Skip to main content

Ontario's chief electoral officer is adding his voice to those calling for review of the federal government's Fair Elections Act, warning some of its changes deserve a second look.

Greg Essensa said he's most concerned by the proposed limits that the Act, known as Bill C-23, places on his federal counterpart. In particular, the bill includes what has been interpreted as a gag order on Canada's chief electoral officer, one that would prevent Elections Canada from running promotional campaigns aimed at boosting voter turnout.

(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail's easy explanation)

"Electoral administrators, like myself, need to be able to speak openly about the importance of the vote," Mr. Essensa, who oversees elections in Canada's most populous province, told The Globe and Mail in an interview Tuesday. "Any healthy civil society has a very healthy democracy, and we've seen a decline in voter turnout across our country for a period of time. The importance of allowing Elections Canada to be able to engage in the various initiatives and programs - and we've partnered with them on some of those – is very important."

Similarly, he's worried that Bill C-23 expands the requirement for Elections Canada to seek the approval of the House of Commons and the Senate for trial projects on electronic voting methods. That move "would hamper Elections Canada's ability to pilot new technologies and new modern aspects of doing business," Mr. Essensa warned.

Mr. Essensa is the latest current or former chief electoral officer in Canada to raise concerns with the government bill. Others have included current federal chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand, and former federal chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley. The chief electoral officers of B.C. and the Northwest Territories have also raised concerns, as has a former B.C. chief electoral officer, Harry Neufeld, who has since written an authoritative elections Canada report on vouching, a key subject area addressed by the government bill.

Mr. Essensa's comments echo many of those before him – he says there are some "healthy and significant improvements" to Canadian election law contained in the bill, but also several areas where changes should be considered.

The bill proposes to eliminate both vouching – where an elector can cast a ballot if another swears to his or her identity – and the use of the voter information card to corroborate a voter's address.

Ontario hasn't allowed vouching for three provincial elections, but allows voters to use the voter information card, Mr. Essensa said. (Vouching is often used in cases where a voter has identification, but nothing proving a current address. A voter information card can also be used, in conjunction with other ID, to verify a voter's address.)

"If you do not have vouching, you certainly would want to consider having the voter [information] card as an acceptable piece of identification," Mr. Essensa said.

The bill also expands the role of political parties in recommending workers at voting stations. Parties already had some powers to appoint poll workers and, in most cases, didn't use them. Mr. Essensa said election officials are left short-changed if they have to wait for parties to recommend candidates – particularly because parties often don't recommend anyone, leaving elections officials scrambling to fill a post at the last minute.

"They were in a rush to fill those positions, get them all trained, get them ready for election day," he said, adding: "… That's one that might be better suited to have a little bit further debate on."

Mr. Essensa briefly touched on some of the bill's proposed changes that he welcomed. They include stiffer penalties for fraud, including higher fines, as well as requirements that robocalling companies keep records of calls made for up to one year. However, he echoed Mr. Kingsley in saying the records should be kept for longer. Mr. Kingsley had suggested they be kept for up to 10 years.

Mr. Essensa's comments were made against a background of the federal government continuing to push through the bill. Prime Minister Stephen Harper praised his government's bill on Tuesday, and Conservatives in the Senate moved to fast-track its consideration to ensure that the Fair Elections Act becomes law within three months – a signal the government isn't going to stall or substantially amend the bill, despite the urging of several non-partisan elections experts.

Several other provincial chief electoral officers have declined comment on the bill, saying it's not their jurisdiction.

Follow me on Twitter: @josh_wingrove