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Conference of Canadian Election Officials
Held at the National Assembly of Québec Parliament Building Salle Louis-Joseph Papineau August 14, 2008

Mr. Benoît Pelletier, Minister Responsible for Canadian Intergovernmental Affairs, Aboriginal Affairs, Francophones within Canada, the Reform of Democratic Institutions and Access to Information

Ladies and Gentleman, I am very pleased to be here with you today. Clearly, the annual Conference of Canadian Election Officials involves people who are entrusted with great responsibility and who, in a way, are the guarantors of the fairness and integrity of the electoral process. In my opinion, the vitality of our democratic societies relies on the invaluable role you play. The remarks I am about to make essentially describe the current situation in Québec. Yet I believe that your respective situations are very similar to it in many ways. The scope of the mandate conferred upon the Chief Electoral Officer of Québec is considerable, as the person who holds this position ensures that elections are organized and referendums are held pursuant to the Electoral and Referendum acts respectively. In this regard, the office holder has the power to set directives and adapt these laws as needed. He also controls the financing of political parties and election spending, meaning that he must investigate in the event of infringements of the Election Act, and take the required steps to make sure that offenders are sanctioned accordingly. What's more, the Chief Electoral Officer drafts recommendations for elected officials so as to improve election legislation, chairs the Commission de la représentation électorale that is periodically charged with defining electoral districts, and manages the permanent list of electors. In addition, he handles similar tasks for municipal and school elections. Lastly, he collaborates with other countries and international organizations; the Election Act also acknowledges his role in educating and informing the public. As the political parties, elected officials, the media and the general public have high expectations of him, the Chief Electoral Officer must be transparent and demonstrate the strictest impartiality. Consequently, he has a great deal of independence in carrying out his duties. The Chief Electoral Officer’s role has expanded over the last forty years. Initially considered a neutral, impartial arbitrator charged with applying the rules set by lawmakers for holding elections, the person who holds this position is now seen as a key actor, as a foundation for Québec’s democratic institutions. Like a tight rope walker, the Chief Electoral Officer walks a fine line, without a net. Not only must he have solid statesmanship while being non-partisan, he must also be discerning and dextrous in his actions, and account for himself to the public with effectiveness. This is not surprising, for he is at the heart of political life and the incumbent’s independence does not necessarily shield him from the pitfalls that characterize this arena. For these reasons, I believe that the role the Chief Electoral Officer plays must be highly valued. I applaud the priceless contributions made by people such as you who have agreed to take it on. One of the primary aspects of this senior position consists of defining the legislative and organizational arrangements that promote the exercise of the franchise. As much of your discussion will be focused on how to improve election laws, Mr. Marcel Blanchet will be delighted to report on the changes that have recently been made in Québec, and the changes that are currently under study. I will not go into detail regarding these changes, however I would like to say a few quick words about some aspects that show how I approach them. For instance, I place the greatest value on the work of the advisory committee chaired by the Chief Electoral Officer. Made up of elected and non-elected members of the political parties that are represented in the National Assembly, the committee’s mandate is to examine any issue that affects the Election Act, aside from representation. Customarily, any change to the Election Act occurs on the basis of a consensus among the parties. This rule is respected, save for some very rare exceptions. I made it a point of honour for myself to rapidly translate into legislative proposals all consensuses reached at the advisory committee. Since 2005, the government has passed three bills amending the Election Act, with the unanimous support of the members of the National Assembly. Several of the changes made over the years were designed to improve the exercise of the franchise in various ways, for instance, by introducing voting rules for electors living abroad, longer hours for advance polling, voting at home or at short and long-term care facilities, and voting at the returning officer’s office the implementation of which is not fully completed. All of these measures are desirable, but we do not yet know how they actually contribute to increasing voter turnout or limiting its decline. In any event, it is clear that a strong trend is shaping up: the voter turnout rate is declining steadily. In Québec, polarization between the federalist and sovereignist camps drove the voter turnout rate up at the


