Canada's Original Think Tank

Second reading of Bill C-76, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make certain consequential amendments

Second reading of Bill C-76, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make certain consequential amendments

Second reading of Bill C-76, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make certain consequential amendments

Hon. Dennis Dawson moved second reading of Bill C-76, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make certain consequential amendments.

He said: Honourable senators, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-76, the Elections Modernization Act.

Those of us who have been around for a while know that this is not my first time sponsoring a bill aimed at modernizing the Canada Elections Act. Our new colleagues may be interested to know that I have already sponsored three Senate public bills intended to amend the Canada Elections Act. I see these previous sponsoring experiences as groundwork. Today, I am proud to support Bill C-76.

This bill is a generational overhaul of the Canada Elections Act that will bring Canadian federal elections into the modern age. The bill has four central themes or objectives: number one, to make the electoral process more transparent for Canadians; number two, to make the electoral process accessible to more Canadians; number three, to modernize the administration of Canadian federal elections; and number four, to make the electoral process more secure. Allow me to expand on each of these themes.

I will start with transparency. As we know, in 2007, Parliament passed legislation to put in place fixed election dates. There have been some unintended consequences from this change in Canadian election processes and Bill C-76 seeks to address them. Bill C-76 will make the electoral process more transparent to Canadians, both during the election period and after the writ has been dropped, and in the months leading to the election, the pre-writ time in case of fixed date elections.

Currently, political parties and third parties can spend large sums of money with no regulatory oversight up until the drop of the writ. The bill before us creates a new pre-election period that imposes requirements on registered parties, electoral district associations, future candidates as well as third parties.

By “third party,” I mean people or groups other than candidates’ registered political parties or electoral district associations. This pre-election period will start on June 30 in an election year, assuming that there will be an election on the third Monday of October.

The date of June 30 for the start of the pre-election period would continue until the drop of the writ, which would be expected to be normally during the summer to allow for an October election. In the case of by-elections and elections not occurring on fixed dates, these pre-election periods would simply not apply.

What does this pre-election period mean for political parties, districts, candidates and third parties? Political parties will have spending limits on partisan advertising during this pre-election period. Currently, political parties are subject to spending limits only during the election period.

So the bill limits spending on partisan advertising outside of the election period.

When it comes to third parties, the bill imposes new spending limits during the pre-election period. As well, during the election period, third parties will find a wide array of activities subject to spending limits. Third parties will be required to register with Elections Canada during the pre-election period if they spend more than $500 on partisan election advertising, partisan activities and election surveys. They would also need to report all contributions received for these purposes.

The bill also requires third parties to operate a Canadian bank account, similar to political parties that have the same obligation.

When it comes to advertising, third parties will have to provide clear disclosure that election-related messages are being paid for by a third party during both the election and pre-election periods, similar to the requirements of political parties.

The bill also amends the Canada Elections Act regarding the length of the election period. The election period will now be limited to a maximum of 50 days. This will avoid long, drawn-out election campaigns that, theoretically, benefit the party in power, since the wide discretion of the Prime Minister to set the length of the election could afford him or her the opportunity to manipulate circumstances in their party’s favour. As some of you might remember, the federal election in 2015, which was the longest in Canadian history, lasted 78 days.

The bill also addresses concerns about the role of money in politics, generally, and in elections, specifically. I firmly believe that elections should be a fair contest of ideas and of which party has the policy ideas that inspire and instill confidence in Canadians, and not a contest of which party has the deepest pockets.

This bill will also address the process under which political parties are entitled to reimbursement for certain expenses they incur during an election. Bill C-76 will eliminate the pro-rated increase for spending limits during the writ period that is currently in place. This means that for every day an election period went on beyond 37 days, political parties saw the limit of their spending increase by one/thirty-seventh. But in the 2015 election, which I mentioned was 78 days, it meant that political parties could spend up to $55 million. That is a dramatic increase when you look at the limit of $18 million for 2006 and $20 million for 2011. To be clear, no party ever spent up to the limit in 2015.

However, because of the reimbursement process, it saw taxpayers, through Elections Canada, paying a very hefty bill for their federal election. Reimbursements for a 78-day election campaign in 2015 cost taxpayers $102 million, while the 2011 campaign cost only $61 million.

Honourable senators, the elimination of the pro-rated increase will save money, but, more importantly, it will assure Canadians that political financing is fair and transparent, and will help address concerns that the parties with significant means are not overwhelming the debate.

