I would like to thank you for the invitation to appear today before the Special Committee on Electoral Reform.
I would like to reiterate my interest in the topics being addressed here that aim to measure the strength of democracy in Canada and determine how the federal electoral process can contribute.
I am very interested in the discussion you have launched across the country and in the efforts you have made to strengthen and solidify our nation's democratic values for the decades to come.
Not unlike Canada's Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, who heads Elections Canada and oversees federal electoral events, I am responsible for overseeing Saskatchewan's provincial electoral events as head of Elections Saskatchewan. The mandate of my office includes managing an ongoing register of voters, regulating political parties and the finances of candidates, ensuring an appropriate level of readiness for conducting both scheduled and on-demand electoral events, and acting as a secretariat to our boundary commission. However, unlike my federal counterparts, I also hold investigatory responsibilities akin to those of the Commissioner of Canada Elections, Yves Côté.
From the outset, I must make it clear to members that while I'm very interested in supporting the work of your committee, I'm also one of 14 chief electoral officers in the country. In my role as a professional election administrator, it would not be appropriate for me to make recommendations on what electoral system should be selected for Canada's federal elections or to offer any assessment on the various electoral systems you have under consideration.
At this point in your deliberations, I expect that you will have already surmised that senior Canadian election professionals are quite serious about neutrality. I know that a number of my colleagues have declined your invitation to appear for that very reason. Within our role, we are intentional about not offering views on matters that sit clearly within the purview of legislators, and that includes offering an answer with respect to questions of what the best electoral system is for Canadians. Our job is instead to advise on making workable whatever system legislators and governments choose and to facilitate an ongoing examination and understanding of how the legal definition of the chosen system can be appropriately modified, as it inevitably needs to evolve within an ever-changing society.
Similarly, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to make recommendations on adopting or rejecting compulsory voting, a question of public policy for legislators to decide, but I do have some views on making such arrangements workable in the Canadian context.
On the topic of online voting, as Chief Electoral Officer it is not for me to advise on whether the time is right to proceed. It would be my role instead to offer insights on how promising new methods of voting may also present new types of challenges to an election system's integrity.
While I was born and raised in the province, prior to my appointment here in Saskatchewan in 2012, I spent two previous decades in the academy, and in conducting and assessing electoral events in both developing democracies such as Pakistan and Ghana and in established democracies such as Scotland and the United States. In light of this, I may be able to offer you some comparative insight with respect to electoral system implementation. I will need to apologize in advance if I'm simply unable to answer your questions. There's a bit of a self-editing process that's a requirement in my role as a senior election administrator, although my caution may be more than compensated for by the freedom of academic expression that my panel colleague, Dr. Charles Smith, enjoys.
Let me turn first to the topic of electoral systems.
In your efforts to evaluate the systems available to you, I encourage you to think about how many changes—and how any changes—may influence the engagement of citizens.
Election administrators tend to focus on service to the voter and on ensuring their experience at each polling place is positive and efficient. As committee members, you have the opportunity to think more broadly about the impact an electoral system can have on public participation. The decline in voter participation, not just in Canada but across western democracies, is well documented, and I share the concerns that have been expressed about the legitimacy of governance being at risk if this trend continues unabated. When looking at the electoral system alternatives available to you, you might consider whether a particular system would serve as a disincentive to voting participation, potentially introducing new barriers to voting as an unintended consequence, or whether it would provide incentives for participation and minimize administrative barriers to accessing the ballot.
Election administrators are universally concerned that all eligible voters have reasonable access to the ballot and that voting integrity provisions are kept efficient and do not have an unduly disenfranchising effect. Making voting easier, not harder, and adopting an electoral system that has an enduring tendency to encourage voting participation might be one of a combination of factors that would help to reverse the decline of Canadian voting participation rates. Across the country, first nations are just one example of a group that has not traditionally been engaged in electoral democracy and could be much better accommodated with improved ballot access.
I'm not here to tell you which electoral system would afford greater or lesser results in this regard, but I do believe that the legitimacy of governance becomes questionable when we see levels of participation drop to 50% of eligible voters or less. Those selecting a new electoral system I hope will keep this in mind.
As you consider making changes to our system, perhaps I can offer some tangible advice based on my experience.
In 2007 I served as deputy reviewer and director of the review of the Scottish parliamentary and local government elections. I believe the review of those elections offers good insights to your committee in what it points out and in what to avoid when implementing change to an electoral system. It also points to certain elements of the nuts and bolts of the election as a system itself.
In a nutshell, the Scottish experience showed that too much legislative change was introduced in too little time to incorporate it well. Roles, relationships, and accountability for coordination were not adequately defined. The combination of local government and parliamentary elections using a different electoral system and ballot design for each led to challenges for the voters. Ballot design was given too little attention and left too late in the process. Public education on a new voting process under two electoral systems was launched too late and was inadequate in scope. Also, voters were overlooked in the reform process, leading to disastrous consequences, with spoiled ballots and a significant erosion in public trust regarding the election process.
In light of this experience, as you consider making recommendations on important innovations to our electoral system, my advice would be to ensure adequate time is available for system change. Don't require too much change too quickly. An election is like a ship, not a speedboat; it can definitely turn, but not quickly. Also, ensure there is a mandate for a good public education process associated with any new system.
As I've noted, I'm deeply concerned about the decline in democratic engagement and voter participation in our country. Despite this and because of my required neutrality on what might be considered a partisan topic, I'm not going to offer a view on mandatory voting, but I do have some administrative design suggestions in the event your committee decides to move in that direction.
I would suggest that mandatory voting needs to be accompanied with mandatory voter registration and that registration should become automatic. This means that anyone who's eligible to vote must register and keep their registration current with regard to the details of their physical address, residence, mailing address, and any change in name.
Automatic registration would involve the state ensuring that a record for every eligible voter would be created through an automated mechanism and would be maintained without the voter needing to be involved. Admittedly, this would be a major administrative undertaking. Recent reports out of Australia have indicated that voluntary registration has been highly ineffective, even though registration has been mandatory there for many decades, and, of course, if a voter isn't registered, they can't be fined for not having voted.
This leads to the tricky aspect of having effective enforcement mechanisms for both mandatory registration and mandatory voting. In Australia the penalty for not registering to vote is $170, but it is discretionary and is waived once the person registers to vote. Failure to vote can result in a $20 penalty, unless a valid and sufficient reason is supplied to the Australian Electoral Commission and they waive that fine. Officially, the turnout rates in Australia are 94%, but this doesn't factor in the absence of more than one million of the 17 million eligible voters from their electoral role. Actual turnout is likely somewhat less than 90%.
The other question that needs to be asked is whether mandatory voting participation enforces meaningful democratic engagement. Australia has resorted to printing rotating ballots, where the choice order changes for each ballot issued to a lineup of voters.