While pledging to strengthen election laws, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have yet to consult with the country’s chief electoral officer about his recommended changes to beef up the powers of Elections Canada to fight fraud.
Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand told a Parliamentary committee Tuesday that, since 2010, he has made a series of recommendations to modernize Canada’s “19th century” election laws and give investigators new powers. But the government has not asked him about those, or involved him in the new amendments currently being drafted.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, with Mr. Mayrand warning that changes must be in place within one year to give him new powers during the 2015 election.
“We are up against the clock. We have a fixed date, and yes, we need to know what are the rules of the game well ahead of the game being played,” he said. Without that, “the rules will be poorly understood and we will not be prepared,” he said.
“It’s increasingly difficult to meet Canadians’ expectations with regard to the fairness and integrity of the electoral process if we don’t modernize our legislation,” he said.
The Chief Electoral Officer’s comments come after a robo-call controversy in the 2011 election. A judge ruled last week that fraud – phone calls falsely claiming to be from Elections Canada and designed to mislead voters – did take place, though on a small scale, and was linked to the Conservative Party’s private voter database. It’s not clear who used the database, the judge ruled.
Mr. Mayrand’s 2010 report included “a good number of recommendations that would have helped us over the past few years” in investigations, he said on Tuesday. Further recommendations were made by Mr. Mayrand five weeks ago, but the government also hasn’t asked about those, he said.
“I’m surprised that the government felt that briefing the Conservative caucus was OK but not that briefing you on legislation to fix our electoral system was a good idea,” NDP House Leader and committee member Nathan Cullen told Mr. Mayrand during Tuesday’s meeting.
The government “will bring forward amendments to the [election] law in the not too distant future,” Tim Uppal, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, said in Question Period on Monday.
After the committee appearance Tuesday, a spokesman for Mr. Uppal said he met with Mr. Mayrand on Oct. 30 last year and April 15 this year and his “recommendations were discussed.” Mr. Uppal is legally barred from consulting Mr. Mayrand on details of the election law before it’s tabled in Parliament, a spokesman said.
Elections Canada said that, in each meeting, Mr. Mayrand was only “informed” generally of looming changes, which haven’t yet been revealed, but not consulted or given any specifics. “The meetings were brief, and no documents were shared,” spokeswoman Diane Benson said.
Mr. Mayrand issued a series of warnings during Tuesday’s meeting, citing questions raised by the robo-call scandal as a reason to fast-track electoral reforms.
“I think the events of the last general election are certainly a cause of concern for Canadians, and they’ve told us loudly and in large numbers… We really need to modernize our legislation. We’re out of sync with the times. It’s not been looked at carefully. We need to bring it from the 19th to the 21st century,” he said.
Specifically, he expressed concern about the sophisticated databases of voter information political parties have developed, including the Conservative system that last week’s ruling said was somehow involved in voter fraud. The databases are built largely with Elections Canada information, but the information isn’t meant for that, the chief electoral officer said.
“Once the information has integrated with the party’s database, it’s lost the intrinsic quality of being a voters list. It’s no longer a voter list. It becomes data in a database,” Mr. Mayrand said, later adding he wants to “enhance and tighten up regulations of the use of this information that’s obtained in a privileged fashion.” That could include third-party guarantees that “rules of protection of privacy will be respected and can be respected” by political parties, he said.
In last week’s robo-call ruling, the judge found that six Conservative MPs “engaged in trench warfare in an effort to prevent this case from coming to a hearing” and that the Conservative Party “made little effort to assist with the investigation.”
Mr. Mayrand asked for powers to force people to speak with Elections Canada investigators, similar to powers held by many provincial election authorities. In particular, Mr. Mayrand acknowledged that three individuals connected to the robo-call investigation have refused to co-operate.
That raised a concern from committee member Dave MacKenzie, a Conservative MP and former police officer.
“I have a great deal of difficulty in the suggestion that an accused has to co-operate with somebody that’s conducting an investigation. It’s never been my experience in policing – no one has to co-operate,” he said.
Mr. Mayrand stressed he isn’t asking for the power to force people to give information about themselves, but about others, and only would do so with court permission.
The chief electoral officer was also asked about how Senators or MPs must report election expenses. That question came after it was revealed Senator Mike Duffy billed Senate expenses on several days in 2011 where he appears to have been campaigning.
“The costs incurred in campaigning in favour of a candidate or a party need to be reported as election expenses,” Mr. Mayrand said. Campaign documents, filed with and audited by Elections Canada, suggest at least five Conservative campaigns visited by Mr. Duffy during the 2011 election did not do this.
Mr. Mayrand also urged a national discussion on whether to allow online voting, though he acknowledged some might have misgivings about “unsupervised voting to such a large scale.” He said Elections Canada needs to be overhauled to do more of its work online.
“We need to start looking at the way the voting process is designed. We need to introduce technology in the system. Right now, nowadays, I need signatures, documents, papers, all these sorts of things that are not aligned with the times. Canadians deal less and less with paper. They want to deal with us electronically,” he said.
Elections Canada is facing layoffs of 32 of its 372 employees, Mr. Mayrand said. With 30 new ridings being added in 2015, the agency will need more money, he warned.