returning officer in Whitby, in my riding, to be incredibly responsive to the concerns we had and very communicative in terms of identifying potential alternative sites.
With coronavirus being a major topic of discussion right now and a cause for concern, and the possibility at any time of a snap election, I wonder if you could go a little more in depth and tell us about any situational analysis or scenario building that you do and how you come up with mitigation strategies specific to the kinds of things we might anticipate, such as the outbreak of a virus, for example.
A federal election is a very large undertaking, and you can't easily pivot on a dime. You referred to the strike. We had issued voter information cards all across Ontario when the strike emerged, and we came very close to having to reissue three million VICs in the Toronto area. I was personally calling all the schools and school boards to make sure we had the.... It's very hard to pivot.
There is provision in the legislation for cancelling an election, which is the last thing we want to do. In Manitoba we had to consider that. The question is whether or not we can offer voting services to Canadians in a particular electoral district. We go out of our way and we adapt the rules, which I can do under legislation, to adjust the service offering.
Right now we have two tasks. One is beginning to look at how we could better adjust to weather incidents. I think what we did in this election—for a range of reasons, not just weather incidents—was to use special ballot kiosks for the Jewish communities but also in Manitoba for the line workers and the emergency workers. We used special ballots to create kiosks where they could vote out of riding.
We'll need to explore how we can better prepare for that. One of the challenges is the workforce. In Manitoba we had to fly our headquarters staff into Manitoba because there was nobody left on the ground to work at those polls. We were literally pulling people from the floors in Gatineau and putting them on flights to Manitoba, so there's a limit to what we can do.
In terms of the virus, we are in contact with health authorities. I know that next week, for example, in France they're having municipal elections. They've decided to go forward. They will provide some hand sanitizer and they're asking their voters to bring their own pencils and pens to vote, so we'll examine how that works.
One of the questions I have is—and I don't have the answer yet—does it make sense for Elections Canada to procure a whole lot of hand sanitizer at a time when it could be better used in hospitals or other places in the country? Is it for me to stockpile masks or hand sanitizer, or should it not be for the government? We have to have those discussions and decide what the best way forward is.