Elections chief Marc Mayrand stepping down ahead of Liberal reforms

Canada's chief electoral officer is stepping down from his post after nearly 10 years on the job that was marked by his very public battle with the former Conservative government over its Fair Elections Act.

Head of Elections Canada squared off with previous Conservative government over electoral reform

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, seen taking questions on the Conservative's Fair Elections Act in 2014, is stepping down. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Canada's chief electoral officer is stepping down from his post after nearly 10 years on the job — a tenure marked by public spats with the former Conservative government over its controversial Fair Elections Act and its attempt to block veiled Muslim women from voting.

Marc Mayrand, who assumed the role in 2007, informed the Speaker of his decision Monday, citing the need for a new chief ahead of the Liberal government's push for ambitious electoral reform. He will step down on Dec. 28, 2016.

"I have concluded that it would be preferable to leave my position at the end of the year to allow my successor the necessary time to assume the responsibility and guide the future direction of Elections Canada," Mayrand said in a statement.

"Given Elections Canada's ambitious electoral services modernization plans and the government's consideration of fundamental reforms to our electoral system, I believe the early appointment of a successor to lead Elections Canada well ahead of the next general election is essential and should not be delayed."

Democratic Reform Minister Maryam Monsef announced last month the government will strike a parliamentary committee to study electoral reform with the express purpose of ending the first-past-the-post system of voting that delivered the Liberals a majority in the last election.

The committee, composed of members of all parliamentary parties, will study various electoral systems, hear testimony from experts and ordinary Canadians alike and then issue a report to Parliament for a final vote.

The government has faced criticism for its initial move to stack the committee with a Liberal majority, something it recently back down on after sustained pressure from the opposition.

Fair Elections Act fallout

Mayrand criticized the previous government's Fair Elections Act, in part because it would have limited what the chief electoral could or could not say publicly about voting.

"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," he told CBC News in 2014, adding the act limited his ability to study voting behaviours and disseminate reports to the public.

He also warned at the time that new identification requirements — and the elimination of "vouching" for voters without ID — could have potentially disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters. The bill was ultimately amended to address some of the concerns Mayrand had flagged.

Mayrand and former prime minister Stephen Harper had been on opposing sides of an issue before. Mayrand allowed women wearing either the niqab or the burqa to vote in a series of by-elections in 2007 without revealing their face if they had proper identification. Harper said at the time he "profoundly disagreed with the decision."

Mayrand was unanimously approved by Parliament, replacing Jean-Pierre Kingsley who held the position for 17 years.

"I will leave my functions humbled by the responsibilities entrusted to me but with enormous pride in having served my fellow citizens and their elected representatives," the Quebec-born civil servant said Monday.

The chief electoral officer is responsible for the administration of elections and referendums. He or she reports directly to Parliament and is independent of the government of the day and all political parties.

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