Conservative Senator Linda Frum started a storm of controversy on social media this week when she argued Elections Canada has no role in encouraging people to vote.

In an exchange Tuesday with Marc Mayrand, the chief electoral officer and head of the agency in charge of running Canadian elections, Frum questioned whether the agency should be focusing on getting more citizens casting ballots.

Mayrand has said he's worried about a provision in the Conservatives' proposed changes to the laws governing elections, which he says would limit what he can discuss publicly. In particular, he doesn't want to lose the ability to work with a program called Student Vote, which takes students 18 and under through a federal election in the hope they vote for real once they are legally able.

Canada's voter turnout has trended down for years, with about 61 per cent of Canadians voting in 2011.

Frum, however, questioned Mayrand about whether it's up to Elections Canada to encourage people to vote.

"Your concerns about section 18 removing your ability to participate in future get-out-the-vote initiatives," she said, referring to one of the measures in Bill C-23, the fair elections act.

"Do you not see why there is a conflict of interest between you as a chief electoral administrator being in charge of the administrations of free and fair elections and also you being invested in get-out-the-vote initiatives so that you have then a vested interest in seeing the numbers increase? And that that balance ... you don't see the conflict there?" Frum asked Mayrand.

Few topics allowed

Mayrand says Elections Canada isn't involved in getting out the vote, a term normally applied to political parties encouraging their own supporters to cast ballots.

"But in-between elections we work with various educators. We provide tools in school to help provide the civic education for young Canadians," he said. 

"There's even some data that suggests those kids who have gone through that civic education are 14 per cent more likely to vote if they have gone through a proper civic education."

Section 18 of the fair elections act lists the topics the chief electoral officer can discuss, and forbids public comments on everything else. If Parliament votes the bill into law, the only issues the chief electoral officer can talk about are:

  • How to become a candidate.
  • How voters can add their names to the voters list or have it corrected.
  • How voters can cast ballots.
  • How voters can prove their identity and address.
  • How voters with disabilities can get into polling stations and mark their ballots.

'Not his role'

The debate continued on social media, with political consultant Bruce Anderson, a member of CBC's At Issue panel, and many others questioning Frum's assertion.

"With respect, I truly don't know why a high turnout is a conflict" for Elections Canada, he tweeted to Frum.

"It's not [Election's Canada]'s role to motivate" people to vote, she responded.

Frum also said Tuesday that it isn't Mayrand's job to tell the public if there are problems during elections, like the agency did when misleading robocalls were made during the 2011 campaign.

In an exchange with former auditor general Sheila Fraser, Frum said "it is not his [the chief electoral officer's] role" to publicly raise possible problems during an election.

Frum said that role falls to the commissioner of Canada Elections, who is charged with investigating wrongdoing.

In an exchange with CBC News, Frum said the chief electoral officer should notify the commissioner if he suspects any problems. The commissioner is able to disclose information to the public, she tweeted.

"CEO should notify commissioner if he knows of irregularities. Nothing changes," with the new act "except more independence" between the two offices, Frum said in the Twitter exchange.​

The commissioner is free to communicate concerns with the public "if he deems appropriate,​" she said.