moved that Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, yesterday I introduced the fair elections act. It keeps everyday citizens in charge of democracy by pushing special interests out of the game and fraudsters out of business.
The bill would make it harder to break the law and easier to vote. It would close loopholes to big money and would impose new penalties on political impostors who make rogue calls. It would empower law enforcement with sharper teeth, a longer reach, and a freer hand.
The fair elections act would make our laws tough, predictable, and easy to follow. Life would be harder for election lawbreakers and easier for honest citizens taking part in democracy.
Law enforcement begins with the Commissioner of Canada Elections. The fair elections act would give him sharper teeth, a longer reach, and a freer hand. Sharper teeth means allowing the commissioner to seek tougher penalties for existing offences. Longer reach means empowering him with more than a dozen new offences to combat big money, rogue calls, and fraudulent voting. It would let him get to the truth by making it an offence for anyone to deceive or disrupt his investigation. Finally, a freer hand means the commissioner would have full independence, with control of his own staff and his own investigations, and a fixed term of seven years, which means he could not be fired without cause.
Consistent with separating the administration from enforcement, the fair elections act would house the commissioner with the Director of Public Prosecutions. He would maintain his powers and functions but gain status as a deputy head, allowing him to make his own staffing decisions and to direct his own investigations. Although the two would be housed in the same office, the director would have no role in the commissioner's investigations.
To ensure impartiality of the position, those individuals who have previously been a candidate or an employee of a political party, a minister, Elections Canada, or an MP's office would not be eligible to serve as commissioner. The referee should not be wearing a team jersey.
The fair elections act proposes that the current commissioner, Yves Côté, and his staff would remain in their roles, and all existing investigations would continue uninterrupted.
One of the responsibilities of the newly empowered watchdog would be to prevent impostors from making rogue calls. The fair elections act would do this by providing a mandatory public registry for mass calling. It would impose prison time for impersonating elections officials, and it would increase penalties for deceiving people out of their votes.
However, it is just as bad to vote illegally as it is to deny someone else's vote. Each fraudulent vote cancels out an honest one. To avoid this, we currently have identification requirements under the Canada Elections Act. Voters can choose from one of 39 acceptable forms of ID. When they fail to bring any of those, someone can vouch for their identity.
Elections Canada commissioned a study last year that found irregularities in one in four cases where vouching was used. Having irregularities 25% of the time constitutes an unacceptable risk.
I want to spend some special time on this particular issue, because these are the findings of the Neufeld report, which was commissioned by Elections Canada. According to that report, as I said earlier, there was a 25% error rate in the use of vouching. That means that every four times Elections Canada used vouching, there was an irregularity once. I will quote directly from the report:
...the audit showed that errors are made in the majority of cases that require the use of non-regular processes.
Vouching is a non-regular practice. It went on to say:
...inadequate or ineffective training carries significant negative implications for procedural compliance.
That is on page 21. Furthermore, and I quote directly from the report at page 26:
Public trust is at risk if the rate of error is not significantly reduced by the next...election.
Without amendments to the Canada Elections Act, procedural compliance cannot be significantly improved in the 42nd general election.
If I can quote one more time:
Identity vouching procedures are unquestionably the most complex “exception” process administered at polling stations. The level of irregularities for vouching averaged 25 per cent.
It goes on. In a review entitled “A Review of Compliance with Election Day Registration and Voting Process Rules”, this audit showed that errors are made in the majority of cases that require non-regular processes. Then it takes a global view of Canada and the practices that happen in the 308 ridings. It says the following, “Averaged across 308 ridings, election officers made over 500 serious administrative errors per electoral district on Election Day”. That is 500 serious administrative errors per riding, and multiply that by the 308 ridings across the country.
To quote from the report again, “Obviously, this is unacceptable. Aside from legal concerns, public trust in proper administration of the electoral process is at serious risk if these error rates are not addressed”. And address them, we will. The fair elections act would put an end to the use of vouching on election day.