The bill also affects third party spending during the writ periods. In 2015, third parties had a spending limit of $211,000 for the election period, and not all of their activities were subject to spending limits. Only 19 of 116 registered parties spent over $100,000, indicating that the spending limit did not result in greater fairness; rather, it benefited a few actors with deep pockets.

This bill will bring all partisan activities conducted by third parties under spending limits. This will also include expenses incurred by third parties for rallies, phone campaigns and door-to-door advertising.

To match this wider array of activities, spending limits have been increased to $500,000 for the election period to a limit of $4,000 per electoral district. The limits for pre-election periods are larger: $1 million in total, with no more than $10,000 per electoral district. This increase for the pre-election period is recognition that it could be twice as long as the actual election period.

Expenses incurred by third parties on issue advertising will not be counted against these limits during the pre-election period, which should assure honourable colleagues who are concerned about the freedom of expression.

In addition to clearer spending limits for the pre-election and election periods, the bill achieves greater transparency through improved reporting mechanisms. Besides registering with Elections Canada after spending $500 — that is, activities prescribed in the act duration the pre-election period or the election period — third parties incurring expenses greater than $10,000 on regulated activities or accepting more than $10,000-worth of contributions would have to report these contributions and expenses to Elections Canada on very precise dates: upon registration; on September 15; three weeks prior to election day; and one week before the election day.

The next key theme of the bill is to make the right to vote more accessible to more Canadians. That involves changing the rules for four large groups of Canadians who may find it difficult to exercise their right to vote. These are voters with disabilities, voters who have difficulty producing proof of identity, voters living abroad and voters in the Canadian Armed Forces.

The bill does away with the concept of “level access” that exists in the current act and instead requires the premises to be accessible. This will ensure that the significant progress made by Elections Canada to enhance the accessibility of polling stations will now be enshrined in the act. Voters with disabilities who need help voting will now be able to seek the assistance of the person of their choice rather than being forced to choose a friend or family member.

The bill will also increase the Chief Electoral Officer’s ability to authorize mobile polling stations in isolated or remote areas. The Chief Electoral Officer will have the power to explore voting technologies that could help more voters with disabilities to vote independently, without assistance from another person, and to improve their voting experience. Giving people with disabilities the ability to vote independently would better protect the secrecy of the vote and would have a positive effect on their sense of dignity.

The bill makes voting easier for those individuals who may have difficulty providing appropriate identification. It reinstates two procedures at the polling station that were eliminated by the previous government. The voter information card, which is sent to all voters registered with Elections Canada, will again be accepted as proof of the voter’s address when the voter also produces another piece of ID. The practice of vouching to confirm the voter’s identity and residence will be restored.

Appropriate measures are in place to guarantee the integrity of the voter information card and the vouching procedure to reassure Canadians that the integrity of the voting process is safeguarded. The voter information card is a valuable tool for students who live far from their parents and their electoral ridings, and also for Indigenous voters.

Lastly, a special vouching procedure will be provided for seniors living in a long-term care institution. An employee of the institution will be authorized to vouch for one or more voters residing in the institution as long as the employee is a voter residing in an electoral district near the institution.

The bill also reintroduces the right to vote for Canadians who have resided outside Canada for more than five years. Canadians affected by this change will be required to vote in the electoral district associated with their last place of ordinary residence in Canada.

The bill introduces several reforms that will improve the electoral process for Canadian Armed Forces electors. Many of these reforms are long overdue and are in response to a special report on the recommendations of the Chief Electoral Officer. Less than 50 per cent of the Canadian Armed Forces members who were eligible to vote asked a service polling station for a special ballot during the last election. This problem must be solved. At this time, the only way for Canadian Armed Forces members to change their address for electoral purposes is to complete a form called a “Statement of Ordinary Residence.” In effect, Canadian Armed Forces electors cannot change their address during an election period. This process was designed in 1950 and has not been updated since the National Register of Electors was created, which eliminated the need for going door to door to register voters. It is imperative that this be fixed. The simplest way to solve the problems created by this requirement is to completely eliminate the “Statement of Ordinary Residence.” Electors in the Canadian Armed Forces will be able to use the same mechanism all other Canadians use to update their address in the National Register of Electors.

The bill also creates a new requirement for the Canadian Forces and Elections Canada to work together to make voting easier for hundreds of civilians outside Canada, such as teachers, RCMP and foreign service officers, support staff or military family members living abroad. The Minister of Defence will have the option of designating liaison officers who will be in charge of coordinating interactions between Elections Canada and Canadian Armed Forces commanding officers during the election period.

These changes will help maintain the security and integrity of the Canadian electoral system, and we hope that they will improve the voting experience for the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces and ensure that their voices are heard next October.

