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Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand appears as a witness at an electoral reform committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday July 7, 2016.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A referendum on changes to Canada's voting system would cost an estimated $300-million, Canada's elections watchdog said Thursday.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, who is stepping down at the end of this year, also told a special committee studying electoral reform that it would take a minimum of six months to prepare for one.

"Our estimate is that, under the current Referendum Act, it would be around $300-million to run a referendum," Mr. Mayrand said in response to a question from Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

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Mr. Mayrand later said the costs would be marginal if a referendum were held at the same time as a general election, although the federal law would need to be updated as it currently prohibits holding both at the same time.

But both Mr. Mayrand and Conservative MP Scott Reid, who has been pushing the government to hold a referendum before any changes to the current voting system are made, said they expect the referendum would take place before the 2019 election, when the changes are set to be implemented.

Mr. Reid, who co-chairs the committee, said $300-million is a "very reasonable" cost when making changes to the way Canadians vote. It's on par with the costs to run the 2011 general election, although last year's 78-day campaign cost $443-million to administer.

"If we're worried about the cost of democracy, then we should suspend having any future elections, shouldn't we?" Mr. Reid said after the meeting.

"Clearly our democracy is worth this amount."

Mr. Reid said he fears the government is trying to stall on making a decision on a referendum. "The government looks like it is trying to run out the clock to start eliminating options," he said.

Mr. Mayrand told the committee that Elections Canada has started to develop "contingency plans" on holding a referendum, but are awaiting the committee's report on Dec. 1.

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He said Elections Canada needs at least two years to prepare for any changes to the electoral system, and 26 months if new riding distributions are necessary. He said he expects new legislation to be crafted by the government by May, 2017.

And if the government decides to hold a referendum, "it would have to take place around the same period, so around May or June, 2017," he said after the meeting.

Mr. Mayrand said there would be several logistical steps to prepare for a national referendum, which last took place in 1992 during the Charlottetown Accord. That includes examining decades-old materials, redrafting training manuals for 250,000 Canadians who would work on the referendum and adapting information technology services.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef told the committee on Wednesday that she isn't convinced of the merits of a referendum on electoral reform, and urged members to reach out to marginalized Canadians who may not be engaged in the electoral process. "I believe we need to reach out and engage those who have previously chosen to remain silent," she told the committee.

Her department also introduced a lengthy how-to guide for Canadians on how to hold their own meetings and coffee groups to discuss the subject.

The committee is also probing the ideas of mandatory and online voting, although Mr. Mayrand urged caution on the latter to uphold "the high level of trust in the integrity of elections."

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"Our voting system needs to be accepted by citizens, by Canadians. They need to be able to trust it," he told the committee. But he wouldn't speculate on the best way to contact Canadians on which changes to make.

"There's all sorts of ways of engaging Canadians. I believe that this committee will be tasked exactly with that."

Former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who also testified on Thursday, said there is a "distortion" in the way votes are tallied in Canada.

"The issue of 40 per cent of the votes getting you 60 per cent of the seats has begun to raise questions among Canadians," Mr. Kingsley, who served in the post for 17 years until 2007, told the committee.

Mr. Kingsley said he doesn't favour one particular model of voting. But he repeatedly brought up mixed electoral systems as an example, such as allowing voters to case two ballots: one to elect a specific MP and another for a political party, whose seats would be distributed based on their proportion of the vote.

He also told the committee he favours compulsory attendance at elections, but not necessarily mandatory voting, and encouraged members to reach out to young people.

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Mr. Kingsley also withheld support for a referendum, saying he doesn't think it's necessary if the committee can come to an unanimous agreement.

"It is your job to gauge what Canadians have to say. If that does not happen, if only one party agrees with something, then I would say that perhaps we should envisage other options," he said. "I do not see it as necessary as it stands, currently. I do not think that it is essential."

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