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People line up outside a polling station to vote in Canada's federal election, in Toronto on Sept. 20, 2021.MARK BLINCH/Reuters

Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer is calling for stronger federal elections laws to address hate groups, and says courts should be granted the power to block such organizations from registering as political parties.

Stéphane Perrault’s recommendation would give citizens the ability to ask a court to decide whether an organization primarily exists to promote hatred. If that determination was reached, the organization would not be eligible to register – or could be deregistered. The recommendation makes clear that Elections Canada would not be involved in deciding if a particular group is a hate group.

“We have seen a rise in terms of ideologically motivated, violent extremism and hate speech,” said Mr. Perrault. “If there is a hate group that wishes to register as a party right now, it could do so. And in so doing, would gain access to a number of benefits.”

Asked why he is calling for this change at this time, Mr. Perrault said that Elections Canada received a party application that gave rise to complaints, though he did not name the group behind the application.

The suggested change is part of a sweeping package of recommendations released in a report Tuesday by Elections Canada. They’re meant to update federal election laws based on lessons learned from the 2019 and 2021 elections. The recommendations include new measures to improve transparency, make voting more accessible and address disinformation.

Many of the report’s recommendations suggest changing the Canada Elections Act to better reflect the current digital landscape – access to the internet, a 24-hour news cycle and the presence of electoral communications on many different online platforms.

The report also calls for stronger protections on voters’ personal information and specific oversight of how this information is used, as well as measures to help prevent foreign funding of third parties.

Mr. Perrault said that because most of the act was written before the use of digital communications, it’s time to revisit it so that voters clearly know who is speaking to them during an election. For instance, the report calls for all electoral communications from political parties to be identified as such, regardless of whether the communications are paid for.

The Chief Electoral Officer’s report also recommends amending the act to bar both people and organizations, including those outside of Canada, from knowingly making false statements about Canada’s voting processes for the purposes of disrupting an election.

In a technical briefing, Elections Canada lawyers stressed that the recommendation only refers to disinformation regarding electoral processes – not all statements made during a campaign.

“These are difficult topics that cannot simply be ignored, even though the solutions may be imperfect,” said Mr. Perrault, pointing to disinformation campaigns, hate groups and the potential use of foreign funding by third parties.

With political parties in Canada currently exempt from federal privacy laws, Tuesday’s report made a strong call to remedy this gap, calling for “broadly accepted privacy principles” to be applied to voters’ personal information, with oversight from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Similar recommendations to protect voters’ personal information have also been made by the House of Commons standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics; the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada; and civil society organizations, the report notes.

The report also focused on measures to reduce the number of late special ballots. The 2021 election saw a “sharp increase” in the use of these ballots, a jump which Elections Canada expects to see persist. In the 2021 election, 7.3 per cent of special ballots – representing more than 90,000 voters – were received late and not counted. In comparison, in 2019, just 1.5 per cent of special ballots were received late.

In a report earlier this year, Elections Canada noted that the higher percentage of late special ballots in 2021, compared with 2019, was likely because of the shorter election period. The 2021 election took place over 36 days, which is the shortest time frame permitted.

“The key difference was four days,” said Mr. Perrault, comparing the length of the campaigns. “And in a world of snail mail, four days is a big difference.”

In Mr. Perrault’s most recent report, he recommended increasing the minimum election period to 44 days, in the case of a non-fixed-date election, to allow more time for special ballots to be received, as the majority of late ballots were received in the three days after election day.

Asked about the recommendations, Jean-Sébastien Comeau, spokesperson for the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Infrastructure and Communities, said in an e-mail, “We thank the Chief Electoral Officer for his report on the 2021 election, and look forward to reviewing his recommendations.”

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