With me I have Marc Limoges, chief financial officer, and Sue Torosian, executive director, public affairs and civic education.
Thank you, Madam Chair, for the opportunity to speak with the committee this morning about Elections Canada's 2022‑23 main estimates.
I will also briefly update the committee on the closing of the 44th general election and some of our priorities, as we move toward the next election.
Elections Canada is funded under two distinct authorities: an annual appropriation and an ongoing statutory authority.
The committee will vote today on the annual appropriation, which amounts to $49.3 million and represents the salaries of some 530 indeterminate positions. The annual appropriation is used solely to pay the salaries of permanent staff members at Elections Canada. This amount is the same as that of last fiscal year's voted appropriation, with some variance for new collective agreements.
The ongoing statutory authority covers all other expenses of the agency.
This funding model ensures Elections Canada's independence by allowing it to access the funds required to plan and deliver elections, which, as we know, may occur at any time. Planned spending under the statutory authority is reported annually to Parliament for transparency and accountability.
The statutory appropriation, as reported in the main estimates, totals $154 million. Approximately half of this amount—$78 million—reflects operating expenses of the agency. These costs have remained stable over the last five years. The other half—$75 million— represents expenses that are non-discretionary or that relate to the conduct of elections. This includes costs related to the last election and expenses for the preparation of the 45th general election, as well as expenses related to the work of the commissions charged with the redistribution of electoral boundaries.
As we close out the last election, Elections Canada is currently conducting regional meetings across the country to draw lessons from election workers in the field and find ways we can improve election administration.
Another important piece in finalizing the election is the audit of political entities' financial returns, particularly those of the candidates. Our goal is to complete the audit of all candidates' campaign returns by the end of January 2023, which is within 12 months of the original filing deadline.
A final piece in closing the election will be my recommendations to Parliament for legislative changes to the Canada Elections Act. A recommendations report is normally done after each election; however, following the 2019 election, our focus was on adjusting to the pandemic. Accordingly, this report encompasses lessons and reflections flowing from both of the last two elections.
The report will also include recommendations from the Commissioner of Canada Elections for better compliance with and enforcement of the act.
Madam Chair, in the past, the practice has been that after I present my recommendations, my officials are made available to the committee for the detailed review. I'd be happy to offer that as well.
I plan to submit my report to the Speaker at the end of May. Once tabled, the report will be referred to this committee. Of course, I look forward to working with the committee as it reviews the recommendations.
Moving forward, our immediate priority is to ensure the agency is well positioned to deliver the next election. Of course, this is especially important since we now have a minority government. With this in mind, the agency is currently focusing on two short-term priorities for the next election.
The first is the vote on campus initiative. Our goal is to be in a position to offer campus kiosks in all general elections moving forward, even outside of a fixed-date electoral calendar.
The second priority is to improve our service offerings in order to give electors in remote communities access to advance polls, even if this means having less than four days of advance polls in some locations. In doing this, we hope to improve services for indigenous voters in particular. This is in addition to the improvements we want to bring to the presence of indigenous languages at the polls.
These two priorities do not require legislative changes.
Madam Chair, while I am here today to discuss the main estimates, I'd also be happy to answer any questions from the committee or to clarify information the committee heard regarding its study on the inclusion of indigenous languages on federal election ballots.
Thank you. I welcome your questions.
Through the chair, thank you for your question.
The Inspire Democracy program was initiated after a comprehensive review back in 2010 that was completed in 2012. It was launched roughly sometime in 2014, prior to the 2015 election.
It started out originally to focus on youth participation, because their barriers to electoral participation were quite significant compared to the general population. In subsequent years, we have expanded it to electors with disabilities who also face barriers to participation, as well as to indigenous electors and new Canadians.
In terms of the network, for the last election, we worked with 27 organizations in formal contractual relationships. The intent here is for them to share information with their constituents.
For example, young people tend to listen to organizations that they're familiar with versus information coming from Elections Canada, so we work with them to make sure they have accurate information about the election process and distribute that to their clientele. That's an example.
There were 27 contractual relationships, and then there are some 600 organizations that subscribe to an email, a kind of information blast that we send out based on electoral information.
