Saskatchewan

Sask.'s top election official wants to modernize 'antiquated' referendum rules

Saskatchewan's Chief Electoral Officer Michael Boda wants to modernize the province's referendum laws but he's not talking about voting online.

Elections Saskatchewan chief electoral officer says Internet voting not an option he recommends

Chief Electorial Officer for Elections Saskatchewan Michael Boda says that while the election law has been updated many times over the years, the referendum law has not and it's due for an overhaul. (Submitted by Elections Saskatchewan)

Elections Saskatchewan's Chief Electoral Officer Michael Boda wants to modernize the province's referendum laws but he's not talking about voting online.

"There is not yet a lot of confidence in internet voting, in particular because there can be issues with external actors manipulating the process," Boda told CBC Radio's The Afternoon Edition on Tuesday.

In a recent report, he considered four options for reform:

  • referendum held in conjunction with a general election. 
  • referendum between general elections, voting in person. 
  • referendum vote using postal service.
  • referendum using online and/or telephone voting.

Boda recommends referendum in conjunction with a general election or referendum voting through the postal service.

Although voting through a telephone or online could be the lowest cost option, he rejected that option because it would require an extensive education campaign. There are concerns that public confidence in the results might be low if any hacking attempts were successful, Boda said.

P.E.I. was the first province to use online and telephone voting in a provincial plebiscite in 2016. Eighty per cent of voters chose to vote online and voter turnout was only 36.5 per cent.

The report suggests that low voter turnout in P.E.I. may be due to the online voting system, which is more difficult for people with low digital literacy to navigate.

No confidence in current process

The report states that there has been no provincial ballot question vote since a plebiscite vote was held during the 1991 general election. There have only been seven referendum or plebiscite votes since Sask. became a province in 1905.

But Boda wants to be prepared.

The possibility of a referendum has come up twice in three years: the potential sale of SaskTel and second regarding a vote on Canada's equalization payment system, according to Boda's report.

Boda said it would be possible to hold a referendum under the current law but he doesn't have confidence in the process.

"It's antiquated," Boda said of Sask. voting legislation, which he described as "problematic" and having issues. 

"It's not in line with the current procedures that are laid out in the election law."

Areas of reform that he's identified include specifying the role of government, defining how information is distributed and creating a level playing field for campaign advertising.

Additionally, running a referendum is currently the equivalent to running a general election, he said, and can have costs up to $20 million.

Confusing questions can cause problems

Another issue Boda touched on was how it is important to "ensure a neutral and straightforward ballot question."

Paul Fairie, an instructor at the University of Calgary, outlined in a Twitter thread the problems that unclear referendum questions can cause.

A series of five questions about shopping on Sundays was discussed and the results were less than enlightening.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashleigh Mattern is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon and CBC Saskatchewan.

With files from The Afternoon Edition

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