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View Ruby Sahota Profile
Lib. (ON)
Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the eighth meeting of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
I'd like to welcome those who are before us today: our chief electoral officer, Mr. Perrault; the deputy chief electoral officer, electoral events and innovation; and the deputy chief electoral officer, internal services.
Thank you, all of you, for being here today. We are meeting on the supplementary estimates. We'll start with a 10-minute statement and then continue on into our questioning rounds.
Stéphane Perrault
View Stéphane Perrault Profile
Stéphane Perrault
2020-03-12 11:03
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 C-50 and Bill C-76, 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.
View Ruby Sahota Profile
Lib. (ON)
We will start our six-minute rounds.
Mr. Richards.
View Blake Richards Profile
CPC (AB)
Thank you.
In your comments you noted cybersecurity and misinformation. You mentioned that you have experienced no cybersecurity threats of significance beyond those faced daily by any federal government organization. You also recently put out a report that indicated the same. I know this was something we heard a lot about from the previous minister in the previous Liberal government prior to the last election. There was a lot of concern about whether there would be foreign influence and that Russia and places like that would be trying to influence our elections. This was something they seemed to be quite concerned about. You indicated that you took some measures concerning cybersecurity that you think were important in protecting the process.
You're saying you didn't experience any threats. Can you give us examples of how those measures actually prevented that, or do you think it was just that nobody made the effort to try to interfere in our elections from outside of Canada?
Stéphane Perrault
View Stéphane Perrault Profile
Stéphane Perrault
2020-03-12 11:13
If you look at our systems, in the lead-up to the last election we had.... We were in a situation after 2015 where we had to renew a number of key elements of our IT infrastructure, in particular our data centre. We needed a new data centre, so we built a much more secure data centre. We worked with Communications Security Establishment Canada. We ensured that we had very high levels of protection.
Every department and every agency that has infrastructure in Canada receives, on a daily basis, hundreds of thousands of attacks of a generic nature. This was also the case during the election, as it is every day. There was nothing specific.
View Blake Richards Profile
CPC (AB)
What you're saying is that you didn't see anything that was outside of what would ordinarily be experienced in a government department on a regular day, week, month or whatever.
I guess what I'm trying to determine is that there were all of these.... We seemed to get a lot from the Liberal government in the last few years leading up to the election that there were going to be all of these threats from outside of Canada—all these foreign threats—that would be impacting our election in some way. What I think I'm hearing from you is that that didn't materialize. You put measures in place.
You're not telling me that you saw anything outside of the ordinary. Is that what you're saying, that as far as you can tell, there was no attempt by Russians or other foreign countries to try to interfere in our elections?
Stéphane Perrault
View Stéphane Perrault Profile
Stéphane Perrault
2020-03-12 11:15
As far as I can tell, that is the case.
My role is to protect Elections Canada's infrastructure. The government has a different mandate, a much broader mandate, and they do their own things.
From my point of view, there was nothing that we detected.
View Blake Richards Profile
CPC (AB)
I appreciate that.
In terms of foreign influence and interference in our elections, one of the things I kept trying to point out was that maybe we needed to look a bit at how foreign money was coming in to third parties and how that was allowing foreign influence in our elections. There was certainly some talk in 2015 that there were organizations that claimed they changed the results of the election with money from outside of Canada. In the 2019 election, obviously there were some new rules put in place around third parties and their funding.
Are you able to give us any indication as to whether that prevented foreign money from coming in and influencing the election, whether it be in the pre-writ period, or in what I call the "pre-pre-writ" period, or even during the writ period? Tell us whether you think that foreign money was still able to be utilized by these organizations to influence our elections or whether you think that was completely prevented.
Stéphane Perrault
View Stéphane Perrault Profile
Stéphane Perrault
2020-03-12 11:16
I can't speak to the pre-pre-writ period, but for the period for which there was reporting, we are currently reviewing the reports. There were 147 third parties that were registered. There may be more that needed to register, and we're following up on that. Most of the reports have been filed. If you go on our website, you will see.... I think it's about 115 of the reports that are currently filed, and we will be doing a review of that.
I can say that the rules around foreign funding of third parties have been reinforced and clarified. I also said, when we examined Bill C-76 in the last Parliament, that the regime was reinforced considerably but was not an airtight regime. The regime does not trace the money back to individual contributors. That is the choice of Parliament. There are charter issues around going into a much tighter regime, and—
View Blake Richards Profile
CPC (AB)
I've been told I only have a very limited amount of time left. I think I basically have what I needed in terms of that. Obviously you're right. Parliament does have to consider whether that's still occurring or not.
During the last election, you chose to pay some people you called “social media influencers”, and that was I guess to try to promote the 2019 election. There was a bit of an uproar about that and you pulled back on that. It was, I think, because there was some discovery that maybe with at least one of those individuals, there had been some partisan activities that had taken place.
Can you tell us a little more about the criteria for choosing those influencers, whether those were Elections Canada employees and whether you would consider doing that kind of initiative again?
View Ruby Sahota Profile
Lib. (ON)
You have five seconds.
Stéphane Perrault
View Stéphane Perrault Profile
Stéphane Perrault
2020-03-12 11:18
I'll start with the last point, which is I think the bottom line—
View Ruby Sahota Profile
Lib. (ON)
There's no further time.
View Blake Richards Profile
CPC (AB)
Does he not have time to answer?
View Ruby Sahota Profile
Lib. (ON)
There's no further time.
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