Mr. Tom Lukiwski (Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand in the chamber today to speak in favour of Bill C-55 on enhanced voting opportunities. I am hopeful that all of my colleagues in this place will also vote in favour of the bill when it finally comes before the members.
I am sure that I am not alone when I say that during the last couple of federal campaigns I have had opportunities to speak many times before young people, whether it be in primary schools, high schools or universities. One of the things I always say to these young people is that I sincerely hope, no matter for whom they choose to vote, that they at least exercise their franchise and use the ability and the privilege given to them to actually cast their ballots in a federal election.
One of the most disturbing trends that I have seen over the course of the last 10 to 20 years is the decrease in voter turnout, especially among young people, particularly in the 18 to 25 demographic. What I say to these young people and what I will say to the members of this place is that why this is so disturbing is that eventually those young people will be determining the fate of their governments. I would hate to think that if these trends continue we would see a time when a federal election was held with a less than 50% voter turnout, or in other words, when less than 50% of the eligible voters of this country actually would elect a government.
Regardless of which government it is and regardless of which party or political stripe is represented, it is a very disturbing trend to think that young people in particular, but all voters regardless of age, are exercising their franchise less and less. That says perhaps many things about the inherent problems that we have within our political parties, our political system or our electoral system, but nonetheless, it is incumbent upon all of us to do what we can to try to increase voter turnout.
Regardless of the government that is elected at the end of the day, I would feel more comfortable, and I think most Canadians would feel more comfortable, if 80% or 90% of all eligible voters cast their ballots. Then one actually could say that the vast majority of Canadians expressed their opinion, cast their ballots and elected a government in which the majority of Canadians had a say.
I am disturbed when I think that roughly 60% of Canadians, and only 60%, end up electing governments. Whether they be minority or whether they be majority, if only 60% of Canadians feel it is worthwhile to go out on voting day to cast their ballots, it says there is something wrong.
I am not here to speak to all of the ills that currently may be within our electoral system or our political parties, but I am here today to speak to Bill C-55, which is an attempt to increase the voter turnout at future federal elections. While I will be the first to admit that the bill is certainly not intended to be the panacea for all the ills, I think it is a step in the right direction.
Should the bill be passed into law, I believe that it will have a positive impact on increasing the level of voter turnout that we have seen. It may not dramatically increase the level of voter turnout, but I think there will be an increase. Even if we increase the number of voters casting ballots by a few percentage points, the bill will have had a positive effect. That is why I will very gladly and wholeheartedly vote in favour of the bill.
What does the bill say exactly? What does it do? It does not do much outside of the fact that it gives two additional days for voters to cast ballots in advance polls.
Currently, as I am sure most members understand, the situation is that on day ten, nine and seven, in other words the tenth day, the ninth day and the seventh day prior to election day, advance polls are currently in operation, where voters who may not be in town or who may not wish to vote during election day can, during prescribed hours, go to prescribed voting locations, advance poll locations, and cast their ballots. Over time that has proven to be a very valuable tool in assisting all Canadians in their ability to cast a vote.
We all know that come election day certain factors occur which prevent some Canadians from going to the polls. It might be work related functions, the voters may be out of the country on vacation, they may just happen to come down with a bad cold, or some other circumstance might prevent them from actually casting a ballot on E day, election day. Being given the opportunity to cast an advance ballot would ensure that those votes are counted. This bill would increase the number of opportunities that voters would have to actually cast a ballot should they choose do so other than on election day.
This bill specifically deals with voting on the two Sundays immediately prior to election day. There is one slight variance in that in as much as on the eighth day prior to E day, the Sunday which would be the eighth day prior to E day, the polling location for this advance poll would be the standard advance poll location.