Lastly, the bill makes the electoral process more accessible for two other groups: candidates and young Canadians. The bill includes new reimbursements of expenses to support candidates with families and candidates who have a disability or are caring for someone with a disability. The bill will make it easier for candidates to manage their budget as they take part in an election.

Here again, the changes were based on the Chief Electoral Officer’s recommendations. We hope he will be able to come to the Senate to talk to us about his proposal. He identified a number of administrative barriers that several candidates have had to overcome and that most likely deterred many others from participating.

The bill will also introduce a pre-registration process for young Canadians. This does not lower the voting age. It creates a separate register of electors just for young people called the Register of Future Electors. About 1.5 million Canadians aged 14 to 17 will be able to pre-register with Elections Canada. When they turn 18, they will be transferred from one register to the other. Inclusion in the register of future electors is entirely optional. The register will be held securely within Elections Canada’s walls and behind its firewalls. The Register of Future Electors will never be shared with political entities, such as parties. It is a good way to introduce young people to the electoral process.

The third theme I want to talk about is the modernization of the administration of elections in Canada. One of the biggest changes is that the Chief Electoral Officer will have more discretionary power. Bill C-76 makes the act less prescriptive. The CEO is a model of good management, and the bill eliminates a number of obstacles that were making it hard for the CEO to run safe and effective elections. For example, the bill addresses some factors that were causing long lines at polling stations. The current act states that voters must vote at a specific table. However, with modern technology facilitating operations at polling stations, this security measure is no longer necessary. In the future, Elections Canada will be able to let voters vote at the first available table at some polling stations.

Similarly, the practice of crossing out names on paper voter lists with a pencil could be simplified by using secure tablets with no Internet connection. Bill C-76 eliminates the job descriptions of certain election officers from the act and replaces them with the more universal role of “election officer.” Election officers will be qualified to perform various tasks at the polling station, giving the returning officer more leeway to allocate resources and employees at a polling station.

Other changes include the elimination of residency requirements for most election officers. The Chief Electoral Officer has received authorization to hire election officers as young as 16. In previously conducted pilot projects, young people proved that they have the necessary skills, and involving them in the process is a fantastic way to stimulate a lifelong interest in Canadian politics.

In addition, the bill authorizes returning officers to fill half of the available election officer positions as soon as the writ is issued. Political parties will still be invited to submit names for the other half, but returning officers will be able to put some employees to work earlier in the electoral process, reducing their own workload.

Those are just a few examples of how Elections Canada can give Canadians a simpler and more secure way of voting for generations to come.

The last point I wanted to raise has to do with security. There is one more key aspect of the bill that I want to talk about. I spent the last few minutes praising the excellent amendments that the bill makes to the Canada Elections Act, but I want to assure everyone here that the bill also helps protect the integrity of Canadian elections in many ways that make sense in today’s world.

Bill C-76 provides for some important mechanisms to protect Canadian democracy, particularly through amendments that respond to foreign attempts to influence outcomes, amendments that reflect the way political parties function, a new compliance mechanism and the organizational relocation of the Commissioner of Canada Elections.

Canadians are concerned, and rightly so, about the potential impact of foreign influence on our country’s elections. The global landscape has changed dramatically since the last federal election. Stories of foreign spies, compromised social media accounts and leaked campaign materials have become the norm in democratic elections around the world. Tackling these problems is like trying to hit a moving target. Nevertheless, the bill proposes various amendments that should help to reassure Canadians.

Under the current Canada Elections Act, non-Canadian third parties can spend up to $500 during an electoral period. Bill C-76 would prohibit non-Canadians from spending any amount. Canadian third parties would also be banned from using foreign money, regardless of when that money was received, to pay for partisan advertising, electoral advertising, partisan activities or polls during the electoral and pre-electoral periods.

The bill clarifies provisions on foreign influence in order to address the most insidious and most dangerous problems, rather than tackling violations that are relatively innocuous or impossible to sanction. These are the provisions in the Canada Elections Act dealing with false statements or statements intended to mislead the public.

Bill C-76 seeks to enhance the integrity of Canadian elections by also protecting them against abuse from within. The bill requires the political parties to better inform the public about how they use Canadians’ personal information by publishing a confidentiality policy on their websites.

One of the main changes this bill makes to the electoral system is the creation of an administrative monetary penalty system, or AMP system. It is basically a compliance and enforcement mechanism that will enable the Commissioner of Canada Elections to apply sanctions more quickly for minor violations of the Canada Elections Act, without having to resort to criminal proceedings. The proposed AMP system will give the commissioner more flexibility to deal with minor infractions, while still providing for an administrative review system for individuals who feel they have been treated unfairly.