Similarly, Elections Canada recently experimented with the use of the voter identification cards as a form of ID. Before these pilot projects, Canadians voted for years without using cards to identify themselves, and for good reason. A report by Elections Canada recently showed that roughly one in six eligible voters does not have a correct address on the national registrar of electors, which is used to produce the voter information card. In other words, one out of six electors may get a card with the wrong address. That allows some to vote in a different riding than they live in, or to potentially vote more than once.
In fact, the Quebec comedy show Infoman did an interesting exposé on this. Two Montrealers received two voter information cards each, so they both went and voted twice each. They called it the “two-for-one special by Elections Canada”. This level of error, one in six, is also too high. As a result, the fair elections act would end the use of the voter information card as an acceptable form of identification.
To protect against fraud and to uphold the integrity of our electoral system, the fair elections act would not only instill these new rules, but it would also require in law that Elections Canada inform Canadians, through the advertising function, of the required forms of identification. In other words, embedded in the law would be a provision by which Elections Canada would be obliged to inform electors of the following:
(b) how an elector may have their name added to a list of electors and may have corrections made to information respecting the elector on the list; (c) how an elector may vote under section 127 and the times, dates and locations for voting; (d) how an elector may establish their identity and residence in order to vote, including the pieces of identification that they may use to that end;
That is the basic information that Elections Canada should advertise, so that when people get to the voting booth they already know what identification they will be required to present. The good news is that there would continue to be roughly 39 different pieces of identification that would be acceptable. That number presents Canadians with plenty of options, as long as Elections Canada educates them of those options.
It is just as important, though, for political parties to follow the rules, as it is for voters. With a 370-page Canada Elections Act, much of the challenge is determining what those rules are. All parties fail at that from time to time, often while trying their best to comply. Since the last election, the commissioner has had to sign 15 different compliance agreements with those who have breached elections law. Some are due to honest mistakes.
Members of all parties have complained that the rules are unclear and complicated. Complicated rules bring unintentional breaches and intimidate honest, law-abiding people from participating in democracy. The fair elections act would make the rules clear, predictable, and easy to follow. Parties would have the right to an advance ruling and interpretations from Elections Canada within 45 days of a request, a service that the Canada Revenue Agency already provides. Elections Canada will also keep a registry of interpretations, and consult and notify parties before changing them.
However, even with clearer rules, members of Parliament and the Chief Electoral Officer will sometimes disagree on an MP's election expense return. When that happens, the Canada Elections Act provides that an MP can no longer sit in the House of Commons until the expense return has been changed to the CEO's satisfaction.
Now, remember, the removal of a member of Parliament from the House of Commons overturns the democratic decision of tens of thousands of electors: Canadian citizens. No one person should have the power to do that without providing due process. To that end, the fair elections bill will allow an MP to present the disputed case in the courts and to have judges rule on it quickly, before the CEO seeks the MP's suspension. Expedited hearings and strict timelines will ensure that these cases do not drag on.
Free speech is the lifeblood of democracy. The government is therefore following through on its commitment to repeal the ban on the premature transmission of election results. According to the Supreme Court, this ban is an infringement on freedom of expression. It is also completely impractical to suggest that merely banning broadcasting of results from eastern Canadian constituencies to the west will prevent that information from travelling westward. We live in a modern era where everyday Canadians have the ability to transmit information via social media and other means, so this provision is unenforceable, even if it were not a violation of our basic principle of free speech.
Voting is to democracy what free speech is to liberty. Unfortunately, Canadians are doing less voting these days. Since Elections Canada began promotional voter participation campaigns, turnout has plummeted, from 75% in 1988, to 61% in 2001. A Library of Parliament analysis shows that between 1984 and 2000, right in the middle of which Elections Canada began mounting its promotional campaigns, voter turnout among youth plummeted by 20 percentage points. Somehow this is not working.
Why is it happening? The truth is that there are many reasons, but some of them are actually very practical. Elections Canada's own report on the last election said that in 2011, 60% of non-voters cited everyday issues as the reason for not voting. These included being too busy and lacking basic information.