There are a few things, certainly, that we would want to keep. I'm thinking in particular of how we serve long-term care facilities, for example, with more flexibility in serving them at different times in the calendar between advanced polls and polling day so that we can secure their vote and make sure that they are able to vote in a way that works for them and for the institutions. That's certainly one thing.
We used drop boxes for the first time. That was by way of adaptation; electors could bring their special ballot to a polling station. That's something that we may want to include in the future. It's hard, once you've offered something, to take it back, right? People expect that service again.
There are a few things from the pandemic election that we would want to bring back even outside of a pandemic. Of course, we're still in the pandemic and we don't know when the election is going to take place. That, of course, will influence other measures of protection we would bring in.
Madam Chair, we provide support for the 10 independent electoral boundaries commissions, but we are not involved in the exercise of making decisions on the boundaries. We provide tactical assistance and we set them up and support them administratively. The commissions decide on their activities and on the recommendations that they want to make, and the work is ongoing in that regard.
I know that so far three commissions have published a proposal. Other commissions are receiving input from the public prior to making their proposals. They have different approaches.
Certainly we would expect that the commissions' final maps or proposals, having gone through public hearings and having gone through this committee as the act provides, would be completed in the fall, around October 2023. Things are in line for that.
It should be noted that once the maps are finalized, they must be approved by order in council. There is no discretion there. Then they apply to any election that takes place seven months afterward, so there's a seven-month period for Elections Canada as well as for district associations to get organized under the new boundaries and reappoint returning officers. There's a fair amount of work that needs to be done. Once the maps are proclaimed, they do not take effect immediately. That would take us to the spring of 2024.
I will gladly take the floor, Madam Chair. By the way, you are doing a great job in the chair.
I'd like to thank the witnesses very much.
It's important to ask questions, too. I, for one, want to speak on behalf of my constituents. Obviously, we will get the report in May. We may not have enough time to review it, but I'd still like us to find a way to ask our questions, with a view to improving the train of events. I'm referring not only to redistricting, but also to the pandemic, which we will have learned from.
I have two concerns. You know me, I'm very practically oriented.
I did hear Mr. Perrault mention that his office needed more preparation time because of the pandemic. Of course, that came as a surprise, and in the end, there was no more time.
I'd like to know what the challenges were, given that you may not have had enough preparation time. I'm sure you are going to talk about labour. Other than labour, what challenges will you bring up in the report?
That's my first concern.
They won't necessarily be listed in the report, because some things I have already talked about. However, certain things will come back in the report, such as mail‑in ballots, for which there are various solutions.
We certainly faced several challenges. One of the issues came up when we were in the fourth wave, we will recall. In July, when we were preparing for the election, some landlords had agreed to rent their premises out as polling stations. They were mostly schools. Many of them changed their minds when the writs of election were issued. Returning officers had to go back to the drawing board and find new locations. Not only was it difficult to find polling stations, but we were also late getting the voter information cards, which must include the polling station. I would say that was the main consequence.
We also note in the report that, because we had four fewer days than the previous election, the percentage of mail‑in ballots that were received late and therefore not counted rose from 1.5% to 7.1%. A few days can have a huge impact on the mail‑in voting process.
I would say those are the two main issues related to the electoral period.
A parliamentary committee studied the issue in 2016, if I'm not mistaken. The only point on which a consensus emerged, or at least considerable agreement, was that the process of voting in federal elections in Canada should remain paper-based for the time being. Electronic voting has certainly gained ground at the municipal level. I believe Quebec will be implementing it at the school district level; that work is under way. In territorial elections, electronic voting is also used.
There is progress on that front. On our end, we are watching the issue with interest, but we are not working on deploying measures to support electronic voting. Instead, we are focused on using technologies such as electronic lists to better manage the voting process at polling stations, and thus minimize wait times and make optimal use of human resources—which, to be perfectly frank, are in decline. We had 195,000 election workers, and we don't expect that number to increase, even after the pandemic. That means we need to make the best possible use of workers, and I think technology can play a really big part in that, but not in terms of the actual voting.
You talked about personal information and privacy. That does involve cybersecurity, but it also involves the electoral administration practices of the parties or candidates using voters' personal information.