As most Canadians understand, advance polls are traditionally always located in different areas than the general polling location in individual ridings. My particular riding of Regina--Lumsden--Lake Centre, which is consistent with the geographic area of most rural ridings, is a very large riding. The advance polls for the rural areas in my riding are all held in a community called Lumsden. Lumsden is fairly central, but it is a fair hike for one coming down from Nokomis or Davidson. People sometimes have to travel over an hour, sometimes an hour and a half, to get to the polling station to cast an advance ballot. That in itself poses some difficulties for individuals who may be somewhat restricted in mode of transportation, whether or not they can drive a car, or whether they have access to a ride to get to the polling stations. Even though they have an opportunity to cast a ballot, it is somewhat restrictive in as much as some people have to travel up to an hour and a half or longer.
Bill C-55 proposes that in addition to allowing advance polls to be open the eighth day prior to E day in the traditional advance polling location, advance polls would be set up the Sunday immediately prior to the general election, which traditionally has been on a Monday. That advance poll, which would be open from 12 noon to 8 p.m. local time, would be located in the general polling location.
Let me explain exactly what that means. On election day, there are many polling locations throughout each member's riding. Perhaps in some riding there might be as many as 30, 40 or 50 actual polling locations located in schools, gymnasiums and churches. This bill proposes that the advance poll for that Sunday, that one day only, one day prior to an election, would be located in the same polling locations as would be held the following day.
In other words, rather than just having one or two advance poll locations, which would require some individuals to drive an hour or more, they would have the convenience of going to a polling station the Sunday prior to the general election and located relatively near their residence. The intent is to give as much flexibility as possible in order to give individuals an opportunity to cast a ballot.
There have been some questions. Why Sunday? Is Sunday not supposed to be a day of rest? Would that not interfere with the practices of some to attend the church of their choice? There may be some validity to that argument, however, I would suggest that since we are recommending that the time of the advance polling would be from 12 noon to 8 p.m. of that day, then that would probably give sufficient time to those who wish to worship at the location of their choice. They would have time to go to church and after that go to the polling location.
I would also suggest that this is not something radical. It is certainly not something new. Other jurisdictions have been providing polling opportunities on a Sunday.
I know my colleagues in the Bloc have long argued that Sunday voting was something that was accepted widely and broadly in Quebec. Other provinces, such as Saskatchewan, have had opportunities on Sundays to cast ballots.
I think that we would find that generally speaking, this has been a practice that has been accepted in other parts of Canada by other Canadians. I would suggest to members of the House that the practice on a widespread basis through all of the ridings would also come under much acceptance.
What does it mean that we have an eight hour window on the Sunday prior? Some would argue that is just merely another extension of voting day, and while I can understand why some individuals would say it is actually adding an extra day, so there would now be two days of voting, it is not quite true.
Number one, the polling hours are different. As I mentioned earlier, the polling is going to be from 12 noon until 8 p.m., whereas on the Monday, the day of a general election, polling stations open on a staggered basis, usually from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m., sometimes 9 p.m., but the times are staggered across Canada to take into account the various time zones. That is the first difference.
The second difference of course is that these are advance polls only. Ballots would not be counted that day. The ballots would be sealed and contained in the advance poll ballot box, referred to the returning officer at the general polling station the following day, and ballots would be counted at that time.
I should also point out that should the eventuality ever occur that the Monday is not election day, it would still be a Sunday prior to the general election day that this special advance poll would be in operation. There are some distinct differences between the two.
However once again, the general intent of this bill is to try to increase the ability of voters to cast ballots during a general election. I would like to think that all parliamentarians, regardless of political affiliation, would agree with me that that is a good thing. I have yet to hear an argument from any member in this place that suggests lower voter turnouts are better for democracy. It is an absurd argument and I think everyone would agree with that. Everything that we can possibly do to increase voter turnout is something we should welcome.
I have heard today that there have been some minor disagreements with this proposed legislation. Some members have argued that it needs improvement.
Perhaps, but on a general basis, on balance, this bill is an improvement to the current voting system that we experience today because it gives additional opportunities to all Canadians to express their opinions and exercise their franchise. It gives them the opportunity in a way that is intended to drive up the number of people who vote.
Can we do other things? Absolutely, and I have long argued that what we need to do, and perhaps this is a function of the Chief Electoral Office of this land, is have a far more aggressive and pervasive educational program to encourage all Canadians, particularly young people, vote.
