Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise in the House today to express my support for Bill C-23, the fair elections act, which was introduced by the Minister of State for Democratic Reform. The fair elections act would ensure that everyday citizens are in charge of democracy by putting special interests on the sidelines and rule breakers out of business.
The fair elections act would implement 38 of the Chief Electoral Officer's past recommendations.
One of those changes is the repeal of the prohibition on the transmission of election results. I would like to focus my remarks on this change. The fact that Canada extends over six time zones, representing a time difference of four and a half hours from coast to coast, has an impact on polling hours in Canada and how election results should be released. In the early days of Confederation, the release of election results was not a concern, since communication technology did not allow for the transmission of results during voting hours. This changed with the introduction of telegraphic service.
In the 1930s, parliamentarians reported concerns about eastern results being telegraphed to western parts of the country, and extra newspaper editions being distributed to voters on their way to the polls. At that time, uniform voting hours, 9 a.m to 8 p.m. local time, were observed across the country, which led to a real-time difference of four hours between the closing of polls in the Maritimes and the closing of polls in British Columbia. In response to these concerns, the Dominion Elections Act, adopted in 1938, prohibited releasing election returns in electoral districts where the vote was ongoing. Accordingly, section 329 of the Canada Elections Act currently prohibits the transmission of election results in electoral districts where voting is ongoing. Anyone who wilfully violates the ban is guilty of an offence and liable on a summary conviction to a fine of up to $25,000.
Since the ban's implementation, practical and philosophical objections have been raised. From a practical perspective, the ban is difficult to effectively enforce in the age of modern communication technology and social media. Moreover, the ban could have the effect of penalizing Canadians for their normal communication behaviour. Philosophically, the ban is an infringement on freedom of speech.
In 1991, the report of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, more commonly referred to as the Lortie report, declared the ban obsolete and difficult to enforce, due to the developments in broadcasting and communication technologies such as the telephone and fax machine. As an alternative to the ban, Lortie recommended the adoption of staggered voting hours, highlighting that polls must not be open too early or close too late in any region. Hours were not to be too disruptive for voters or election workers, and conclusive results from Ontario and Quebec, which might be determinative of the election, were not to be known before the close of polls elsewhere in the country.
Parliament adopted staggered voting hours in 1996. This reduced the difference in time between the polls closing on the east and west coasts from four and a half hours to three hours. With these staggered voting hours, there was no longer any time difference between the closing of polls in Ontario, Quebec, and the three prairie provinces. There was only a 30-minute time difference between the closing of polls in central Canada and the Prairies, and the closing of polls in British Columbia. Thirty minutes was not deemed enough time for conclusive results from Alberta to Quebec to be determined and released by the media before later B.C. voters cast their ballots.
As a result of the staggered voting hours, conclusive results from only 32 Atlantic Canada ridings were available to later voters west of New Brunswick. The Lortie report noted that the release of results from the 32 ridings would not constitute a major problem.
At the time the report was released, there were only 295 seats in the House of Commons, meaning that the 32 ridings made up 11% of the seats in the House.
Simply put, staggered voting hours address the underlying rationale for the ban, which is that knowledge of which party will form the government could have an impact on voter behaviour in western Canada.
The ban has also been the subject of litigation. Following the 2000 general election, Mr. Paul Bryan was charged with an offence for having posted results from Atlantic Canada on his website while polls were still open in the rest of Canada. Mr. Bryan challenged his conviction on the basis that the ban was contrary to freedom of expression, guaranteed under our charter. The case was argued before the Supreme Court of Canada, which released its decision in 2007. While the court was unanimous that the ban limited freedom of expression, a majority of the court found the limitation to be reasonably justified, as it promotes voter information parity and public confidence in the electoral system.
Even though the court upheld the validity of the prohibition, Parliament is still free to repeal or alter the ban. One of the majority justices who wrote a set of reasons for the judgment went so far as to note specifically that “...Parliament can of course change its mind. Within constitutional bounds, policy preferences of this sort remain the prerogative of Parliament, not of the courts”.
The constitutional validity of the ban is again before the courts. During the 41st general election, the CBC and Bell Media launched a challenge to the ban, arguing that in the era of social media, it no longer promotes information equality.
It is useful to consider the effectiveness of the ban, since the Lortie Commission concluded that the ban was obsolete.
As I have noted, the original purpose of the ban, adopted in 1938, was to prevent western voters from knowing the formation of the government prior to casting their ballots. This justification has been eclipsed by the staggering of voting hours adopted in 1996. This ensures that only election results from Atlantic Canada can be known to late voters west of New Brunswick.
No evidence suggests that voters would lose confidence in the electoral system if these results were communicated to them. This appears to have been confirmed during the 2004 general election, when the Chief Electoral Officer suspended the ban on the premature transmission of election results. The British Columbia Supreme Court, in R. v. Bryan, had declared the ban unconstitutional, while the British Columbia Court of Appeal had agreed to hear an appeal. Its judgment upholding the ban would not be rendered until after the election was held. Therefore, the Chief Electoral Officer relied on the existing state of the law and suspended the ban, which allowed media to communicate results from Atlantic Canada to late voters west of New Brunswick.
There is no indication that the results from the 2004 election were tainted by the suspension of the ban. The ban was once again enforced during the 2006, 2008, and 2011 general elections and subsequent by-elections.
In the 2008 general election, there were reports that Yukon's cable provider, Northwestel, prematurely let the east coast telecasts through to the territory's customers.
During the 2009 by-election, Elections Canada asked a newspaper to remove from its website a story that revealed initial results from a constituency, but it did not take measures to prevent discussion of by-election results on Twitter.
In 2011, an error caused the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to briefly broadcast results from Atlantic Canada 30 minutes before the polls closed in central and western Canada and an hour before the polls closed in British Columbia.
There is other evidence that the ban is often contravened. In a nutshell, with Lortie in mind, the right of Canadians to communicate and engage with one another about elections is essential for Canadian democracy.
A ban on the premature transmission of election results is an unnecessary restriction on freedom of speech in an era when social media and other technologies are widespread. A ban on the early transmission of election results is outdated.
Our government is also following through on its commitment to Canadians to repeal a ban on the premature transmission of electoral results in the fair elections act. This change reflects the ruling of the Supreme Court and our government's commitment to uphold every Canadian's right to freedom of speech.
For these reasons, I encourage all members to support the elimination of this provision in the act.