Alberta's Progressive Conservative government is proposing changes to the way elections are run — including turning over the appointment of returning officers to the province's chief electoral officer.
"This legislation deals with fundamental democratic principles," said Alison Redford, minister of justice and attorney general, in a release.
"It is important to balance updated and streamlined processes with maintaining the integrity of the system."
The legislation, known as Bill 7 - The Election Statutes Amendment Act, proposes other changes including:
- Changing the way enumerators are appointed so that constituency associations and political parties are no longer involved.
- Broadening the investigative powers of the chief electoral officer.
- Opening advance polls to anyone who wishes to vote early.
- Giving Albertans who are prisoners the right to vote.
- Improving third-party advertising legislation.
- Requiring campaign deficits to be paid off, with reports sent to the chief electoral officer.
- Increasing safeguards for the list of electors.
- Updating the types of information voters present at polling stations.
The legislation would also open the doors to new voting technologies and allow a pilot project to open by-election polls at 7 a.m., rather than the current 9 a.m.
Criticism over returning officer appointments
The proposed legislation would change the practice of having the government recommend people to work as returning officers for provincial elections.
The Alberta Progressive Conservative party came under heavy criticism during the 2008 provincial election campaign after it was discovered about half the 83 returning officers had ties to the party.
Returning officers are responsible for hiring poll workers and ensuring election rules are followed. If the vote is a tie, they can cast a ballot to break a deadlock.
"It had been subject to public comment," Redford said. "And we certainly, as the premier had said, didn't disagree with the fact that there could have been that perception there."
The proposed amendments were drawn from recommendations made by Alberta's then Chief Electoral Officer Lorne Gibson in September, 2008.
Gibson put out a report with more than 180 recommendations after reviewing some of the issues that arose with the 2008 provincial election. Voter turnout for the March 3 election was just 40.6 per cent — the lowest in Alberta history.
An all-party committee of the legislature voted not to renew Gibson's contract in February, 2009. The eight government members on the committee voted to remove him, while the three opposition members wanted to keep him.
A new chief electoral officer, O. Brian Fjeldheim, was appointed last December.
Contentious issues not addressed
Some of the more contentious issues are not addressed in the new amendments — such as fixed election dates and public disclosure of leadership campaign donations.
Redford said those would be handled by an all-party committee.
"It does intimately impact the operation of parties," she said. "Many of those parties have recently been through leadership contests, and so we thought the better opportunity was to have parties that will be impacted by this come together and come to some solutions based on their own experience."
Asked why the election rule changes were not made earlier, Redford said it has taken at least the last two years to pull the exhaustive collection of amendments together.
"One of the things that we have not wanted to do is to deal with these things in a piecemeal fashion," she said.
Fixed election dates big omission
Fixed election dates should have been among the proposed amendments, said Kevin Taft of the Alberta Liberal Party.
"This is a step in the right direction, but I just wish it would go farther," he said, in particular in terms of campaign financing rules for leadership races.
"Right now, we have in key cabinet positions, at least a couple of people who haven’t disclosed where their leadership funds came from, including the premier and the finance minister, Ted Morton," Taft said, calling it "at best, awful optics."
Voting rules also need to make it easier for people away from their home ridings to vote, said Brian Mason, leader of the New Democratic Party.
"Students, First Nations people and people who are working in camps are the three big areas, as far as I'm concerned where people should be allowed to vote where they are on election day," he said. "Not forced to go to an advanced poll in their home community."