Mr. Marc Mayrand (Chief Electoral Officer, Elections Canada):
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I am pleased to be here today with my officials to meet committee members during their study of viable alternative voting systems to replace the first-past-the-post system and their examination of mandatory voting and online voting.
I will keep my introductory remarks brief. I should point out that, as the Chief Electoral Officer, I perform the role of administering the Canada Elections Act and the Referendum Act, and organizing and overseeing the conduct of electoral events. This also includes administering the political financing provisions of the acts, monitoring compliance, and conducting appropriate public information campaigns.
When there is a readjustment of federal electoral boundaries, which normally takes place after every decennial census, my role is to support the independent commissions and implement the new boundaries set by those commissions.
Finally, after a general election, I submit to Parliament a report containing legislative amendments that, in my opinion, are desirable for better administration of the acts.
My next recommendations report will be submitted to the Speaker of the House of Commons in early fall. This report is typically referred to and examined by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, which is responsible for matters related to the election of members to the House of Commons.
My recommendations will include proposed amendments to the Canada Elections Act related to the voting process and the regulatory regime. Adopting these amendments will be essential to improving the experience of voters and political entities, irrespective of the voting system in place for the next general election. In that regard, these recommendations are complementary to the work of this committee.
Given the nature of my mandate, I intend to support the work of this committee by highlighting the administrative aspect of operationalizing changes that the committee may study. This is particularly important given the very short time frame available to make changes to the voting system, if they are to be in place for the next general election.
I do not intend to address the pros and cons of various electoral systems. The committee will hear about this from its witnesses, including members of the academic community, and perhaps groups representing citizens, and citizens themselves. As I indicated at the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs in April when they appeared on my office's main estimates, legislation enacting a reform should be in place well in advance of the next election to allow for proper implementation. I note that the government has committed to having legislation in May 2017, which I am comfortable with. In this regard I would like to point out some key considerations related to the implementation of a new voting system.
First, some alternative voting models you may consider may well require a redistribution of electoral boundaries. The current legal framework does not allow for redistribution except after each decennial census, and the current boundaries are supposed to be in effect until 2023. Nor does it allow for multi-member seats or regional groupings. Should redistribution be required because of a change in our voting system, enabling legislation will need to be put in place. Under the current regime the last redistribution exercise took 26 months to fully complete, and that was based on the newly compressed timeline that was enacted in 2011. While there may be ways to further reduce the timeline, the redistribution process should continue to reflect the fundamental principles of independence and neutrality through the establishment of an independent commission and a mechanism for public consultations.
Second, the introduction of a new voting system may make it difficult to publish the outcome of the election on election night by completing the counting of ballots manually at voting sites, as is currently the case. Canadians are accustomed to learning the results of elections quickly, and any possible delay should be considered carefully by the committee. For example, some systems require either moving all ballot boxes to a central counting place, which carries risk and can take significant time given our geography, or more likely would require the introduction of electronic tabulation at all polling places to ensure the timely release of election results on election night.
Third, in looking at other voting systems the committee may wish to consider the possible impact on the current political financing regime.
Fourth, consideration should also be given to the preparation of electors and election officers. An extensive public education campaign would be needed to ensure that Canadians understand the new system, and can exercise both their right to be a candidate and their right to vote. This is an aspect that cannot be overlooked and has been critical in other countries that have changed their electoral system.
My mandate in this regard would need to be clarified. The recruitment and training of election officers would also be crucial to ensure proper administration of the new rules.
Let me now turn briefly to online voting and mandatory voting. It is undeniable that many Canadians would benefit from the introduction of online or Internet voting. Internet voting would remove barriers and make a vote more accessible for various groups such as voters with mobility challenges, including seniors, those with visual impairments, and Canadians abroad. That being said, caution is needed in moving forward to ensure that Canadians continue to have the same high level of trust in the integrity of their elections. In this regard we are not currently planning to offer online voting in 2019. However, Elections Canada would certainly welcome direction from this committee in terms of a desirable approach in moving forward with Internet voting.
In examining this issue, the committee should consider a number of aspects, including social acceptance and the challenges that online voting present for the integrity and secrecy of the vote. I would ask the committee to consider the scope of the introduction of online voting, which may include limiting its use to particular groups of electors who would benefit most from this option, such as those with disabilities or Canadians living abroad.
