Mr. Speaker, it is with great pleasure that I rise today to speak in support of the fair elections act, and I appreciate the opportunity to do so.
Bill C-23 addresses important issues that are fundamentally essential to a strong democracy, and it has succeeded in bringing them to the forefront for public discussion. It is important that my constituents in Richmond Hill and Canadians across our country be aware of how this important legislation would strengthen the integrity of our voting processes. That is why I am pleased to highlight some of the important improvements this bill would bring to our democratic system. Bill C-23 would ensure that everyday citizens are in charge of their democracy.
In response to many of the issues identified by the Chief Electoral Officer in terms of where improvements are needed, the fair elections act would implement 38 of the recommendations found in the Chief Electoral Officer's report following the 40th general election and in his more recent report on deceptive communications. The fair elections act addresses many of the recommendations made in the Neufeld report, which was commissioned by Elections Canada following the 2011 general election, such as the recommendation to do the following:
To further support the simplification of procedures for polling staff, request the following amendments to the Canada Elections Act: Reduce, as much as possible, the number of verbal oaths required from electors. Where legal formality is warranted to ensure procedural integrity, instead require signed declaration forms.
It also addresses the recommendation to
Ensure there is a supervisor in charge at every voting site, that their authority is clear, and that each supervisor has the power to ensure polling staff comply with legally required procedures
as well as the recommendation to
Investigate ways to reduce the number of voters who must have their identity and address of residence vouched for on Election Day, for instance by:
i. Improving and extending the pre-vote advertising campaign that encourages electors to bring appropriate identification to the polling site with them.
Bill C-23 addresses important issues, such as the significant drop in voter turnout that has been taking place over the last 25 years and the need to improve the integrity of our voting system.
We simply need to do a better job of motivating electors to vote. Citizens in countries around the world have fought and died for their access to democracy and their right to vote. We here in Canada must not be complacent, nor should we take this very special privilege for granted.
We cannot afford to stand still on these issues, and we will not. Let me explain how Bill C-23 would improve the integrity of our democratic system.
The amended bill proposes to eliminate identity vouching. The fact that this is currently allowed has actually been a surprise for many of my constituents and to many Canadians, who were dismayed to learn that this practice even exists.
By Elections Canada's own admission, the practice of vouching, whereby someone states that he or she knows someone else who has no identification, is rife with irregularities. I would like to read into the record an important passage from Elections Canada's own compliance review, or the Neufeld review, as it is commonly referred to, that was undertaken following the 2011 election. It states:
All Canadian citizens, 18 years of age or older, have the right to vote in the federal electoral district in which they reside. The Canada Elections Act provides a wide range of procedural safeguards designed to protect the integrity of the electoral process. A subset of these safeguards requires voters to demonstrate eligibility (identity, citizenship, age, and residency) before they can receive a ballot.
For the vast majority of electors who are already registered at their correct address, Election Day procedures involve a simple, efficient check of a single piece of photo ID to confirm identity and address of residence. However, for any persons who are not registered, or do not possess accessible identification documents at the time of voting, election officers must administer special “exception” procedures prescribed in legislation.
Ensuring voter eligibility through the administration of these special “exception” procedures is an expected part of election officers' duties. Errors that involve a failure to properly administer these procedures are serious. The courts refer to such serious errors as “irregularities” which can result in votes being declared invalid.
The report goes on to say that most Canadian elections officers struggle to administer the complex rules of exception procedures they are expected to conduct as part of their temporary election day roles.
I quote again from the Neufeld report. It states:
An estimated 15 percent of voters need some type of “exception” process to be administered before they can be issued a ballot. While administering “regular” voting procedures is usually straightforward, the audit showed that errors are made in the majority of cases that require the use of non-regular processes. Serious errors, of a type the courts consider “irregularities” that can contribute to an election being overturned, were found to occur in 12 percent of all Election Day cases involving voter registration, and 42 percent of cases involving identity vouching. Overall, the audit estimated that “irregularities” occurred for 1.3 percent of all cases of Election Day voting during the 2011...election. More than 12 million Canadian citizens cast ballots on May 2, 2011 and the audit indicates that the applications of specific legal safeguards, in place to ensure each elector is actually eligible to vote, were seriously deficient in more than 165,000 cases due to systemic errors made by election officials. Averaged across 308 ridings, election officers made over 500 serious administrative errors per electoral district on Election Day. Obviously, this is unacceptable.
I think most Canadians would be concerned to hear that serious errors, ones that can contribute to an election being overturned, were found to occur in 42% of cases involving identity vouching. In the 2011 election, the Neufeld report found that there were 45,868 cases where no record was kept of who the voucher or the voter was. That is 45,868 cases where no record of the voucher or the voter was kept.
This same report goes on to suggest that public trust and proper administration of the electoral process is at serious risk if these error rates are not addressed. It says that the overly complex procedures to administer vouching cannot be remedied simply by improving quality assurance and concludes that redesign through simplification and rationalization is necessary to reduce the risk of such errors.
That is precisely why we have brought forward Bill C-23, the fair elections act, to address these concerns in a practical, transparent way. The status quo is simply not an option.
I agree with this statement in the Neufeld report, which states:
Citizens' trust in their electoral institutions and democratic processes are put at risk when established voting rules and procedures are seen not to be followed. Even the perception of problems can be extremely detrimental to this trust. Public trust in an electoral process is fundamental to perceptions about the legitimacy of democratic governance.