We have been working closely with our federal partners on cybersecurity matters for a number of years. After the U.S. presidential election in 2016, cybersecurity became a top priority for election administration authorities all over the world. I have to say, we have an excellent partnership on that front. We have made significant investments in cybersecurity capacity. It will continue to be a priority as we deploy technology, not necessarily to allow electronic voting, but rather, to administer the voting process.
I should also point out that we are subject to the Privacy Act, whereas political parties are not. It's an issue I've brought up in the past. I know that the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics produced a report on the subject a few years back, and it's something I plan to revisit in my recommendations report.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I'd like to start by thanking our Chief Electoral Officer and his team for their work, and for appearing at committee and answering our questions.
As the committee knows, my bill, the right to vote at 16 act, is currently at second reading.
Back in 2018, Mr. Perrault told the CBC that lowering the voting age is “worth considering”, because “Voting when you're 16 is voting at a time when most Canadians at that age are still in school, at a place where we can actually get to them and engage them.” He also said:
We know that Canadians who vote early in their lifetime will continue to vote, and those who don't vote in the first few elections will tend not to vote later on. So there's a real benefit to making sure that Canadians vote early, and voting when you're 16, there's an opportunity to reach out to them.
I'd like to ask Mr. Perrault if that remains his perspective.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I think these quotes were more separate in a conversation and were put a bit closer together than they were when I first spoke to the journalist. The reality is that they're all true, these statements. I still believe in all of them.
My main point there was that this is an important issue for Parliament to consider. It's for parliamentarians, for MPs, to have those discussions, and they're having them right now. My role is to support the work of this committee, should this issue come to the committee, by providing data and information on barriers to voting, and, should it move forward, explaining how we would implement any change relating to voting age.
I think this is fundamentally a policy decision for parliamentarians to make.
I'll complement that. If you look at voter participation, you see that it's a very complex issue. There's no one particular thing that will make a difference in whether somebody votes. It's a combination of factors. I'd say it's a team sport.
Elections Canada has a very minor role. Our focus has been on improving access to the vote, meaning informational barriers and those kinds of things. When it comes to young Canadians, the biggest barrier that they face is actually, quite frankly—and I think you heard through your indigenous study on the language on ballots—lack of interest, which is probably one of the biggest, and that comes in a couple of different ways. A lot of young Canadians feel that they cannot make a difference when they vote. We also know through our research that many young Canadians are not contacted by a candidate. It's less than most Canadians. That is from our research. This information is all available on our website.
They also don't view voting as a duty. They actually view it as a choice.
Those are some of the main factors. Those ones that I'm talking about are more in what I'd call the motivational side of things versus the access side of things. Mr. Perrault spoke to the access piece.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
I'd like to welcome the witnesses with us today.
Mr. Kmiec asked the exact question I was hoping to ask, so thank you for that.
One thing we heard during the last election, Madam Chair, was the difficulty in finding people to work at the election, such as poll staff to count the votes on election night, and so on.
Could the commissioner or perhaps Monsieur Limoges elaborate a little bit on the expenditures and any increase required to get more folks interested in working on election day? We did have a lot of trouble finding folks in my riding who wanted to work during the election.
What kinds of initiatives are you looking at to increase that to make sure we have adequate resources at the polls?
Thank you, Madam Chair.
On the whole, we're quite proud of the time for payment. It's in the range of 96% or 98% who are paid within four weeks, and when we're talking about 195,000 people whom we did not know just a few weeks prior, it's quite an achievement.
Unfortunately, in some cases there's information missing. There may be an error in the way the bank account number information is provided, or the name or social insurance number. Those errors, missing information or maybe a missing time sheet cause some delays for a small number, which can be significant, especially if the information is packed away after the election and it's held locally in the returning offices.
Over time, we are looking at changing our systems for recruitment and pay to make them better integrated and hopefully to have more access to the data remotely from headquarters, thus not waiting for the time sheets from the local returning officers and reducing the number of errors.
For the bulk of the workers, we provide very quick payment.
My next question will be for Madam Torosian.