Finally, with respect to mandatory voting I will simply note that there is a relatively broad range of experiences internationally. Currently 23 countries have legislation providing for mandatory voting at the national level. While I take no position on the merits of mandatory voting, I would encourage the committee to pay attention to several considerations during its study, including the provision of a compliance mechanism through sanctions or positive incentives, whether or not there should be exceptions for certain groups of voters, and of course acceptance by Canadians.
In closing, Mr. Chair, I wish to assure you that I and members of my staff will be happy to assist the committee in looking at these matters, particularly the operational and implementation aspect of various options for reform that the committee is considering.
Mr. Chair, I appreciate the opportunity to address the committee today as you begin work on your important mandate to review options to ensure that Canadians are effectively represented in the House of Commons. This rare opportunity does not happen often in many democracies. I wish you well in your work and I look forward to the outcome of your deliberations.
My colleagues and I are now available to answer your questions.
Mr. Alexandre Boulerice (Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, NDP):
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Mayrand, gentlemen, thank you for joining us today.
We, in the NDP, have always been in favour of changing the voting system, so we were very glad when this committee was finally created. We are also very glad that we managed to change the committee's makeup, although it did take a while for the committee to get down to work. Today, we are seeing the effects of that delay.
You said that, under the current regime, the redistribution exercise normally takes at least 26 months, when it's done after the census to take into account demographic changes and the like.
In this case, however, we are dealing with much broader and more comprehensive changes to the voting system. Let's say we opted for a mixed system, similar to that in Germany, where people have to cast votes on two separate ballots and a list system is used. If regional or provincial compensatory measures were needed, would the current 26-month time frame you mentioned be too short?
Mr. Marc Mayrand:
After every election, we study voter turnout. In fact, I can make those studies available to the committee, if you'd like. We examine the circumstances of those who did not vote in an effort to understand why they decided not to. Three broad categories usually emerge.
First, about 40% of people tell us they didn't vote owing to various barriers. They weren't available, they weren't in their riding and couldn't make it to the appropriate location to vote that day, and so forth.
Second, 45% of people tell us they don't care about politics. They don't think their vote will necessarily count.
Third, about 8% of people report not voting for procedural reasons, such as the complexity of the voter registration process.
These are longitudinal studies that are published, so they are available.
Mr. Luc Thériault (Montcalm, BQ):
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Mayrand, Mr. Roussel, and Mr. Perrault, welcome to the committee. Thank you for providing a document with such clear information. It basically summarizes the concerns you have from a technical standpoint, concerns I share.
My question has two parts. First, I'd like you to elaborate on the political financing regime.
The government wants to put a new voting system in place. Some of those here already have a preference for a mixed member proportional system to improve representation and the plurality of votes of the various parties. Government financing doesn't exist currently.
In light of the Figueroa decision, do you not think it would be a serious injustice if we didn't restore the capacity of political parties to assert their voice in time for the next election? Do you not think we would be failing to ensure all parties enjoyed a minimum level of fairness at the starting gate, as far as the democratic process was concerned?
Mr. Marc Mayrand:
It's quite a debate. I'd be glad to provide the committee with our studies on the subject. Technology changes quickly, but a few years ago, we did conduct some rather in-depth studies on the issues associated with online voting.
That said, I think it's important to take into account considerations such as social acceptability, security, and vulnerability, of course. Eventually, it will be necessary to set the parameters. One of the things that will have to be determined is whether online voting can take place at any computer or whether the process has to be supervised. Currently, voting is supervised. Certain details will need to be examined, so it may be useful to start defining those issues.
As I mentioned, our regime already allows for voting by mail, so that's an unsupervised method of voting. It's important to examine whether the risks associated with online voting are greater than with voting by mail and whether those risks can be mitigated. Those are the kinds of issues I would like some direction on.
In Canada right now, municipalities are making a lot of headway when it comes to online voting, but that isn't the case at the provincial or federal levels. Although studies have been done, no new initiatives have really emerged. It's a question that's been pushed into the public domain, and I think everyone is waiting for some guidance before moving forward in a particular direction and actually piloting an online voting system. I think we can all agree it isn't necessary to have a universal approach from day one.
