Mr. Chair and members of the committee, thank you. I am pleased to appear before you to discuss Bill C-55, also known as the expanded voting opportunities bill. The purpose of the expanded voting opportunities bill is to strengthen our democracy by making it easier for people to vote.
As I stated when I introduced the bill, the right to vote is our most precious and fundamental right, and citizen participation in the political process through the exercise of that right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy. By making the decision to vote, Canadians do take ownership in their country.
As I mentioned in my previous appearance before this committee, the expanded voting opportunities bill is one part of our plan to strengthen accountability through democratic reform. The plan has three broad themes. First, we are eliminating the influence of big money in the political process by regulating the financing of political parties. Second, we've introduced legislation to modernize the Senate to make it more democratic, more accountable, and more effective. Third, and finally, we're taking steps to strengthen our electoral system, which includes the expanded voting opportunities bill that we're discussing today.
First I want to discuss the trend of declining voter participation.
As we are all aware, there has been a disturbing downward trend in voter participation in general elections. In 1958, 79.4% of Canadians voted in that year's General Election. However, that fell to 69.6% of eligible voters by 1993, and by 2004, only 60.5% of eligible voters cast a ballot.
More troubling than the overall participation rate is the fact that the voter participation rate of young people in general elections has been even lower. A 2002 study by Elections Canada found that only 25% of eligible 18 to 24-year-olds voted in the 2000 General Election.
This is a trend that we cannot allow to continue. The health of our democratic institutions depends on how successful we are at restoring the faith of our youth in the democratic process.
In terms of facilitating voter participation, I believe it's incumbent on elected representatives to do all they can to encourage Canadians across the country, both young and old, to get involved in the political process to ensure accountable, responsible government. We need to make sure that everyone who wants to vote is able to do so. This is essential to maintaining a healthy, vibrant democracy.
Unfortunately, despite the voting opportunities that currently exist, there are still significant numbers of eligible voters who continue to cite work and family responsibilities as their primary reasons for not voting.
In a 2003 survey conducted on behalf of Elections Canada, the authors found that nearly 40% of non-voters, during the 2000 federal election, indicated that they did not vote because of reasons that could be addressed through advance poll opportunities. Examples included being too busy with work, school, or family activities, transportation issues, or being away from home on voting day.
More importantly, 43% of respondents in the 18- to 24-year-old category stated that factors such as work, family, and school responsibilities, and similar reasons, had prevented them from voting. Similar numbers turned up in a 2001 voter participation study by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada.
We've all heard stories about people who woke up on election day with every intention of voting but because of a variety of reasons—maybe they had to work late, take their kids to hockey, or run errands—they didn't have time to vote. The fact is that the busy lives of Canadians is a serious factor that we must consider when looking for reasons behind declining voter participation.
There is considerable evidence that the existence of advance polling days has a positive impact on voter turnout. The Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing made a number of pertinent conclusions. On page 123, it says:
In the specific case of advance voting, it might also be noted that for a variety of reasons, many Canadians do find themselves away from home at any given point in time, including the day on which the election is held. The increase in the incidence of travel, for business and leisure, likely means many would not be able to exercise their franchise without advance voting opportunities.
On page 130, it says:
Generally speaking, the evidence from the four countries and, indeed, Canada itself, suggests that advance voting has become an important mainstay in the repertoire of voting opportunities. There are suggestions that without it, turnout levels would be lower, and extending the point in the other direction, with more opportunities for advance voting, turnout levels might be higher.
In a study commissioned by Elections Canada in 2003 to analyze the impact of expanded voting opportunities on voter turnout, the empirical analysis found that turnout is some ten points higher in countries where it is possible to vote in advance.
As well, since 1993, the use of advanced polls by voters has nearly doubled in the Canadian elections. In 1994, 5.4% of voters cast a ballot at an advanced poll. This number has risen steadily in each election since, and 10.5% of voters cast their ballots at an advanced poll during the January 2006 General Election.
I believe that this trend will continue and that the public would respond very positively to the increased convenience and opportunity to vote presented by additional advanced polling days.
There is some evidence that countries which offer weekend voting have higher rates of voter participation. A 2002 study by Mark Franklin of the University of Houston found a significant positive effect of Sunday voting. He found that countries with Sunday voting have a voter turnout rate that is about six to seven percentage points higher than countries without Sunday voting.
Of note, the recent French presidential election, where voting is on Sunday, had a voter turnout of 82%. Moreover, advanced polling on Sunday is already available in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec. And, in his April 2004 report, the Chief Electoral Officer of Quebec recommended holding elections on a Sunday for a number of reasons, including that it would be easier for workers who normally work Monday to Friday to get out and vote.
After taking into consideration the benefits of Sunday voting on voter turnout, and the increased use of advanced polls in Canadian elections, on May 9, 2007, Canada's New Government, introduced the Expanded Voting Opportunities Bill.
With respect to the details, the bill proposes to amend the Canada Elections Act to provide Canadians with two additional advance polling days on the two Sundays before election day.
Canadians currently have access to three advance polling days, on the Friday, Saturday, and Monday of the second last weekend before election day. People may vote between 12 noon and 8 p.m., but some people have to travel long distances because maybe only half a dozen polling stations are open in their constituency. The amendments in the expanded voting opportunities bill would add an advance polling day on the second last Sunday and the last Sunday before election day. This means there would be a block of four consecutive days of advance polling on the second last weekend before election day. However, the advance poll on the Sunday before election day would be a special one. All the polling stations used on election day will be opened, thereby maximizing voter opportunities for Canadians at a time when media attention and interest in the election should be at its height.
The hours for all advance polling days would continue to be between noon and 8 p.m., as opposed to the 12-hour periods of staggered voting hours that are available on election day.
In conclusion, our expanded voting opportunities bill will mean that all Canadians will have an opportunity to vote at an advance poll in their own neighbourhood on a Sunday, which for many is a day without work or school commitments. This will make it easier for Canadians to vote.
And with this increased convenience, we hope that families will bring their children with them when they go to vote—helping them appreciate from an early age the civic duty and opportunity to cast a vote, and to understand what it means to be a citizen in a free and democratic country. These are lessons that, if well taught, last a lifetime, build stronger communities and make a brighter future for Canada. And we know that engaging more Canadians in the electoral process through increasing voter turnout is good for our democracy and good for our country.
I would now be happy to take any questions that committee members may have.