One other area we hear a lot about is a lack of information or education regarding the electoral process. For instance, during the last election, I was still explaining to folks that they could go vote at the returning office and that they don't need to have an excuse that they're going to be absent, because that is something I think used to be in place many, many years ago.
A lot of Canadians don't know that there are many options for how to exercise your democratic right. Could you elaborate a little bit on some of the initiatives you're doing to educate? I know we've talked in terms of candidates getting out to folks to tell them that they can do that, but what other outreach efforts are you making in terms of the budget?
Madam Chair, we spent a lot of energy focused on the four ways to vote in the last general election, and voting in the local office was one of those four options. The first was voting at your assigned polling location on election day, because that is how most Canadians still vote. The second was the advanced poll voting option. The third was the vote by mail or special ballot. The returning office was the fourth option. This is the order in which we presented them.
We started our promotion of all the voting options—what we call the “early voting” phase—one week earlier than traditionally in the electoral calendar. We increased our budget on that phase of the election because we knew that in the pandemic, people would be seeking other options to vote.
We also did a lot of outreach through our Inspire Democracy network of some 600 organizations to get the word out to the groups known to face more barriers to electoral participation. It was a very big focus for our campaign. This information is also noted in our “Guide to the federal election”, which is distributed to all Canadian households. All of the options to vote are presented there. It is also noted on the voter information card that individuals get.
We continue to put those messages out there. We use social media and advertising. It's very much a multimedia campaign. It's a very expensive campaign.
The recalls are quite good, but there are some segments of the population who are not always aware. We often chalk that up to people who generally aren't registered, because they don't get their voter information card. That's where most people remember what their voting options are. It's an individual card addressed to them with what their individual voting options would be. Some segments of the population will have less knowledge.
I know the pride that you would have in the institution, but I find four weeks, when you're expecting a paycheque, to be a long time. We can talk about that off-line, but I feel that's a long time to wait for a paycheque, especially because we know how challenging it's been for people. I didn't know that, and I advertise for you all the time. It's one day of good work, but I feel that it's a long time. I wanted to put that out there.
Ms. Gaudreau, you may go ahead.
I have two and a half minutes.
The solutions are plentiful—so, too, are the problems, whether it's the four-week delay in people getting paid or the availability of space. More money isn't what will attract more people. You conduct multimedia advertising campaigns. The pandemic has changed how we do everything. Just think of vaccine passports. It's all electronic now.
It is up to us, as parliamentarians, to make sure that people are confident enough in the system to go vote. It is up to us to show that we can be trusted to build the future we all want.
Increasing voter turnout, however, requires the right tools. People in my riding of Laurentides—Labelle tell me that we know where to find them because they already receive communications via their devices, although not everyone has a device. We've done the rounds.
Is that an option? Are you there yet?
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
I have a number of questions that I would like to ask you, but I'm going to have to focus my attention on a couple of them.
Through you, Madam Chair, to the witnesses, I noted that in your departmental plan, you have outlined some of your priorities. One of the first ones that I wanted to ask you about was monitoring “the information environment in order to identify security issues that could prevent the agency from delivering on any part of its mandate or that would impact electoral integrity”.
What you see as the major threats? What are the major threats to your agency and your ability to deliver on your mandate?
Leaving aside cybersecurity here, we're basically talking about two things in monitoring the information environment.
The most important one on an ongoing basis is disinformation or misinformation about the process. This is particularly acute around the election period, but we monitor it on an ongoing basis, and where appropriate, we take action to reach out to the platforms so that they can react based on their policies. There's the misinformation on the voting process, and I insist on that.
The other aspect is during an election. What we saw, unfortunately, in the last election was an increase of incidents of violence or abuse vis-à-vis poll workers. That is quite unfortunate. We had over 100 instances in which police had to intervene. These are ordinary Canadians serving their neighbours. We've seen instances that were quite disheartening in that regard. We need to be alert to that and monitor it to get some signals as to whether instances could happen, whether additional security is required and whether police forces need to be informed of that.
Until the pandemic, everybody working at headquarters was working from 30 Victoria Street in Gatineau. There was the possibility on an individual basis of asking for telework arrangements, but these were quite exceptional. To be quite frank, they were not in the culture of this organization much more than in any organization.