Mr. Gérard Deltell (Louis-Saint-Laurent, CPC):
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Before I get to my question, I'd like to take a moment to remember J.-Jacques Samson, a prominent and influential political reporter in Quebec for the past 40 years. He was active in the municipal, provincial and federal arenas. As an accomplished, respected, and trusted journalist, he had an impact on people. On behalf of all of my colleagues, I would like to extend my sympathies to J.-Jacques's family.
My humble respects, Mr. Mayrand. It's a pleasure to meet you, as well as Mr. Perrault and Mr. Roussel. Through you, I would also like to acknowledge the thousands of Canadians who, every four years or, rather, whenever an election is called, work so diligently and methodically under tremendous pressure given that time is of the essence. We often forget that it is thanks to thousands of Canadians that we enjoy a viable, acceptable, and effective democracy. More specifically, I'd like to commend, if I may, the returning officer for the Louis-Saint-Laurent riding, Hélène Dion, and her team.
Mr. Mayrand, in response to my Bloc Québécois colleague's question about online voting, you mentioned the need for a certain level of social acceptability.
Do you think changing the voting system requires some social acceptability?
Mr. David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre, NDP):
Thank you, Mr. Mayrand, for being here today. I want to add my voice, and I'm sure we'll also get a formal opportunity down the road to do so, and thank you so much for your contribution.
I have spent a fair bit of time in the last few years working internationally as part of observer missions for elections and on anti-corruption issues relating to the work of the Auditor General and the public accounts committee. Every time I go out and then come back to Canada, I'm so appreciative of what we have. I understand more than ever that one of the strengths of our democracy is our institutions and the calibre of the people we appoint to run those institutions. Sir, Canadians from coast to coast to coast owe you a huge debt of thanks for the work you have done on behalf of those citizens in ensuring that we have the fairest elections we can.
I would like to pick up on something that I tried to sneak in at the last meeting. Our eagle-eyed Chair jumped on me, rightly so, and said I could raise it in the usual discourse, so here I go.
It has to do with the amount of work that we're doing here, in particular on online voting and mandatory voting, that's specifically spelled out in the mandate. I've gone through these things as you know with your reports before, and what I wanted to raise with the minister and now with you is my concern that we can spend an awful lot of time getting into a whole lot of important details just on those two issues alone. My concern is that if we get too distracted from this very large macro picture we have of the overall voting system, we would get lost in these other issues.
Now on online voting I noticed that you recommend to us, or at least spell out, that one of the things that you would find helpful is some direction so that you can move forward on research with regard to Internet voting, given all the reasons you've just mentioned why it's not going to happen right away.
That's an easy one we could do by a quick motion, Chair, and boom that would send it off to the right place.
That leaves us with mandatory voting. I won't ask you about the details of it because that's not why we're here, but I will ask you this. You understand the procedure and House affairs committee as well as anybody, so would anything be lost in your opinion if we took the question of mandatory voting from this committee and referred it instead to that committee as part of your overall recommendations? Would something be lost in terms of timing or substance?
Mr. David Christopherson:
That's a good point.
Mr. Reid also sits on the procedure and House affairs committee, and I don't know whether that's something we want to take up to clear the path for this committee, or leave it in here.
However, I'll move on to another issue. Just circling back to the issue of the amount of time necessary, I want to be crystal clear.
Regardless of whatever option we're looking at, so far you're keeping an eye on what we're doing and looking in your crystal ball, trying to determine where we're going and getting out in front. Does that include a complete rework, not just a redoing of the boundaries, but actually a whole different approach in terms of regional ridings? I understand that clustering would save some time.
I just want to be absolutely clear that as long as we give you this period of time, if we have that law in place by May 2017, regardless of how ambitious a recommended change we'd like to make, you feel that it would give you adequate time to do that, sir.
Mr. Blake Richards (Banff—Airdrie, CPC):
Thanks very much.
Earlier in one of your question and answers with another member here, you had started on something and I think the time had expired in the round. I'd like to continue on it, talking a little bit about this idea of the boundary distribution process. In your opening remarks you talked about the importance of the establishment of independent commissions and how important that is as part of the process, and then a little bit in that question and answer portion about communities of interest. So we're talking about what Mr. Christopherson was just talking about, the idea of regional groupings or multi-member seats and those kinds of things, and how important communities of interest are in that.
I can certainly think of several different parts of the country—and northern Alberta in my province is one of the examples of that—where, when you just try to group two or three ridings together you can create some very significant drive times. If we don't have these independent commissions and the idea of considering the communities of interest and hearing from local people, and doing full consultations to ensure that they're not being disadvantaged by having their member not able to properly access the riding, for example, or there could be a number of other problems....
