moved that Bill C-19, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (COVID-19 response), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to begin the debate at second reading of Bill C-19, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act, COVID-19 response.
Across Canada, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to change the way we live and interact to protect the health and safety of our fellow Canadians. Elections have been no exception.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Canada has experienced two federal by-elections, four provincial general elections and seven local elections. These elections were delivered in a way that aligned with public health guidelines and sought to provide electors, particularly those who are most at risk of infection, with a variety of ways to safely exercise their right to vote.
With lessons learned from other jurisdictions and building on the recommendations of Canada's Chief Electoral Officer, we have an opportunity to take action to ensure that, should an election be required, a federal election held during the current pandemic can be even more safe and more secure. This is why, on December 10, 2020, the government introduced Bill C-19, which, if passed, would temporarily supplement provisions of the Canada Elections Act in support of a safe, secure and accessible election during the pandemic, again, should one be required.
Bill C-19 would reassure voters, election workers and all other participants that the federal electoral process remains safe, secure and accessible, despite the pandemic. To that end, the bill would give voters unprecedented opportunities to vote during the pandemic, whether it be in person or from the comfort and safety of their home.
This bill is based on the October 2020 recommendations of the Chief Electoral Officer regarding holding an election in the context of a pandemic and the work of our colleagues, who carried out a study on the same topic.
Bill C-19 contains four elements that I will explain in greater detail: a three-day polling period, the safe administration of the vote to residents of long-term care facilities, increased adaptation powers for the Chief Electoral Officer, and the strengthening of measures related to mail-in voting.
To ensure that electors who make the choice to go to vote in person are as safe as possible, the legislation proposes spreading the polling period, in other words the voting day, effectively over three days. Instead of one 12-hour voting day, Bill C-19 would establish a three-day polling period, with eight hours of voting on both Saturday and Sunday and the traditional 12 hours of voting on Monday.
Extending the voting period over three days will prevent overcrowding at polls and support electors and poll workers in maintaining physical distancing protocols. Maintaining the Monday would also ensure access to some individuals who may not be able to vote on a Saturday or Sunday. For instance, it recognizes that electors and candidates alike might have religious obligations that inhibit them from voting or campaigning over a weekend.
In addition, maintaining the Monday recognizes that public transit may offer reduced schedules over the weekend and child care options may also be less over the weekend.
With Bill C-19, we are working to reduce barriers for electors with disabilities and electors with young children who may be facing particular challenges during the pandemic.
As the Chief Electoral Officer indicated in his recent report, a pandemic election could complicate efforts to find polling places and recruit election workers. In light of this, a three-day polling period would provide Elections Canada with more opportunities to identify polling places. As the Chief Electoral Officer has stated, Elections Canada may also seek out non-traditional polling places such as arenas or hotels.
In advance of every general election, Elections Canada recruits more than 230,000 Canadians to work at polls across the country. However, as the Chief Electoral Officer highlighted in his recommendations report, recruiting that many election workers during an ongoing pandemic could possibly provide some challenge.
During the 2019 general election, close to half of those workers were 60 years of age or older. Given that this age cohort is at an elevated risk if they contract COVID-19, these people may be less inclined to work the polls during a pandemic election.
Importantly, at least one legislative change made through the 2018 Elections Modernization Act may help mitigate potential recruitment issues. As colleagues will remember, that bill allowed Elections Canada to hire 16 and 17 year olds as election workers, opening up an entirely new contingent that may be open to working at the polls.
Finally, a variety of other in-person voting opportunities will be maintained under these proposed changes. This includes four days of advance polling, with 12 hours offered on all four days as well. To account for the three-day polling period, advance polls would then be shifted to the Thursday through Sunday in advance of the first day of the polling period.
As we all know too well, long-term care facilities have borne the brunt of COVID-19. Many deaths associated with the pandemic have been linked to long-term care facilities and many facilities, sadly, continue to endure outbreaks. In an effort to curb infections, many facilities limited access to outside visitors. This has been hard on families and friends because they have been unable to visit a loved one in person. Lockdowns at these facilities and differing public health orders in effect across the country make it necessary for us to ensure these residents can still cast a ballot should an election be held during a pandemic.
Accordingly, Bill C-19 takes a number of steps that would ensure these electors could safely exercise their right to vote.
First, the legislation proposes a 13-day period prior to the beginning of the three-day polling period that would better facilitate the administration of votes in these facilities. Rather than administer the vote in these facilities exclusively on election day, which is now how residents would have been able to vote in past federal elections, the legislation proposes establishing a lengthier period which the vote could be delivered, for example, by mobile polls. As COVID-19 conditions vary across provinces and territories and from region to region, this period would enable Elections Canada to better plan according to the unique context of each long-term care facility.
