Election reform bill an affront to democracy, Marc Mayrand says

The government's proposed overhaul of the Elections Act is an affront to democracy, says Canada's chief electoral officer in an interview with CBC Radio's The House.
Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand says the government's proposed Fair Elections Act puts severe restrictions on the information he is able to communicate to the public. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The government's proposed overhaul of the Elections Act includes elements that constitute an affront to democracy, according to Canada's Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand.

In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Mayrand said "my reading of the act is that I can no longer speak about democracy in this country."

"I'm not aware of any electoral bodies around the world who can not talk about democracy," Mayrand told host Evan Solomon.

The Fair Elections Act says it "limits the chief electoral officer's power to provide information to the public."

Under the proposed bill, the only role of the chief electoral officer would be to inform the public of when, where, and how to vote.

Elections Canada would be forbidden from launching ad campaigns encouraging Canadians to vote. Surveys and research would be forbidden under the new bill, Mayrand said.

"Most of the research will no longer be published because these are communications to the public."

The chief electoral officer and the commissioner of Canada elections would also no longer be allowed to publish their reports, Mayrand said.

"These reports will no longer be available. In fact, not only not available. I don't think it will be done at all."

Voter turnout and legitimacy

At a time when voter turnout appears to have stagnated around the 60 per cent mark, this bill would take away efforts to increase voter turnout from the agency's hands and leave it to would-be politicians to figure out.

Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, who introduced the bill in Parliament on Tuesday, said candidates are better placed to get the vote out.

"Political candidates who are aspiring for office are far better at inspiring voters to get out and cast their ballot than are government bureaucracies," ​Poilievre told the Commons on Wednesday.

Persistent and declining voter turnout could undermine the legitimacy of an election's outcome, warned Mayrand.

"Nobody owns [voter] turnout. I think it requires a collective, collaborative approach of the whole society."

If [voter] turnout continues to decline at the pace it has been declining over the last 40 years… we'll have questions about the legitimacy of our government and how representative they are," Mayrand said.

Putting limits on the chief electoral watchdog, would also mean the end of Elections Canada's participation in outreach programs for youth. 

Mayrand said he would no longer be able to take part in Student Vote, a national program that allows 500,000 students who are not yet of voting age to vote in a parallel election.

All these limitations ought to give Canadians pause for concern, Mayrand said. "It's something that should be worrisome."

"I don't think it reflects a model democracy that Canadians aspire to."

Creating an independent commissioner

Polievre defended the bill, telling the Commons it would give a new independent commissioner "sharper teeth, a longer reach, and a freer hand."

Mayrand said he would have liked to see the bill give the elections watchdog the power to compel witnesses to testify, a problem Elections Canada faced when investigating robocalls made during the last federal election.

"It's a bit disappointing," Mayrand said.

He also would have liked to see the bill give the chief electoral officer the authority to compel political parties and their riding associations to provide Elections Canada with financial documentation to support their financial returns.

"It would make it easier to follow the money in the system."

"Right now we get an overall report stating expenditures of parties during campaigns... we don't have the supporting documents that attest to those expenditures, for example. So it makes it very difficult to carry a complete compliance review of those returns," Mayrand said.

Mayrand, who says he was not consulted on the bill, hopes members of Parliament will take the time necessary to study it at committee and consult with Canadians.

On Thursday, the government invoked time allocation, putting a limit on the amount of time members of Parliament can spend debating the new bill.

Mayrand publicly spoke about the bill for the first time on Thursday, when he defended himself against accusations of partisanship, following a committee meeting on Parliament Hill.

The chief electoral officer, like the auditor-general or the privacy commissioner, reports directly to Parliament and as such is independent of the government of the day and all political parties.