9. Sound Electoral Management – Meeting New Challenges: Recommendations from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada following the 43rd and 44th General Elections
In Elections Canada's Strategic Plan 2020–28, the agency committed to working collaboratively and to leveraging expertise to enable a strong electoral democracy. In line with these commitments, the recommendations below seek to improve electoral administration.
9.1. Cooperating with Provincial and Territorial Election Authorities
In 1997, Parliament abandoned door-to-door enumeration for future federal elections and created the National Register of Electors. It was conceived as a truly collaborative national resource. Elections Canada was given a legislative mandate to administer the Register, to enter into agreements with federal and provincial authorities capable of feeding updates into the Register, and to share data from the Register with provincial and territorial election authorities in order to assist in maintaining accurate lists of electors across the country. Over the years, data and methodological improvements have been agreed upon between Elections Canada and its federal and provincial partners. Together, these improvements have increased the reliability of the Register and have brought added value to all election management bodies (EMBs) who are drawing from it.
Despite this initiative, cooperation in service delivery with other Canadian EMBs remains limited in 2022. Sharing data about registered electors is only one way in which EMBs throughout Canada could cooperate. There is overlap between Elections Canada and its provincial and territorial counterparts, both with respect to the nature of services offered, electoral materials purchased, and the populations served. In many instances, the same buildings are used as polling places, and these are staffed by the same workers for both federal and provincial elections. Often, the same challenges are faced and overcome, often through collaboration and shared expertise.
Collaboration between Elections Canada and Canadian EMBs is limited in part because the Canada Elections Act does not provide a formal framework for meaningful cooperation. It is noteworthy that the Act provides a specific mandate for the CEO to assist and to cooperate with electoral agencies in other countries, but no similar provision authorizes the CEO to assist (or receive assistance from) other Canadian electoral agencies. While the Act clearly provides for the CEO's independent contracting authority, it does not provide the authority to enter into agreements to offer goods or services to, or receive goods or services from, other EMBs in Canada.
In order to realize efficiencies and leverage other EMB experience and expertise, the CEO should have the financial and contracting authority to assist and cooperate with provincial and territorial EMBs. Such authority should come with the power for the CEO to charge for such services, with payment forwarded directly to the Receiver General for Canada.
- To improve electoral administration across Canada, the Act should be amended to explicitly provide the CEO with a mandate to offer assistance and cooperation to provincial and territorial electoral management bodies (EMBs) and to receive assistance or services from EMBs in return.
9.2. Protecting the Safety and Privacy of Returning Officers
The Act requires the CEO to publish the name, home address and occupation of returning officers in the Canada Gazette annually. Returning officers have expressed concern with this requirement, with respect to both privacy and safety. The publication of home addresses is of particular concern, especially in an increasingly polarized political environment.
Returning officers are appointed by the CEO following open, advertised and merit-based selection processes resembling those administered for the selection of public servants. Their names and professional contact information, although not their residential addresses, are published and updated on the Elections Canada website, making it easy for electors to identify their returning officer. There is no longer any need for the Gazette requirement.
- To protect the privacy and safety of returning officers, the requirement to publish the name, home address and occupation of returning officers in the Canada Gazette should be removed from the Act.
9.3. Facilitating the Recruitment of Returning Officers
Under the Act, new returning officers are appointed by the CEO for a fixed renewable term of 10 years following an external appointment process based on merit. Returning officers who have performed well while in office may be reappointed for subsequent 10-year terms.
The 10-year term is a significant challenge for recruitment. Most returning officer candidates express concern with making a 10-year commitment: individual circumstances would prompt many returning officers to prefer a much shorter term. Of the returning officers who have left their positions since the general election of 2015, only 41 percent completed a full 10-year term. This is likely due to new workforce expectations for more mobility and flexibility.
Reducing returning officer mandates to shorter terms could renew interest in appointment, expand the pool of qualified individuals and provide the CEO with the opportunity to recruit new talent to electoral districts more regularly. The Act currently allows the CEO to appoint field liaison officers (who supervise returning officers in a region) for a period determined by the CEO. The relevant provisions should be amended to provide the same for returning officers.
- To facilitate the recruitment of returning officers, the Act should allow the term of office for this position to be set by the CEO, instead of requiring them to be appointed for 10 years.
9.4. Collecting Demographic Data about Electoral Participants
Elections Canada is authorized under the Act to collect specific information about prospective candidates, nomination contestants and leadership contest participants. That information is limited primarily to name, address, and occupation.