It is also important to note that individuals and businesses subject to the AMP system could still get a criminal record or receive jail time.

The AMP system will also allow the commissioner to investigate a broader range of possible violations and infractions, while recognizing that not all cases will necessarily require long, drawn-out criminal proceedings.

Furthermore, the bill gives the commissioner the power to compel someone to testify, which will help simplify investigations into urgent issues. We saw a similar case during the last election campaign.

The bill will make other changes to the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections. The previous government removed the position of Commissioner of Canada Elections from the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer and had the commissioner report to the Director of Public Prosecutions. This change in the commissioner’s reporting structure was not ideal. It imposed the consolidation of two institutions with different functions: The commissioner literally polices federal elections, whereas the Director of Public Prosecutions is responsible for conducting prosecutions. That is why the bill relocates the Commissioner of Canada Elections within the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer. This change returns the commissioner to an office that supports both an independent officer of Parliament and the federal government’s office with the best knowledge of election law.

I must point out that the commissioner will remain independent from the Chief Elections Officer. Bill C-76 explicitly sets out in the Canada Elections Act that the commissioner’s investigations are fully independent from the Chief Electoral Officer. Furthermore, the bill authorizes the commissioner to publish independent annual reports.

In conclusion, with this, I believe I have finished describing the bill. I hope I have covered the most important details of a bill that has over 800 pages. To summarize Bill C-76, it accomplishes four things: The bill will make the electoral process more transparent, more secure, more accessible and modernizes the administration of our elections. I should add there are several measures in this bill that reflect recommendations from the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs of the Senate in the report Controlling Foreign Influence in Canadian Elections. Specifically, these include the measures that prevent foreign funding from playing a direct or indirect role in Canadian elections, modernizing the regulation of third parties involved in elections and bolstering reporting mechanisms.

As sponsor of the bill, I am particularly pleased to see measures introduced in my previous Senate bills to extend limits on election expenses in pre-election advertising that found their way into Bill C-76. I believe Senator Frum will also be pleased, I hope, to see that policy objectives of her bill, Bill S-239, Eliminating Foreign Funding in Elections Act, were integrated in the legislation before us.

Canadians are privileged to have one of the most lauded, exemplary election administrations in the world.

Bill C-76 modernizes this democratic process for our current age. The electoral system will be more open to a greater number of Canadians while simultaneously being more secure. I look forward to this important bill moving expeditiously to committee, where it can be studied in greater detail. Thank you.

The Hon. the Speaker pro temporeSenator Frum, do you have a question?

Hon. Linda Frum: Will you accept a question, Senator Dawson? I am compelled to ask you a question because you invoked my bill, Bill S-239, which I appreciate. I want to ask you: In Bill C-76 it’s true there is a defined writ period, a defined pre-writ period and there is a pre-pre-writ period, therefore. Can you say this bill, Bill C-76, in the pre-pre-writ period does anything to limit the acceptance of a third party accepting foreign funds?

Senator Dawson: Well, as far as the legal aspect of how it will be controlled, I have to admit that I modestly am not a lawyer, but it is one of the objectives of the bill, not only pre-election period obviously, pre-writ, but the pre-pre-writ period then becomes a question of liberté de parole, the freedom of speech of people and how you define it and what are charities and what are electoral processes, who is sending money. Some of them are subject to traditional lawsuits, they are subject to Revenue Canada laws on recognizing of charities. I would limit it like that. You will have the occasion if you want to speak to the people who wrote the bill, who will have a better answer than I can offer you today.

Senator Frum: I appreciate that. I look forward to studying this at committee as well. What I understood you to say, which is also my understanding, is in the pre-pre-writ period there is no limit to a third party accepting foreign funding.

Senator Dawson: I’m sorry, I really can’t be that drastic in saying black or white what the answer is, so I will give you the opportunity. You will have the commissioner of elections, you will have the director general of elections, you will have the committee to have an opportunity.

After having read the bill, there are still some questions I want to ask.

Hon. Marty Deacon: Thank you. Would you take another question? I thank you very much for the depth and the detail and the breadth. You have covered many pieces and many aspects of a very large document.

Based on our conversations today and where this may go, do you believe the breadth and depth of this can be achieved in the time this particular bill needs to be moved forward for what you talk about happening next fall?

