On Friday, Pierre Poilievre, the Minister for Democratic Reform, announced several proposed amendments to the government’s controversial Fair Elections Act (Bill C-23). We applaud these changes even as we ask the government to further improve this legislation. According to the proposed amendments, the Chief Electoral Officer and the Commissioner will be permitted to speak freely with the public and with one another. In addition, the “fundraising loophole,” which would have enabled the political parties to evade spending caps, will be eliminated. Voters who lack address identification will be permitted to sign a residence oath. Another welcome change is that central poll supervisors will not be nominated by the winning political parties. The amendments will also extend the retention of voter contact data from one year to three years.
(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail’s easy explanation.)
These proposed amendments respond to a number of concerns raised in the testimony of experts and citizens’ groups and in our open letters. We are pleased that the government has removed many features of the Bill that would have done serious damage to our democracy. By listening and responding to reason, evidence, and experience, the government has respected what is best in our parliamentary traditions.
At the same time, the amendments do not remedy a number of defects of the bill, nor do they adopt key recommendations that would further strengthen Canadian elections.
Investigating Electoral Fraud: The most significant omission from the government’s proposed amendments is the failure to provide the Commissioner with the power to compel witness testimony. As the Commissioner and Chief Electoral Officer have testified, the lack of this power was a serious impediment to the robocalls investigation. The Commissioner stated in his report last week that without this power “some investigations will simply abort because of our inability to get at the facts.”
We propose that the government grant the Commissioner a non-retroactive power to compel witness testimony, which would only be used for future investigations. The power to compel witness testimony is held by provincial electoral bodies and by comparable agencies such as the Competition Bureau. During the House committee hearings, the Competition Bureau testified that the power to compel witness testimony was used 26 times in the previous year. Not only does the power to compel witness testimony play a crucial investigative function, it also acts as an effective deterrent to wrongdoing for all parties. The efficacy of various measures, such as retaining voter contact data for three years instead of one year, is seriously impaired if the Commissioner lacks the ability to properly investigate electoral infractions.
Voter Turnout: Although the Chief Electoral Officer would be permitted to speak with the public and to continue to work with school educational programs, the gag order has been partially retained: Elections Canada would be banned from engaging in advertising campaigns to encourage voter turnout. Elections Canada should have the ability in its public communications to reach out to all citizens affirming their right to vote and providing the information they need to exercise this right.
The Right to Vote: Under the proposed amendments, voters will be required to produce one piece of personal identification, and in the event they lack proof of address, they can sign a written oath of residence. Another voter with full identification (both name and address) will provide an attestation by co-signing the oath of residence. We think this approach will help to prevent the disenfranchisement of eligible voters, but we urge the government to consult with advocates for First Nations, seniors, students, and homeless citizens to confirm that this approach will effectively safeguard the right to vote for these citizens. We also recommend lifting the ban on Voter Information Cards as proof of address to reduce the administrative burdens of the residence oath and to further ensure access to the ballot. It is essential for the fairness of our democracy that all citizens are in a position to exercise the constitutionally protected right to vote.
Receipts for Electoral Expenses: As stated in our open letter, political parties should be required to provide financial documentation for their electoral expenses. Political parties are reimbursed more than $30-million for their campaign spending, at taxpayer expense, without having to provide a single receipt to Elections Canada. We can scarcely imagine that such a state of affairs would be tolerated in the workplaces across this country.
Elections Canada: Another problem we raised with respect to Bill C-23, which has not been addressed by the Minister, is the requirement that Elections Canada receive Treasury Board approval for the hiring of staff or advisors with specialized or technical knowledge. We recommend that this provision be eliminated because it impairs the independence of the Chief Electoral Officer.
Electoral rules are fundamental to the fairness and legitimacy of our democracy. If the events of the last two months have revealed anything, it is this: for electoral reform to be truly fair, it cannot be undertaken without widespread and meaningful consultation with opposition parties, experts, Elections Canada, and citizens across the country. We are pleased that the government has responded to some of our concerns, and we hope that it will take full advantage of this opportunity to ensure that Canada’s democratic institutions will continue to serve as an exemplar to democracies around the world.
Yasmin Dawood is assistant professor of law, University of Toronto; Melissa Williams is a professor of political science, University of Toronto; Maxwell Cameron is a professor of political science, University of British Columbia; Patti Lenard is assistant professor, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa; Genevieve Fuji Johnson is associate professor of Political Science, Simon Fraser University; Monique Deveaux is professor of philosophy and Canada Research Chair in Ethics and Global Social Change, University of Guelph