Thank you for inviting me to appear today. I am pleased to provide whatever advice I can on the important questions before this committee, and I'd like to offer you my thoughts on four topics: one, citizen expectations; two, the governing principle; three, modernizing elections; and four, public consultation.
The first thing I will advise you is this, Ontarians are facing across-the-board changes in the electoral process. Municipalities may now choose to elect their mayors and councils using a ranked ballot system, provincial contribution and spending reform is being debated, and changes to the administration of elections are promised to follow. Federally, this committee is mandated to consider the adoption of a new voting process and other innovations.
I believe that all Canadians expect that there will congruence in their election laws when it makes sense. However, I also know from speaking with my colleagues across Canada that citizens look to their electoral agencies and to their legislators to learn from, build on, and improve on what they see in other jurisdictions. While change may sometimes be daunting, the interest in these issues speaks to the vibrancy of our democratic institutions.
Earlier this year I appeared before a committee of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. I spoke of Ontario being at a watershed moment. I noted that provincial legislators have an opportunity to strengthen the integrity and legitimacy of the electoral process. Canada is at a watershed moment, too, and this committee has the same opportunity. Legislative debate, by necessity, involves the sharp clash of ideas. I believe citizens expect and encourage this from their lawmakers. However, I also believe that citizens want partisan rancour and short-term political self-interest to be set aside when their election laws are written.
Election laws are supposed to put the interests of electors first. This simple proposition upholds the principle of responsible government. As Chief Justice McLachlin noted in a landmark voting rights case, “In a democracy such as ours, the power of lawmakers flows from the voting citizens, and lawmakers act as the citizens’ proxies. This delegation from voters to legislators gives the law its legitimacy or force.”
Our election laws must, above all else, respect and serve the democratic rights of electors.
In serving, the public election agencies must remain non-partisan; thus, I cannot come before this committee to say that Canada must keep or change its voting system. As an election administrator I must remain neutral; however, based on my 32 years of experience administering elections, I can advise this. Electoral reform, be it a change to election finance laws or a voting process, is best accepted by citizens when there is a widespread understanding of and agreement with its principles.
Academics can tell you that there are a variety of voting systems used in Westminster-style democracies. As a chief electoral officer I can tell you that a voting system works best when there is public consensus, and the electoral outcomes are thus legitimate.
The question of whether a nation, a province, or a local community should keep an existing system or adopt a new one is really a question for democratic debate. That debate can be in a legislature, an election, a referendum, or some other process. From my perspective, the most important outcome, whether or not the voting system is changed, is that electors have an electoral process that they know and believe is legitimate. An electoral system will be legitimate if, in putting the needs of the electorate first, it maintains a level playing field. All participants vying for public support or attention during an election should compete on an equal footing.
The concept of the level playing field must be applied in all aspects of elections, both in voting rules and campaign finance rules. Over time our electoral system has grown and changed to adapt to modern challenges. As an election administrator, let me speak of what this means.
We live in an era of innovation and transformation. There was only limited use of the Internet 25 years ago. Now, global connectivity is the norm. The applications and devices we use are replaced at a rapid pace. The ability of electoral agencies to keep pace is rightly questioned. We need to serve voters in modern ways, but must also be mindful of the opportunities and risks of technology. We are all aware that network voting applications and equipment do exist. The challenge is not the lack of technology, but the questions concerning the privacy, security, and reliability of these technologies.
Online access is a reality of everyday life, and so, too, is hacking, and large-scale data breaches. I have no doubt that everyone in this room, through no fault of their own, has experienced the inconvenience of a financial institution cancelling a debit or compromised credit card. It would be exponentially more frustrating to have your vote cancelled or compromised. There is little public appetite for election results to be annulled because of security or data breaches.
As I publicly reported in a 2013 report to the Ontario legislature, election administrators around the world are grappling with this question, and there is no commonly adopted solution.
I believe in change and innovation. I have piloted the use of technology and am requesting further authority to do so on a regular basis. Canadians must prepare for the day when network voting is a reality. That day is coming soon, but has not yet arrived.
Before I conclude my remarks, I would like to speak for a moment about the process of electoral reform. At the outset, I mentioned that there needs to be an opportunity for public debate when considering electoral reform. In Ontario we have seen all manner of debate on election laws over the last decade, and let me talk about three of these experiences from the perspective of my agency.
The first experience dates from 2007. Provincial voters were asked whether or not they wished to adopt proportional representation. This choice was put to them in a referendum, run in conjunction with the general election. That recommendation was formulated by a citizens' assembly comprised of representatives from every electoral district. John Hollins, my predecessor, was mandated to select members of the citizens' assembly, and our agency was then mandated to run a public education campaign on the referendum question during the general election. The referendum outcome was that Ontarians chose to keep their first past the post voting system.
The second experience involved the review of the Ontario election act that resulted in amendments in 2010. In 2008 the Legislative Assembly struck a select committee to examine Ontario's election laws. It commissioned research and held public hearings. Following its report, the government introduced a bill that enacted many administrative improvements and accessibility-focused measures. The process allowed for full public debate, incorporated the majority of my office's recommendations, and improved public satisfaction in the administration of general elections and by-elections since 2010.
The third experience involved recent changes the Ontario government proposed to our province's election finance laws. For many years, I have recommended that an expert commission be appointed to propose necessary changes to our election finance laws. Instead of establishing a commission, I was invited to sit with a legislative committee and asked to provide my advice. I am not aware of another independent officer in Ontario ever having been asked to sit with a legislative committee hearing a bill.
The bill is still working its way through the legislative process, and to date the committee has failed to reach consensus. I hope this changes. I think Ontarians share my hope.
I am sure the way the federal and provincial governments have chosen to embark on electoral reform will be debated by pundits and political scientists in the years to come. As an election administrator, let me share my perspective on two key points, one involves process and the other involves substance.
In terms of process, there are a variety of ways governments can consult citizens about electoral reform. Sometimes that process may require the involvement of an election agency, as it did in Ontario with the citizens' assembly and the referendum. If and when the process does require the involvement of an election agency, legislators need to afford the agency sufficient time and resources to implement those requirements. The process also needs to respect that election agencies can and should have a role in providing public education about elections.
By necessity, however, they must remain strictly non-partisan, especially if the agency is also required to administer a referendum or plebiscite on the issue. I firmly believe that an agency can only supplement a larger partisan debate with basic factual information. It must not be tasked with commenting on the ideological merits of electoral reform. To do so would violate the neutrality that agencies must, by definition, maintain.
Finally, when it comes to making recommendations on the substance of election laws, I can tell you that chief electoral officers across the country think long and hard before doing so. Government and opposition legislators may be focused on the immediacy of an upcoming election; however, electoral administrators take a more inclusive and longer-term view on the broad implications of proposed changes. I think citizens recognize and listen to what their election administrators recommend and the public questions when, without adequate explanation, those recommendations are not reflected in our election laws.
Thank you for inviting me to speak.
Before I conclude, I would like to publicly thank Mr. Marc Mayrand for the leadership and advice that he has provided to my agency and to all agencies across Canada. As Mr. Mayrand has announced he is retiring, I want to let Parliament know the great contribution he has made to this country.
Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.