Elections Canada does not have a clear legislative mandate to collect demographic information about electoral participants. This lack of data inhibits Elections Canada's ability to integrate Gender-Based Analysis Plus principles into its work and its ability to know what impacts services and programs are having on population groups—and, in particular, whether they are creating unintended barriers.
Crucially, the lack of legislative mandate also means that demographic data about electoral participants is not fully available to Parliament or researchers.
Many groups are under-represented in the House of Commons and the reasons for this are complex. There can be little doubt about the value of working toward a Parliament that reflects the true diversity of Canadian society; but that work must start with high-quality information, not only about members of the House but about all participants in the electoral ecosystem.
This recommendation is also in line with an April 2019 report entitled, Elect her: A roadmap for improving the representation of women in Canadian politics, by the House of Commons' Standing Committee on the Status of Women. The report recommended "[t]hat the Government of Canada consider making changes to allow, with candidates' permission, the collection of intersectional data on candidates in nomination races, including data on gender identity."
- To further progress toward a more inclusive and representative electoral system, a new legislative mandate should be included in the Act to allow Elections Canada to collect, on a voluntary basis, and make publicly available anonymized demographic data about electoral participants, including gender, ethnic origin, age, Indigenous status and disability.
9.5. More Flexibility for Counting Advance Poll Ballots
The Elections Modernization Act authorized substantially more flexibility in terms of how election officers are assigned to tasks within the polling station. That said, with respect to the count of advance poll ballots, the Act continues to require that counting be conducted by two election officers assigned to the advance poll.
This requirement becomes problematic when advance poll workers are needed to work at ordinary polls on polling day. In this situation, the specific workers assigned to the advance poll may be needed to count votes cast at the close of the polls on polling day itself and so may not be available to count advance poll ballots. This situation could be addressed by authorizing the returning officer to appoint other available election officers to conduct the count of the advance poll ballots.
Given that, since 2018, there has been more flexibility with respect to staffing the polls, it is now unlikely that an advance poll would be consistently staffed with the same election officers over the 48 hours of advance poll voting. New flexibility allows tired election officers to take breaks and for election officers at a busy polling station to be reassigned to serve electors more efficiently during surge periods. For these reasons, assigning the same election workers to counting advance poll votes does not necessarily guarantee greater integrity in the counting process. The reality is that multiple election officers will have administered the advance poll during the four-day period. The Act should be amended to reflect this reality and facilitate advance poll ballot counting.
- In order to facilitate the count of advance poll ballots, the Act should be amended to provide returning officers with more flexibility to staff the count.
9.6. Increasing Trust in Party Expense Returns
The Act does not currently require political parties to provide documentary evidence supporting financial reporting. This differs from the regimes applicable to candidates, leadership contestants, nomination contestants and third parties in which the CEO may request supporting documents related to expenses. Past CEOs of Canada have recommended harmonizing these regimes in reports to Parliament in 2005, 2010 and 2016. Elections Canada again recommends that political parties be required to provide documentary evidence in support of financial returns.
Every election, political parties in Canada receive tens of millions of dollars in direct public subsidies through the reimbursement of eligible election and other expenses; and millions of dollars more in indirect public subsidies in various forms.
However, this financial support is provided in the context of decreasing public confidence in political institutions. Financial reporting, verification by Elections Canada, and public disclosure of political financing activities is a crucial mechanism for combatting the decline in trust. Unfortunately, the absence of a requirement to provide evidence of expenses weakens that mechanism.
The Elections Modernization Act introduced a provision that allows the Commissioner of Canada Elections to request supporting documentation in the context of an investigation. While this authorization was a necessary addition to the tools available to the Commissioner, it remains that the Commissioner's enforcement mandate only complements the audit and transparency program administered by the CEO and does not replace it. Irrespective of any eventual referral to the Commissioner, electors and taxpayers have the right to expect a full and rigorous audit process. Furthermore, the CEO's ability to make a referral to the Commissioner when necessary is compromised if he cannot request supporting documents. If the Commissioner is not seized of a matter, his office's ability to request supporting documents becomes irrelevant. The Commissioner of Canada Elections supports this recommendation.
As a matter of transparency and stewardship of public funds, registered political parties should be required to produce documentation evidencing expenses claimed when requested by Elections Canada during the audit process.
- To ensure transparency and increase electors' trust, the Act should be amended to authorize the CEO to request that parties provide any documents or information that may, in the CEO's opinion, be necessary to verify that the party and its chief agent have complied with statutory requirements with respect to the election expenses return.