How does Bill C-23 propose to solve these problems as identified by Elections Canada? It is by allowing electors to vote with two pieces of identification that prove their identity and by taking a written oath as to their residence, provided that another elector of the same polling division who proves his or her identity and residence by providing documented proof also takes a written oath as to the elector's residence. The difference between this and what we have now is that electors will have to prove their identity.
There are 39 pieces of possible identification that could be used, including a driver's licence; health card; citizenship card; birth certificate; social insurance number card; student ID card; utility bill; hospital bracelet, worn by residents of long-term care facilities; correspondence issued by a school, college, or university; statement of government benefits; or attestation of residence from a shelter or soup kitchen or a student or seniors residence.
This new measure would allow those who do not have identification proving their residence to register and vote on polling day. By ensuring that electors could properly identify who they are within these acceptable 39 ways, we would help to restore faith and trust in the system.
To ensure the integrity of the vote, we are also proposing a verification of potential non-compliance, to be conducted after polling day, and an audit of compliance with registration and voting rules after every election. These changes would add procedural safeguards to protect against duplicate voting and impersonation.
I would also like to highlight the important ways Bill C-23 provides better customer service for voters.
In 2011, indeed 60% of non-voters cited everyday life issues as the reason for not voting. These included reasons such as travelling, work or school schedules, not enough time, or lack of information. We believe that better customer service would help remove these practical obstacles.
For example, Bill C-23 would add an additional day for advanced voting. It would also bring forward changes that would reduce congestion at the polls. Additional election officers would be appointed at the polling stations. Liaison officers would be appointed to facilitate communication between the Chief Electoral Officer and returning officers in ridings, and the time allowed for election officer training would be increased. Bill C-23 would return the role of Elections Canada back to the basics.
As noted earlier, voter turnout in general has decreased from 75% in 1988 to 51% in 2011. During this same time period, Elections Canada had responsibility for promotional campaigns. A Library of Parliament analysis also shows that from 1984 to 2000, voter turnout for youth aged 18 to 24 dropped 20 percentage points. Unfortunately, this trend has not been reversed in recent years.
It has been found that the main reason for youth not voting was not knowing where or when or how to vote. The job of an election agency is to inform citizens of the basics of voting: where to vote, when to vote, and what ID to bring. It is also incumbent upon the agency to ensure that disabled people know about the extra tools available to help them vote, such as wheelchair ramps, sign language services, or Braille services for the visually impaired. We need to devote our full attention to getting this complete information into the hands of electors.
Bill C-23 would define the public information and education mandate of the Chief Electoral Officer by specifying that advertising by the Chief Electoral Officer would focus on informing electors about the exercise of their democratic rights; about how to be a candidate; about when, where, and how to vote; and about what tools are available to assist disabled electors. The Chief Electoral Officer could also support civic education programs for primary and secondary schools.
In addition to these important changes, the fair elections act also proposes to protect voters from rogue calls and impersonation with a mandatory public registry for mass calling, prison time for impersonating elections officials, and increased penalties for deceiving people out of their votes. It would also allow the commissioner to seek tougher penalties for existing offences.
The bill would ban the use of loans to evade donation rules, and it would uphold free speech by repealing the ban on the premature transmission of election results. The bill would provide for more than a dozen new offences, making it easier for the commissioner to combat big money, rogue calls, and fraudulent voting.
We have listened to Canadians and our colleagues throughout this important debate and have supported a number of amendments to the original bill to make it even better. I thank everyone involved in this process, including the witnesses at committee, my colleagues, and the residents of my riding of Richmond Hill for their input.
Some of these amendments I have already mentioned, such as allowing vouching for residency and clarification of the mandate of the Chief Electoral Officer to include the support of civic education programs for primary and secondary schools.
Other amendments include retaining the current appointment process for central poll supervisors; eliminating the proposed exception as to what constitutes an election expense, in the case of expenses incurred to solicit monetary contributions from past supporters; and amending the provisions to require that the Chief Electoral Officer consult with the Commissioner of Canada Elections before having to issue an advance ruling or interpretation note. This would provide more time for the Chief Electoral Officer before having to issue an advance ruling or interpretation note while reducing the consultation period with the registered parties. It would give advance rulings precedential value for the Chief Electoral Officer and the commissioner with respect to similar activities or practices carried out by other political entities.
Other amendments include requiring calling service providers to keep copies of scripts and recordings for three years instead of one; allowing the Chief Electoral Officer and the Commissioner of Canada Elections to exchange information and documents; allowing the commissioner to publicly disclose information about investigations where it is in the public interest; increasing the spending limit for elections, with a longer writ period than the 37-day period; adding a clear prohibition against a third-party unable to show a link to Canada incurring more than $500 in an election; clarifying the intent of giving the commissioner the unrestricted ability to begin investigations by removing the bill's proposed evidence threshold before the commissioner may begin an investigation; clarifying the intent of having no limitation period for offences under the Canada Elections Act that require intent; making the term of the Chief Electoral Officer non-renewable; clarifying that all those who apply for a special ballot and vote at the office of the returning officer must prove their identity and residence, as they would at a polling station, thereby closing a potential loophole; and clarifying that the annual report of the Director of Public Prosecutions must contain a section prepared by the Commissioner of Canada Elections through which the commissioner would report on the activities of his office, without providing information about specific investigations.
These are common sense principles, and Canadians agree.
The Chief Electoral Officer has been very clear in saying that reform needs to be in place before the next general election.
I applaud the good work of the Minister of State for Democratic Reform in preparing the bill, which will significantly restore confidence in the electoral system and will improve voter turnout. I am proud to support the bill, and I urge all my colleagues in the House to support it.