Bill C-19 would also allow returning officers to establish a polling division composed of a single long-term care facility or of a particular part of a long-term care facility. This amendment recognizes the existence of dedicated quarantine zones in some long-term care facilities and ensures a positive COVID-19 test will not impede a resident of these facilities from being able to vote.
Taken together, these amendments aim to ensure that senior citizens and those living with disabilities in long-term care facilities, citizens who are among the most vulnerable populations in this pandemic, have safe and reliable opportunities to exercise their right to vote.
At present, subsection 17(1) of the Canada Elections Act authorizes the Chief Electoral Officer to adapt provisions of that act, “if an emergency, an unusual or unforeseen circumstance or an error makes it necessary...for the sole purpose of enabling electors to exercise their right to vote or enabling the counting of votes”.
In the last election, this is one of the powers the Chief Electoral Officer exercised in order to allow workers temporarily residing outside their electoral districts to vote.
However, the ongoing uncertainty generated by the current pandemic justifies broadening the grounds for adapting this legislation.
Under Bill C-19, therefore, the Chief Electoral Officer would have the power to adapt the provisions of the act to ensure the health or safety of electors or election officers.
This amendment is particularly important to protect not only voters but also the election workers and volunteers who dedicate themselves to the democratic process. As I said earlier, Canadian election workers are older on average. If older individuals decide to work once again during a general election—and of course we hope they will—we must do our best to ensure that they can do this important work safely.
Over the last year and during the pandemic, jurisdictions in Canada and abroad that held elections witnessed a significant increase in the use of mail-in ballots: for example, British Columbia and its October 2020 election, the United States' November 2020 presidential election and, most recently, Newfoundland and Labrador's election. In response, Bill C-19 includes measures designed to improve access to mail-in voting. Mail-in voting, which is safe and secure, has been instrumental in providing opportunities to older electors, electors with disabilities, immunocompromised electors and those who are unable to vote in person because of the pandemic.
While electors in Canada have long been able to vote by mail and Elections Canada has significant experience safely administering the federal vote-by-mail system, Bill C-19 proposes specific amendments in anticipation of a sharp increase in mail-in voting. First, Bill C-19 would allow electors to apply to register to vote by mail online rather than through the mail or in person, as is currently the case. Providing this option would not inhibit registering to vote by mail or in person for those without access to the Internet. By allowing online registration, we are simply giving Canadians one more option to register to vote by mail.
Finally, in an effort to further simplify the registration process, Bill C-19 would provide electors with the ability to use an identification number, such as a driver's licence, to establish their identity and residence when registering to vote by mail. Presently, electors are required to provide a copy of their ID when registering to vote by mail, which may inhibit voting by individuals without access to printers, scanners or photocopiers at home. More precisely, it would allow Elections Canada to use information already in its possession to confirm an elector's identity and residence.
In recognition of potential privacy implications, electors would need to explicitly consent to Elections Canada using this identification number to facilitate their vote-by-mail registration. Some electors may choose to register to vote by mail, but with circumstances changing regularly across the country, they may not be able to return their ballot kits by mail in time. In anticipation of this, Bill C-19 proposes the installation of secure mail reception boxes at every polling station across the country.
Bill C-19 would also allow electors who initially chose to vote by mail to change their minds and vote in person. However, to do so, electors would need to either return the mail-in vote kits they received from Elections Canada when they went to vote in person or sign a declaration that they had not yet voted. Elections Canada has a robust series of measures to deter electoral fraud. Returning the mail-in vote kits or attesting in writing that electors had not yet voted would act as a deterrent to any malicious actors and would support the integrity of the vote. These measures would also help create an appropriate paper trail for auditing and enforcement processes.
It is important to remember that we are not proposing permanent changes to Canada's electoral law. All of the proposed legislative amendments that we have outlined are temporary. They would only apply to an election that is called 90 days after this legislation receives royal assent or earlier if the Chief Electoral Officer has indicated that all the necessary preparations have been completed.
Moreover, these legislative changes would cease to be in effect six months after a general election was administered during the pandemic or earlier, as determined by the Chief Electoral Officer after consultation with Canada's chief public health officer.
With Bill C-19, we are maximizing electors' opportunities to exercise their right to vote. If the bill is passed, electors will get four days of advance polling, three days of regular polling and better access to mail-in voting. Bill C-19 would also give Elections Canada greater legislative flexibility and authority to safely administer an election.
In closing, I invite our colleagues to examine Bill C-19 so it can be studied by a committee and amended if necessary. We want to work with all parliamentarians to ensure that elections will be safe and accessible for all Canadians.