The same report showed, “The most important access barrier [to youth voting] was lack of knowledge about the electoral process, including not knowing about different ways to vote..”.
The national youth survey revealed that nearly half of all Canadians aged 18 to 34 were unaware of the three options for voting other than on election day. That means that roughly half of our youth in this country do not know that they can vote at advance polls, by mail, or through special ballot. Students who happen to be busy on election day, studying or working, do not have the knowledge right now that they can vote in other ways. That level of awareness is incredibly low, and it is much lower amongst aboriginal youth, whose turnout we need to see increased. Therefore, we are proposing an increase in the information that voters receive about the options available for them to cast their ballot.
There is more evidence, though, to support the view that that is the kind of information they need. The survey that I just cited indicated that roughly a quarter of young non-voters expressed that not knowing where, when, or how to vote played a role in their decision not to cast the ballot. That is why Elections Canada correctly listed its top priority on youth turnout to be, “increasing awareness about when, where and how to vote, by providing information in formats suitable for youth”.
The job of informing voters is even more important for the disabled. Consultation and data show that Elections Canada does a good job of providing the tools that special needs voters require, such as wheelchair ramps, sign language, and braille services. Where the agency falls short is in making these tools known to those who need them.
To address all of these problems, the fair elections bill will bring better customer service to voters, with an extra advance voting day and more elections officials to relieve congestion at voting stations.
The bill goes further than that. The bill would amend section 18 of the Canada Elections Act to focus all of Elections Canada's promotional campaigns on two purposes: informing people of the basics of voting, where, when, and what ID to bring; and informing disabled people of the extra tools available to help them vote. It would be left to aspiring candidates and parties to give people something for which to vote and to reach Canadians where they are in their communities.
I look to the example set by our former immigration minister, now Minister of Employment and Social Development, who went out to new Canadians who perhaps were not entirely familiar with our democratic process because they came from countries that did not share those processes. He exposed them to democracy, and interested and inspired them in the process. We have seen similar activities that have been done by President Obama, who inspired a whole generation who did not traditionally vote to come out and cast a ballot. All of this shows that political candidates who are aspiring for office are far better at inspiring voters to get out and cast their ballot than our government bureaucracies, which is exactly how we will change the law.
However, that costs money. We live in the second biggest country in the world, with 10 million square kilometres. We are a nation that is twice the size of the entire European Union, and 95% of the countries in the world have a greater population density than we do. That means we have to travel long distances to reach our fellow Canadians. To do that, Canadian political parties and candidates spent $120 million in the last election in total. It sounds like a lot, until one considers that we spend $2.5 billion on cosmetics and fragrances in one year. Our nation spends 20 times more on products like cologne and makeup every year than we spend contesting democratic elections once every four years.
It is fair to say that special interest groups can use big money to drown out the voices of everyday Canadians, but that is why our nation's laws try to block that money. During campaigns, parties should rely on the money of small donors, not powerful special interest groups. Donations, like power, should be dispersed among the many rather than concentrated with the few.
As a result, the fair elections act would ban politicians from using unpaid loans to evade donation limits and maintain the absolute interdiction on corporate and union money. It would also allow a modest increase in the spending and donation limits while imposing tougher audits and penalties for those who exceed those limits. At the same time, the goal of the elections act is to allow small donors to contribute more to democracy through the front door and to block illegal big money from sneaking in the back door.
I would like to take this moment to thank the now Minister for Multiculturalism, who played a seminal role in crafting the proposals that I have brought before this House today. He and his staff have done tremendous work and have served their country well. I am very proud; in fact, I am very privileged, to have inherited that work.
We have before us a fair elections act that would further protect the basic principles that guide our democracy: that power should be dispersed in the hands of the many rather than concentrated in the hands of the few; that Canadians should be in charge of their democracy; that special interest groups should be on the sidelines; and rule-breakers should be out of the game altogether.
This is yet another occasion for us to celebrate the democracy that has brought us to where we are as a country today, to make it better, to further instill it in the foundation of our country, and to move forward into the future of Canadian democracy.