Fair elections act: 7 things you may not know

Most of the debate about the changes the government wants to make to how Canadians vote and run elections has centred around vouching. But there are many more controversial measures inside Bill C-23. Here are seven of them.

Vouching has been in the spotlight, but there's much more to be found in 242-page Bill C-23

Most of the debate about the changes the government wants to make to how Canadians vote and run elections has centred around vouching. But there are many more controversial measures inside Bill C-23. Here are seven of them. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Most of the debate about the changes the government wants to make to how Canadians vote and run elections has centred around vouching. But there are many more controversial measures inside Bill C-23. Here are seven things you may not know about the proposed fair elections act.

1. Party-appointed election workers

The government wants to introduce rules that would let the winning candidate of the previous election — the member of Parliament — choose some of the workers at polling stations. The incumbent candidate would select the central poll supervisors in addition to the deputy returning officers, whom they already select. Poll clerks would continue to be selected by the candidate who finished second in the previous election, or by the riding association or party backing the candidate.

The bill's clause 20 would allow a returning officer to refuse appointments on "reasonable grounds," but doesn't set out what qualify as reasonable grounds.

Under current legislation, those workers are appointed by returning officers, who are hired by Elections Canada. The central poll supervisors, for example, are put in place at polling stations to make sure voting unfolds smoothly.  

Harry Neufeld, British Columbia's former chief electoral officer and an independent election consultant, told the CBC's Rosemary Barton last month that the move is "completely inappropriate in a democracy." Neufeld told reporters later in March that the bill is an attempt to tilt the playing field in favour of the Conservatives.

2. New spending loopholes

Often, updating legislation means closing loopholes. In this case, the bill would also loosen campaign spending rules to create a loophole.

Clause 86 of the new bill would let political parties spend as much as they want on election fundraising from people who have contributed $20 or more in the last five years. Right now, if a party hires a company to solicit money during an election, that counts as an election expense. Election expenses are capped based on the population.

One concern about the loophole is that it would let the parties not only raise funds but solicit support from voters in those calls, emails or mailouts.

As former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley said, it's hard to separate what Elections Canada calls advertising calls from fundraising calls. Both are currently included under the spending cap, which is meant to ensure an even playing field for all candidates. Exempting the fundraising calls would allow the parties with more money to spend more hiring professional fundraisers to raise more money.
Jean-Pierre Kingsley, former chief electoral officer. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"It is simply not possible to seek funds without including reasons for giving, and this can only constitute advertising for or against a party or a candidate. Moreover, it favours richer and established parties to the detriment of small and especially newer parties," Kingsley told MPs at the procedure and House affairs committee on March 25.

The Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee will recommend removing that loophole, the CBC's Leslie MacKinnon reported Monday.

The bill also increases donation limits from $1,200 to $1,500 a year.

3. CEO gag order

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand says he's concerned about a measure that would limit what he can say publicly.

The act would change the current Canada Elections Act's section 18 to limit the topics on which the chief electoral officer can speak. The bill's clause 7 would allow him only five topics:

  • 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.

Mayrand told the Senate committee last week that he's concerned the chief electoral officer would no longer be able to alert the public to problems during an election or even to work with programs that teach students about civic affairs and how elections work.

The Senate committee is recommending allowing the chief electoral officer to continue his work with those programs and that he be allowed to notify the public of problems.

4. Notification of investigation

On the flip side of that, the commissioner of Canada Elections — the person who investigates possible wrongdoing under the Elections Act — would have to tell people being investigated about the probe.

Section 510 of the existing law would see a number of changes, including an instruction to provide written notice "as soon as feasible after beginning an investigation ... to the person whose conduct is being investigated."

Proposed changes would provide the commissioner an out, however, noting that notice "is not to be given if, in the commissioner’s opinion, to do so might compromise or hinder the investigation or any other investigation."

5. Using the voter information card

In 2011, Elections Canada tested a pilot program that let groups of voters use their voter information cards as proof of address. Approximately 400,000 Canadians living on reserves, in long-term care or studying at post-secondary institutions used their VICs as proof of address that year, and Mayrand recommended using the VICs for all voters starting in 2015.

Marc Mayrand, chief electoral officer, arrives on March 6 at the procedure and House affairs committee hearing on Bill C-23, which would make changes to Canadian election law. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)
Bill C-23 would ban that option.

Prior to 2007, voters in Canada didn't have to show ID if they were on the voters list. For those without a driver's licence, it can be difficult to prove their address.

Conservative MPs and senators say that the cards are riddled with errors. Mayrand admits there's a seven per cent error rate, which translates into more than 1.6 million mistakes on the cards.

Mayrand told MPs on the procedure and House affairs committee that about 250,000 Canadians move during a five-week election campaign, making some IDs out of sync with their addresses for a few weeks.

"Even driver's licences may not have correct addresses. That's why we have a revision process that allows electors to update their address, and at some point in time during the election, I would suggest — we could have a debate on this — that the VIC is the most precise piece of ID that electors can rely on to establish their address," he said.

"Many of them will not have had a chance to update their driver's licence for the purpose of voting, but they may have, through revision, updated their address correctly."

6. No party spending receipts

Canada reimburses candidates and parties for some of the costs of running a campaign. Right now, candidates have to turn in receipts to back up that spending. Federal parties, however, do not, despite submitting $66 million in expenses after the 2011 election. Those expenses were reimbursed at 50 per cent, meaning taxpayers provided $33 million in refunds but have no receipts to show for that money.

Mayrand has asked repeatedly for the power to require receipts for that spending. There is no measure proposed to give the chief electoral officer that ability.

7. Robocalls gaps

The proposed legislation would bring in a number of new rules for voter contact services to close some of the gaps that made it harder to investigate the misleading robocalls made in Guelph, Ont., during the 2011 federal election. The measures are part of what Pierre Poilievre, minister of state for democratic reform, refers to when he says the bill would give enforcement officials "sharper teeth, a longer reach and a freer hand." 

Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre has staunchly defended his controversial elections overhaul, insisting Canadians believe it is fair to expect that people bring ID when they show up to vote. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The new rules would have the CRTC keep a registry of who orders automated calls and a list of the companies making the calls. The records have to be kept for a year after a campaign.

But critics say one year isn't long enough for the commissioner of Canada Elections to investigate before the records are destroyed. The new rules also don't require companies or parties to keep the list of phone numbers called.

Senators are recommending the calling companies keep the records for three years.


  • This story has been updated from an earlier version to correct two points. The current Canada Elections Act lets the person who finished second in the previous election name the poll clerks. That would not change under the changes proposed in Bill C-23. The heading for the section on spending receipts had incorrectly referred to audits and has been updated.
    Apr 15, 2014 4:06 PM ET

With files from Rosemary Barton