end of the 70s and mid-90s, taking it to levels that were much higher than seen before. Since then, voter turnout has declined steadily; it was approximately 70% for the last two general elections. Without exaggerating its extent, the drop in the election participation rate is worrisome, at least at this time. This is why, in my view, we need to try to eradicate this erosion and move quickly to foster better voter participation. To achieve this, two conditions must be met. The first consists of better pinpointing the phenomenon, that is, by identifying the segments of the population that are contributing to the drop in the participation rate. The second involves finding out the reasons for this behaviour. We do not yet have all of the reliable, verifiable information that we need to do this. As Chief Electoral Officers, you have real-time information on the main traits of the electorate that is or is not voting. Based on information gathered during elections and information available on the permanent list of electors, it is possible to determine the degree to which some population segments exercise their right to vote, according to age, gender and electoral riding. In my opinion, systematically repeating this exercise over a long period of time would provide the continuity that is essential to tracking and analyzing this phenomenon. I do not think this kind of factual analysis of the vote has ever been done in Québec or elsewhere in Canada. But without a credible, valid grounding in fact, any procedure that strives to analyze the causes of the decline in voter turnout, suggest solutions and measure their effectiveness could only be approximate, and would be subject to the vagaries of perception. In contrast, if the data were collated and published, we could, in conjunction with the research institutes and academics, carry out rigorous, methodical analyses of the causes of voter alienation. The conclusions drawn from this work would help better assess the importance of the various factors involved, and come up with desirable solutions. Once again, continuity is essential. We cannot be satisfied with occasional analyses that are based on a specific method alone. On the contrary, we must be able to track how the phenomenon evolves, as well as the impacts of the solutions put forward or situations that are likely to have an impact on the turnout rate. This is why I applaud the measure taken by Québec’s Chief Electoral Officer in collaboration with Université Laval’s Research Chair in Democracy and Parliamentary Institutions, which involves doing a study so as to gain a better grasp of the factors that influence voter participation. The first stage of the study is designed to document the phenomenon better, by age group, using information that is available for the last six general elections. We are looking forward to reviewing the results of the work. Some countries, such as Sweden, have developed action plans to strive for greater democratic participation. In Great Britain, for instance, the Electoral Commission has been mandated to verify election participation every year. We will certainly be doing useful work by, according to our capacities and respective needs, developing an action plan that is built on rigorous fact-based analysis, on methodical tracking of causes, solutions and their impacts, and on the collaboration that must be nurtured between Chief Electoral Officers, researchers, political parties, the media, and schools. Revising the voting procedure is among the changes that could influence election legislation. This matter has been attracting renewed interest in a number of provinces, as well as federally, since the early part of this decade. As election results showed substantial differences between votes received and the number of people elected, political parties, interest groups and academics have rushed to put forward proposals to introduce various forms of proportional representation. Work groups, citizens’ assemblies and parliamentary commissions have been created at both the federal and provincial levels. In British Columbia, for example, the Citizens’ Assembly recommended replacing the single-member system by a single transferable vote; Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have suggested different variants of a compensatory mixed system. However, none of these plans has been completed. In the three provinces in which referendums were held, the public rejected the reform of the voting procedure. No consensus has been reached in the other provinces on completing the proposed reform projects; at the federal level, work is not sufficiently advanced for a specific proposal to be made. In this context, there is reason to wonder about the confirmed failures and outlook for reform. I would like to make a few comments on this issue, based on Québec’s experience. First, I think that the goal of creating a voting system that allows the people to express their will with greater accuracy is a legitimate goal, and we must pursue it. The change can occur if some conditions are met —unfortunately, this is not yet the case. In other words, to quote Shakespeare’s King Lear, as in many things, “ripeness is all.” The main aspect of the mixed proportional voting system that is raising such resistance, making it the major obstacle to changing the voting system, is that there are two categories of representative. For the same number of representatives, the mixed voting system reduces the number of electoral districts and adds a number of