I wonder if you could speak to the importance of the independent commissions and considering the communities of interest in any redistribution process that might take place for a different voting system.
Mr. Blake Richards:
I appreciate that and I understand the difficulties and the importance of that task and the timelines that can be created there.
That's where I wanted to go with my next question to you. You've been fairly clear today in talking about the last redistribution process taking 26 months. You've indicated that maybe it's possible, under certain circumstances, that you could shave a little bit of time off that but it wouldn't be much. It sounds like you're talking about two years to be able to do that process, at the very bare minimum by the sound of it.
You've also mentioned that in order to do a referendum you feel six months would be a minimum set-up time for that.
I want to get a sense, though, of a scenario where there is a significant redistribution required because of a change in the voting system, but also obviously a desire to do a referendum. You've said that in isolation 24 months may be the bare minimum to do the redistribution; and in isolation, six months the bare minimum to do a referendum.
If you had a scenario where you're doing a redistribution and holding a referendum, would you see that timeline expanding beyond 24 months? In other words, you said May 2017. If this process were completed by May 2017, could you conduct a referendum and do a full redistribution if necessary in that timeline?
Mr. Matt DeCourcey (Fredericton, Lib.):
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Again, Mr. Mayrand, thank you for being here. Thank you, as well, for your decade of leadership in election matters. I appreciated your presentation, taking many notes. I learned quite a bit today.
I've noticed that my fellow committee members have talked a lot about the timetable for implementing the changes to the electoral system. In your presentation, you said, and I quote, “I note that the government has committed to having legislation in place by May 2017, which I am comfortable with.”
Now we know there will be challenges. We know it's an ambitious agenda, but Canadians have asked us to be ambitious in this pursuit. There are different variables. I know doomsday hypotheticals have been thrown out in certain parts of this committee, but can you confirm for us that you are comfortable, given the different variables at play, that a change to the system could be initiated, that Elections Canada could be provided with the proper resources to help conduct the next election?
Mr. Scott Reid:
Thank you very much.
Mr. Mayrand, from my point of view it appears that the government is trying to run out the clock so that it will be impossible to have both a new electoral system that involves redistribution and a referendum on that new system. This can be done, of course, simply by refusing to say yes or no to a referendum until the deadline by which you could have done both things has passed.
I'm not asking for your comment on this, I'm submitting this to the world at large. I would submit that this explains the steadfast refusal of the minister yesterday to either endorse a referendum or to say that she rejects a referendum, while at the same time making it clear that she refuses to do what is necessary to modernize the referendum legislation.
My questions to you now revolve around how to stop the scenario of having the deadline on a referendum click by silently so that the government can, after the fact, finally introduce a real argument against a referendum, which is it's just too late.
Bearing this in mind, I've been looking at different options that would allow us to extend the clock a bit, and one I wanted to ask you about is a model used in the province of Ontario. Ten years ago the legislature in Ontario enacted a piece of legislation called Bill 155, Electoral System Referendum Act, 2007, which essentially said that the model that was then being designed would not be put in place unless there was a referendum on it.
I'm not sure if combining the government's proposed legislation on a new system with a clause that says this new electoral system will only go into effect if it's approved in a referendum.... If that were done as a single piece of legislation, would it be possible for you to implement this in less than the 26 months, plus six months, that I think we now face under the status quo?
Mr. Luc Thériault:
That would be helpful. Thank you.
I know politics isn't something you're involved in. We, on our end, have a mandate that you do not. However, your job is heavily dependent upon what emerges this December 1. I'm drawing on your vast experience, as far as the institution and the administration of electoral events goes. I'm also relying on your wisdom as someone who will be leaving their position soon.
You talked about New Zealand's experience. You talked about education and information. I'm not familiar with the penetration rate or effectiveness of your campaigns, but do you not think that an election involving a referendum question is one of the best ways to guarantee a clear penetration rate in terms of the issues and choices facing voters?
I, personally, have no problem with amending the legislation in order to hold a referendum the same day, by adding an extra box to include the matter of the new voting system, especially since the price tag of holding a one-off referendum is said to be $300 million.
Wouldn't it make more sense for parliamentarians and society as a whole to take the time to do that? That would help move us toward a decision that would be in effect for the next election.