What we realized during the pandemic, after some initial adjustments, was that in fact the telework mode functions quite well for us. Over 90% of our workforce wished to continue to work remotely. Some have since moved during the pandemic to other locations, and are fully engaged in the work of the agency. We were able to deliver this election working pretty much entirely remotely. There were a handful of people at headquarters during the election. The rest were working remotely. It works quite well to engage remotely, whether you're in, for example, call centres or a task force.
That creates a lot of flexibility for recruitment. We are in a tight labour market. Young Canadians want that flexibility. We believe we can offer a very dynamic workplace with the hybrid model. We are fully embracing that.
Madam Chair, the additional point I would make is that in every election cycle, we spend a fair amount of time, effort and money—because we ramp up the workforce—finding space and setting up cubicles, desks, chairs and computers and then securing the lines. We talked about the security of those. We do that about a year before the election and carry it afterward, because closing an election takes about a year. For almost three years, we're in a ramped-up mode. Then we go down. Then we start searching again for space. It's expensive and it's not efficient.
We're not going to do that anymore. We can save quite a bit of money by having everybody work from home during the election, as we did in this election.
Madam Chair, thank you very much.
Mr. Perrault, to you and your team, thanks for being here. As always, it's great to see you, talk to you and get a chance to ask you some questions.
I've heard throughout our conversation today two themes that I want to focus on: security and public trust.
I have a concern with the rise of misinformation and disinformation. I believe it has the potential to harm and is harming the public trust in our democratic institutions and in fact in our electoral process.
Do you share my concern, Mr. Perrault, through the chair?
Thank you, Mr. Perrault.
Through you, Madam Chair, I want to follow up on that. When you appeared here in February, along with me and other members of Parliament on the committee, you expressed some deep concerns that have emerged over the last two elections. In one of your last comments, I think you alluded to the increased incidence of violence and hate and the level of vitriol. We've seen it for candidates and volunteers. Obviously, it's increased for election workers or poll workers as well.
It seems like the vitriol, hate and conspiracy theories are contributing and becoming more mainstream in Canadian politics. I think it's really eroding the quality of our political discourse. I note that recent polls at the Université de Sherbrooke show that a growing number of Canadians are falling victim to online conspiracy theories. Another researcher at Queen's University, a professor who studies extremism, says that the number is massive and absolutely surprising and worrying.
The consequence during an election campaign could be extremely serious. Well-funded groups can spread disinformation and hatred, and they are influencing a growing number of Canadians through well-organized disinformation campaigns.
I don't want to suggest that it's solely up to Elections Canada to deal with this issue. I don't believe that, and I don't think anyone here would imply that. I just think that Elections Canada does have a role to play in combatting this, certainly around elections. We don't want to see it rise to a point that it erodes the public trust in our democratic institutions, which are so foundational.
Could you update the committee on the progress being made at Elections Canada to combat this type of behaviour during election campaigns? Have you asked for additional funds that would help you address this?
Madam Chair, I have not asked for additional funds. We do have a capacity. We've built a team over the years. We do rely to a certain degree on our statutory authority. It's an example of how useful it is to ramp up our capacity to monitor disinformation during election time.
I will be coming back to the whole issue of communications in my recommendations report. Our regime of communications under the Elections Act has been focusing primarily on advertising, because when the act was first enacted many years ago, that was the main means of communication during the campaign—apart, of course, from door-to-door knocking. Now there are many other ways to communicate during an election. I think the rules need to be adjusted to reflect that reality.
I will have some recommendations in that regard, particularly to increase the transparency of electoral campaign communications, not just by candidates and parties but by third parties as well. There will be recommendations regarding the funding of third parties.
This is one aspect, as you indicated, of a much broader issue.
I will be brief, Madam Chair, seeing what time it is. Thank you, by the way, for giving me the opportunity to ask questions.
We have asked the witnesses numerous questions, and we will have more once the report comes out.
Nevertheless, I am very concerned about the fact that Elections Canada does not have all the documentation within the appropriate time frame. We just talked about how Canada compares with other countries. I'm referring to the filing of returns. A report is coming out in May 2022. A few days ago, my official agent, who is quite old and could have had health problems, was still sending Elections Canada documents. He pointed out that he was volunteering and that the work should have been done already.