This is without question, in my view, the most important privilege that every Canadian has, the right to exercise their franchise and to elect members of Parliament, and on a provincial basis, to elect provincial governments.
There is no fundamental democracy or democratic premise or tenet more important, in my view, than the right to vote. Canadians, and in fact citizens worldwide, have long fought, sometimes literally fought, for the right to vote. We still see now in some jurisdictions across the globe a discrimination against some people having the ability to vote.
In this country, of course, not that many years ago there were restrictions placed upon who could vote. We have come a long way in the last century, and that is a good thing, but we still need to do more. Through methods of education and awareness, whether it be in the schoolroom, whether it be through the Chief Electoral Office, or whether it just be us as parliamentarians advocating and encouraging Canadians in our ridings to get out and vote, regardless of who they vote for, it is something we should all take very seriously.
Again, let me say that while I do not think that this is the total answer, a complete panacea to the problems of low voter turnout, I think it will go in an incremental way toward increasing the level of voter turnout.
I would like nothing more than to be able to come back to this House, some day in the future after this bill has been implemented, and point to the fact that the percentage of voters who attended the Sunday polling stations on day eight and day one prior to election day was significant and the overall voter turnout across this country was significant. We would be able to turn to this bill that we passed, and I hope it will pass unanimously, quite frankly, and say that we had a part to play in allowing more Canadians to vote, in fact in encouraging more Canadians to vote.
If we do that I think all of us can go back to our ridings and say, “I earned my dollar today. I earned my salary”. It may be a small blip on the political landscape that people look back after years and say, “That was an obvious thing to do”. I think these are the type of initiatives as parliamentarians we need to engage in on a more frequent basis.
I certainly encourage every member of this House, when Bill C-55 come before them for third and final reading, and I am sure it will in due course, to vote in favour of the bill.
Once the bill gets to committee, and I am quite confident that it will, should the procedure and House affairs committee dealing with this bill feel or deem that there are any necessary amendments to be made, I have no problems and no qualms with amendments to this bill should they be in the spirit in which the bill was introduced and that is to genuinely put procedures in place that will increase the level of voter turnout.
There may be some amendments that I have not considered and perhaps there may be some amendments offered that this bill has not contemplated. Regardless of that, I think the spirit of this bill is one which all parliamentarians can agree upon.
We need more people in this country to vote. I will give a quick example. In my riding in 2004 just over 63% of eligible voters cast a ballot. When we have 37% of the people not voting, that concerns me, particularly since I will be representing them, regardless of whether they cast a ballot or not.
I would love to say that 100% of the people in my riding voted. Therefore, I would be absolutely convinced, whoever the successful candidate was, that this was really the person who my constituents wanted to see in Parliament representing them.
Right now there certainly can be an argument to be made that I did not receive 50% of the vote and only 63% of the people participated in the vote. One could certainly argue that the majority of people, perhaps even the vast majority in my own riding, did not want me as their member of Parliament but they got me. I would like to think that is not true. I mean that is an argument that could be made and with some legitimacy.
If we can do anything in our power to increase the number of people casting their votes, it will be a good day for democracy.
I go back to 2006. I was hoping that the level of voter turnout would actually increase from the previous election due to the fact that we had many issues that were coming forward during the election campaign. Generally speaking it has always been a historical fact that when there is a change in government, traditionally voter turnout goes up because people want a change. Therefore, they will take the time to go to the polls and vote for a new government.
Quite frankly, that did not occur in the 2006 election. I know that the voter turnout percentages vary from riding to riding, but as a general rule of thumb the voting turnout in 2006 remained fairly static to what it was in 2004, around the low 60% mark.
If we can say that at best we remained the same, that we have not continued to decrease, I do not think that is good enough.
In summary, this bill is a very simple bill. It merely purports to try and do one thing, to allow more people to cast their ballots and to encourage more people to cast their ballots. If we are successful in that initiative by the passage of this bill, it has been a good day for democracy.