representatives that are said to be “list” members. In a way, this combines two voting systems so as to achieve a greater degree of representativeness, and maintain a real connection between the electees and electors in a given territory. Here, the government wanted a regional approach. But, in most of the less urbanized areas, many are unable to see how members could be effective in much larger ridings. They even wondered whether it would be possible to maintain any ties between the people and “list” members, in the event of regional compensation. In a region, the predominant impression is of a loss of representativeness and political weight. The reaction is not a new one. In fact, this problem also crops up when it is time to redraw the boundaries of electoral districts. As Chair of the Commission de la représentation électorale, Mr. Blanchet is at the centre of the debate. However, this is not the first time he has dealt with the matter; he is well acquainted with the pitfalls created by the public’s attachment to current district boundaries in some regions. In this kind of matter, it is clear that no party lines will hold up, as every member feels responsible for protecting his constituents’ interests. I do not believe the recent debate on reforming the voting system has been pointless. On the contrary, it has taken reflection further, and helped to spotlight the inns and outs, the pros and cons of this kind of reform. I would also like to stress the Chief Electoral Officer’s contribution to the discussion. At my request, in December 2007, he sent out a report on the various conditions of a compensatory mixed voting system. We will thus have solid bases for changing the voting system and introducing elements of proportional representation when the debate can be resumed. In six provinces in Canada and at the federal level, elections are now held on set dates. This issue is currently being discussed in Québec. Already, the Chief Electoral Officer is favourable to bringing in a predetermined date for holding elections. There is some public support for this as well, as we saw during the hearings of the Select Committee on the Election Act which, in 2005 and 2006, was charged with carrying out consultations on this matter and tabling a report on such things as potential changes to be made to the voting system. It goes without saying that there are many advantages to holding elections on set dates. One of them is that all political parties and their candidates will know what to expect, and can determine their strategies in advance. Most important for all of you, having a fixed date would mean that elections could be organized much more efficiently. Despite all of this, these advantages are not prodding Québec to change the current situation, at least in the foreseeable future. Even if an election act contains a set date on which elections are to be held, nothing prevents the legislature from being dissolved prior to that date if the government does not have the confidence of the majority of members. This is the essence of the system of responsible government; it is at the heart of our political institutions. Having elections on fixed dates also lengthens election campaigns. There is then the risk that political parties and pressure groups will impose their views and try to get the population to buy in as early as possible. Triggering this dynamic could have a big influence on election spending, and favour those with greater financial resources. For the electoral process to remain fair to everyone, we must set limits, even before the election period starts, on such matters as advertising expenses. British Columbia recently did so. This is no doubt why Québec has not shown any strong will or felt a pressing demand regarding having elections on a set date. We will, however, watch with great interest to see how the reform evolves in the provinces that have adopted it and in Ottawa. I am convinced that Québec’s Chief Electoral Officer will continue to look into the potential for instituting it here in the years to come. It seems to me that holding elections on a set date hides another issue, one that I would call the Americanization of our political institutions. This practice is compatible with our constitutional regime and political system but, if it were to be confirmed, it would be a break with the traditions and political culture that differentiate us from our neighbours to the south. Similarly, Canada’s election laws have developed at different rates, and their success varies. However, the laws always center on one fundamental principle: instituting the fairest possible electoral process, one that is not dominated by the power of money. The principle’s application partially explains the strict constraints on the financing of political parties, control of election spending, and third-party intervention in the electoral process that have existed in Québec for over forty years. Québec has often been the front runner in this area and so has influenced several other governments to adopt measures that focus on the same objectives. A trend is now emerging, based on such things as a specific reading of the constitutional protections that are accorded to democratic rights, broadly speaking, and in particular the freedom of expression that gives it such clear precedence. It is also influencing some court decisions which could, in my opinion, destabilize the balanced regime that it has taken us several decades to establish.


The question now before us is not which vision is the more democratic, but rather which form of democracy we want to protect. Our American cousins give freedom of expression clear precedence, and tend to reject our types of constraints, claiming that they are too strict. However, if we adopt their concept of freedom of expression at the legal and political levels – as some are suggesting – the likelihood is that we would also have to institute similar control measures, which would be much less restrictive. As these causes lead to the same effects, we can, on the basis of what happens south of the border, immediately see that politics would become more permeable to the influences of the parties, interest groups and individuals who control greater financial resources. Small parties and less influential groups could have even more trouble getting themselves heard. In other words, we must be watchful. The legitimate protection that stems from democratic rights and freedom of expression should, moreover, not end up insidiously changing some of the underpinnings that are specific to our democracies. I hope these remarks will make a constructive contribution to your discussion and work today, as well as later on, within each of your organizations. In closing, I hope this conference will be very fruitful. Also, with all my heart, I invite you to visit Québec City, my th hometown, which has decked itself out beautifully in honour of its 400 anniversary. Thank you.

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