No doubt, there's a reason for the delay. As I understand it, ensuring everything is ready before the election is important, but once the election is over, things should move quickly as far as next steps are concerned.
Can you explain why the time frame is what it is?
That is indeed an important issue, and I am glad to have the opportunity to comment.
To begin with, we shortened the time frame for the audit from 18 months to 12 months. However, half the candidates request an extension and submit their returns after the statutory deadline, and that has consequences. The way we reduced the audit time frame was by carrying out risk analyses and examining the trends and outliers, but we can't do it properly until we have all the data. We proceed on the basis of data from the past, but we do data entry. The delay in our analysis is the result of the fact that half of the candidates do not submit their returns by the deadline. It is possible to receive an extension, and half of the candidates request one. That is a challenge. Nonetheless, we have managed to reduce the time frame from 18 months to 12 months.
We've also made two changes to the process. First, we don't ask for a detailed invoice for every single thing, as was the case before we switched to a risk analysis-based method. Second, we introduced an expedited process for preliminary expense reimbursement. In a minority Parliament, especially, expenses need to be reimbursed as quickly as possible.
All that to say, the improvement process is ongoing.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I want to ask a question about rural ridings and voting on election day in rural ridings like the one I represent, which is the size of Poland.
I want to start by sharing a story about a neighbour of mine. A couple of days before election day in this most recent election, she was in a horrible car accident. She texted me from her hospital bed and said, “Taylor, I've never not voted. I've always voted. I'm in the hospital and I'm wondering what my voting opportunities are.” We called Elections Canada, and I think at the time we were told there might be a mobile poll that would go around bed to bed in the local hospital, so we told her that. The next text that I got from her said that because of COVID and the local hospital's capacity, she was being shipped to a neighbouring community three hours away, so she texted me from that hospital and said, “Now what are my options?” We called Elections Canada. We pulled out all the stops. We explained this tragic and extenuating situation and were told that there was no opportunity for this woman to vote.
Now granted, this is a very unique situation, but there's a larger question, especially in rural ridings, of voting away from your home poll on election day within your riding. I understand that if you're in a different province or a different city in a different riding on election day, that makes it difficult because of the reporting requirements and the timeline for reporting the results. Nonetheless, is there not some way to do this? I ask because we get dozens of stories of people who are in the riding but aren't close to the voting place where they're supposed to vote.
Is there not some way on election day that people can vote within the riding, but at a different poll from the one they've been assigned? I think that's a way we could increase voter turnout and ensure that people aren't unfairly excluded from voting in the way that my friend from Smithers was.
Madam Chair, I think there are two separate issues here that are related, certainly in their solution.
The first issue is that until day six in every election, people in hospitals can be visited, because in a hospital setting you will have people from different electoral districts being visited and served by a mobile poll using special ballots. The special ballots stop on what we call “day six”, which is six days before the election, because we need to mark the lists that are used on polling day to make sure that people do not vote twice.
If we introduce electronic lists and thereby have the ability to strike an elector electronically, we can reduce that time to almost nothing—to a few days at worst—and allow people in hospitals who are hurt or injured just days before the election to vote, and then strike their names electronically. We would still need some time to produce the lists, but we could reduce the risk therein and reduce the number of days.
In terms of voting anywhere in the electoral district, Madam Chair, again this is something that in the longer term could be done through electronic lists. It is done in some jurisdictions. I'm not aware of its impact on increased participation, but it's certainly convenient for many electors.
Thank you again for coming. Obviously, we could talk to you for days when it comes to elections. We appreciate the work you do and your being available to members. I hope you keep well and safe, and keep up the good work.
PROC committee members, I will just remind us that we will be meeting on Tuesday, May 10, in camera. The draft report on the inclusion of indigenous languages on federal election ballots was sent to everyone on Friday, so you will have had it for about a week and a half. On Tuesday we will start going through the draft report, and I look forward to that conversation.
With that, keep well and safe. We will see you soon.
The meeting is adjourned.