Senator Dawson: Well, obviously with the extended limits the house adopted today, I think we will have enough weeks to be able to study it. We will have an appearance in front of the committee here of the elections officers. We will have the Legal Affairs Committee studying it. I think having the number of weeks we have left is more than enough. If we want this legislation to be applied, I’m quite sure we have to pass it before Christmas if we want it to be applied for the October election. That is the request made by the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada. He wants this bill so he can give Canadians more access to elections.

Hon. Yonah Martin (Deputy Leader of the Opposition): Will the senator take a few more questions?

Senator Dawson: Yes.

Senator Martin: Following up on what Senator Frum was asking, you mentioned charities. I am part of the steering committee of our Charitable Sector Committee, a special committee. What we learned from CRA officials is non-profits are not captured under our existing statutes. Therefore there isn’t data about their activities in the way we would have for charities. I don’t have concerns about charities. It’s the non-profit sector, numbering probably in the hundreds of thousands, and foreign funding that may be received and potentially the influence through the non-profits that we don’t have data nor the ability to follow accurately. Is that a concern you have considered? Is it addressed in this bill?

Senator Dawson: I did mention that trying to hit mobile targets is a little bit difficult. The more we widen the debate concerning charities, it gets out of the scope of what Elections Canada has to look at and addresses the issues you’re addressing with your committee and addresses the issues that Revenue Canada has to address with charity organizations. Yes, it might have some effect on the electoral law. I don’t think this law could change all of that.

Senator Martin: I would hope that some of the vocal critics of the loopholes we have in our current system, like Vivian Krause and others, would be perhaps called upon by the committee. That is just a comment.

My next question is: I understand that in the house there were quite a few amendments brought forward regarding third party foreign funding because it is a concern for all Canadians regarding transparency. Would you say in the Senate as we study this very carefully that amendments should be considered?

Senator Dawson: Well, amendments are always normally considered by this place. As far as elections law, je pense qu’on a une petite gêne.

As far as non-elected parliamentarians, I would lead to tell people that since the other chamber is elected and they have passed this bill, I am ready to amend it. Trust me, I have no qualms and I will be more than happy to listen to the witnesses you mentioned before. I think there is a certain limit to what we can overturn as far as bills that are not addressed to a non-elected Senate.

Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck: Thank you for that speech. You covered many aspects of the bill. I know you had a section in there about voter identification for Aboriginal communities. I wonder if you would be so kind as to repeat that and indicate how it will improve the ability of Aboriginal Canadians to vote, especially as it relates to having the proper identification.

Senator Dawson: Reinstating the electoral registration means if you are recognized as an elector and you can go to an election booth and you can prove your identity, that means you have to prove your identity. Your name and address is written on the electoral card and your other card can be your health card. I think there are 43 or 44 different cards used for identification. Some people don’t have driver’s permits, passports, or native identity cards. They have an identity card with their name and will have a polling card.

In addition to that, if you have your neighbour sitting beside you who lives on your street and they say, “I recognize her, she is my neighbour and she is such-and-such a person,” that is how you will solve most of the problems. There will always be problems in this type of legislation, but this is a solution. It created problems last election, and we’re trying to solve it for the next one.

Senator Dyck: Will it be necessary to have a street address on your identification?

Senator Dawson: Your voting card will serve as the address card, depending on how it’s formulated.

Senator Dyck: The street address?

Senator Dawson: If you have a voting card, it’s because you have an address. You are recognized as a voter, I should say. You are recognized as a voter and that will serve with another card in identifying your identity.

Again, I will repeat the answer I gave to Senator Frum: That’s why we have honourable witnesses coming in to answer questions to which I, humbly, am not able to guarantee a 100 per cent response.

Hon. Ratna Omidvar: Thank you, Senator Dawson. I appreciate the principle of broadening accessibility in Canadian elections. I’m particularly interested in the measure to increase voting rights for non-resident actors. Currently, the law restricts participation in Canadian elections based on the number of years you have been outside Canada: it can’t be more than five years and you must state your intent to return to Canada. Those are the two criteria.

Once these two criteria are removed, I’m not clear if there are any criteria at all, or if it is just open to any Canadian citizen who was once a Canadian citizen, who now lives overseas and who happened, maybe, to have lived in some place many years ago.

I need some comfort that there is a sense of attachment to this country when you vote.

Senator Dawson: The intention of coming back is the primary criteria. You have to intend on coming back to Canada. You have to have lived in Canada and not only had a citizenship by birth; you have to have lived and have had an address that you are referring yourself to.

We will have a plenary session on Tuesday where we will hear from the Chief Electoral Officer for more precise answers. I humbly say that the reason we’re having this plenary session is to get as many answers as possible. After that, you will still have the opportunity at committee to seek more precise answers.