Mrs. Sherry Romanado:
I know we've been talking a lot about online voting today. Given your background and the work you've done in the past, it's something that we want to hear more about.
I come from the post-secondary education sector so engaging youth in the democratic process is really important to me. You mentioned earlier that if we can get students or young people engaged early enough they become lifelong voters. I know that in a local CEGEP near me in the riding of Longueuil—Charles-LeMoyne we had the booth set up specifically so that they could go to vote, which was a great success.
But we also have in my riding an aging senior population, so I'd like to get your ideas, again, on how we can leverage the technology so that the youth we've just engaged—we had the highest level for young people turning out in the last election—are kept engaged, but we are also mindful of an aging population who are going to have mobility issues.
Can you elaborate a little bit on that and the importance of that? In the next four years and in the next eight years we are going to have that problem.
Mr. Gérard Deltell:
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Mayrand, I'd like to turn to the readjustment of electoral boundaries. You're an expert, and as we all know, it's a very delicate issue. I want to make this very clear for everyone: if we don't support change, it doesn't mean that we are biased towards a more favourable option, as elected representatives, or that we are engaging in political mathematics. It is simply that we have formed an attachment with the people we represent.
I'm not going to tell you my life story, but back in 2012, when I was an MLA, I lost the Valcartier and Shannon portions of my riding, Chauveau. That saddened me greatly, one reason being that the area was home to the anglophone community, whom I was very fond of and represented to the best of my ability, like the rest of my constituents. It really had an effect on me. It had nothing to do with the numbers. At the end of the day, I lost those parts of my riding.
That's why, when we talk about electoral boundaries, it's important to understand that our positions don't stem from political calculations but, rather, a reality that we need to respect—the underlying socio-demographic fabric of the riding we represent. If the government decided not to hold a referendum on changing the voting system and to introduce proportional representation, proportional-preferential-personalized voting, single transferable voting, a list system, or preferential voting, changes would have to be made to the electoral map in most cases.
That brings me to an issue you are no doubt familiar with, the situation that arose in 2004 in the Acadie—Bathurst riding. The Chief Electoral Officer at the time had readjusted the electoral boundaries, a change that was challenged by not only the member for the riding, but also members of the local chamber of commerce and other constituents. Here again, I am setting aside any partisan motives. The matter even made its way to the courts, which sided with the constituents, who argued that electoral boundaries should not be touched for very specific reasons.
If the government decides to proceed with an alternative voting system that requires a redistribution of electoral boundaries, would you be prepared to deal with court decisions, which could, once again, lead to further delays?
Mr. Alexandre Boulerice:
Yes. We, in the NDP, believe in the importance of increasing voter turnout. For everyone's benefit and so that the analysts can make note of it, I'd like to point out that our Liberal colleagues are talking about involving Canadians and improving citizen engagement, including among young people. I want to draw attention to the fact that voter turnout increases by 7% when a voting system includes some level of proportional representation. I won't ask you to speak to that, Mr. Mayrand.
In 1979, the Pépin-Robarts commission recommended adopting a mixed member proportional system based on the one in Germany. In 2004, the Law Commission of Canada recommended a mixed member proportional system modelled after Scotland's. Under that system, two-thirds of MPs would be elected as they are today, in other words, through first past the post, and the other third would be elected using party lists.
More proportional representation can be achieved in a variety of ways, be it regionally or provincially. At the regional level, in urban areas such as Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, it wouldn't be too difficult to imagine merging certain electoral districts to achieve that proportional representation. In rural areas with lower population density, however, we obviously wouldn't group the Northwest Territories together with the Yukon to create a multi-member seat.
Administratively speaking, would it be possible or manageable to have a system where certain urban or suburban electoral districts were grouped together but where electoral districts spanning vast areas retained their single-member seats?
Thank you very much, Mr. Mayrand.
I'd like to thank you for joining us today. You've given us insight and key guidelines that have helped us put matters into context. You've clarified multiple technical points.
I, too, want to thank you for your outstanding service during your time in office. I wish you great success in the future.
I would remind members of the steering committee that we have a meeting at 1:15 in Room 112-N.
Did I forget something? No. Okay, then. Thank you kindly, Mr. Mayrand.
Our thanks to Mr. Perrault and Mr. Roussel, as well.
Fellow members, thank you. See you shortly.