Election reforms include end to blackout on early results

There will no longer be a ban on the premature release of election results, under reforms announced this morning in Ottawa by Canada's minister of democratic reform.

Pierre Poilievre also announces harsher penalties for breaking Canada's election laws

Pierre Poilievre, the minister of state for democratic reform, is tabling his Fair Elections Act bill Tuesday. (Canadian Press)

There will no longer be a ban on the premature release of election results, under reforms announced this morning in Ottawa by Canada's minister of democratic reform.

The lifting of the blackout on reporting election results until all polls close across the country post them ends a longstanding practice that has been challenged in recent years by the rise of social media and the internet.

But there will also be harsher penalties for violations of the elections law under the proposed changes.

Pierre Poilievre said the reforms will keep "everyday citizens in charge of democracy by pushing special interests out of the game, and fraudsters out of business."

Speaking in the foyer of the House of Commons, Poilievre said the enforcer of federal election law, the commissioner of elections, will be independent of Elections Canada, and will be given greater powers to crack down on election fraud.

Currently, the commissioner of elections is appointed by the chief electoral officer, the head of Elections Canada. The chief electoral officer controls the commissioner's staff and budget, and directs investigations, putting the chief electoral officer in the position of both facilitating political candidates and policing them.

"The referee should not be wearing the team jersey," Poilievre said. "Independence is 'Governance 101.' It is normal to separate administration from investigations."

According to Poilievre, the work of the current commissioner and his staff will continue uninterrupted until the end of his term. The director of public prosecutions will appoint the next commissioner, Poilievre said, adding that the appointee can have no past political affiliation.

More than a dozen new Elections Act offences will be created, Poilievre said, and it will be a crime to deceive or obstruct an investigator.

Other proposed changes in the bill include:

  • Creates a mandatory public registry for automated election phone calls — so-called "robocalls" — and increases penalties for impersonation of election officials or deception that attempts to dissuade people from voting.
  • Increases the political donations limit to $1,500 per person per year, from $1,200, and increases local and national campaign spending limits by 5 per cent.
  • Allows MPs in a dispute with Elections Canada to keep voting in the House of Commons and sit on committees until a judge rules on the matter.
  • Allows candidates for party leadership to donate up to $25,000 to their own campaign, but makes it an offence for leadership debts to be left unpaid after three years.
  • Places tighter rules on voter identification at polling stations, and an end to "vouching" for a voter not on the voter's list.

That move follows recent battles over irregularities at polling stations, including a court challenge over the riding of Etobicoke Centre in the last election that revealed many voting irregularities.

Elections Canada head, panel not consulted

The changes Tuesday come as news to the chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand.
Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand hasn't been consulted about a new government bill that would change election rules in Canada. (Adrain Wyld/Canadian Press)

Poilievre told the House of Commons on Monday he met with the head of Elections Canada in August about the long-awaited election reform bill.

But Mayrand's office maintains he had no idea of the contents of the proposed fair elections act.

In question period Monday, NDP democratic reform critic Craig Scott asked Poilievre why he failed "to speak to the country's top elections expert, the chief electoral officer, or explain how he thinks he consulted with that person?"

Poilievre shot back that the question was false. "I did meet with the CEO of Elections Canada some time ago, and we had a terrific and a very long meeting, at which I listened carefully to all of his ideas."

But a spokesperson for Elections Canada said Mayrand won't learn any details until he is briefed at 1:30 p.m. ET, after the bill is tabled.

The bill replaces one that was to be tabled last April, but was abruptly withdrawn after Conservative MPs were briefed about its contents.

Not only was Mayrand not consulted about the contents of the current draft, but neither was the blue-ribbon panel of experts he appointed to advise him about electoral reform.

The panel members, who include luminaries such as former Liberal leader Bob Rae, former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Michael Wilson, former auditor general Sheila Fraser as well as former Supreme Court judge Ian Binnie, were equally in the dark about the bill.

Robocalls, unpaid loans

In a report to Parliament in March, Mayrand recommended several changes in penalties for election infractions, in light of the robocall investigation into thousands of misleading calls to voters during the last election.

The calls, both automated and live, purporting to be from Elections Canada, directed voters to the wrong polling divisions. In the almost three-year-old Elections Canada investigation, only one person, Michael Sona, a former Conservative staffer, has been charged

 Poilievre addressed the problem of unpaid loans, in which candidates lend money to themselves in leadership contests.

A political loans bill was introduced three years ago but never made it into law. Now the issue has been rolled into the new reform bill.

Liberal leadership candidates from as far back as the 2006 Liberal leadership convention that elected Stéphane Dion still haven't paid back campaign money. 

Poilievre has also complained about recent Liberal debts left over from the campaign that elected Justin Trudeau and unpaid debts from the contest that saw Tom Mulcair become leader of the NDP.

Elections Canada didn't have the power to force candidates to pay back money to their only creditor — themselves. Under the proposed new law, leadership candidates will have only three years to prove they've fundraised enough money to erase the debt to their own bank accounts.

With files from Laura Payton and Chris Hall