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Don’t change election laws without broad support of Parliament: Mayrand

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand appears as a witness at an electoral reform committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on July 7, 2016.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada should consider requiring the support of more than just a simple majority of parliamentarians before making any changes to the country's election laws, the chief electoral officer says.

In his final report to Parliament, Marc Mayrand urges parliamentarians to consider following the example of New Zealand, where key changes to election laws — including provisions dealing with the method of voting — require the support of 75 per cent of MPs or a majority vote in a national referendum.

Such an approach in Canada would likely doom the Trudeau government's promise to replace the first-past-the-post voting system in time for the next federal election in 2019.

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The Conservatives, who hold almost 30 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, have vowed to oppose any change to the electoral system unless it is first put to a vote in a national referendum — a costly and potentially divisive route the government is reluctant to take and which has killed past attempts in three provinces to reform the electoral system.

Mayrand avoids making any specific comment on the electoral reform options currently being considered by a special all-party committee, saying that's best left to parliamentarians.

But in his report, tabled Tuesday, he says: "I urge parliamentarians as much as possible to collaborate and seek a broad consensus when it comes to changes to the (Elections) Act; our democratic system will be best strengthened when amendments reflect the views of a large number of political participants."

Noting that New Zealand requires a special majority to change key aspects of its electoral framework, Mayrand adds: "I believe this is something that parliamentarians should consider."

His suggestion could be viewed as a warning to the current Liberal government not to proceed with reforming the electoral system without broad all-party consensus.

But it could equally be seen as a response to the controversial Fair Elections Act, passed by the previous Conservative government over the strenuous objections of all opposition parties and a host of electoral experts — including Mayrand himself.

Mayrand, who is retiring at the end of the year after nearly a decade at the helm of Elections Canada, makes a number of recommendations to undo some the act's provisions, particularly those that tightened voter identification rules, which critics feared would wind up disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of voters.

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He urges the government to restore the use of voter information cards as valid pieces of ID at polling stations and to make it easier to vouch for someone without ID. He also recommends restoring the chief electoral officer's power to conduct voter education and information campaigns.

As well, Mayrand recommends that federal election campaigns be capped at a maximum of 45 to 50 days to avoid a repeat of last fall's 78-day marathon.

One of the main objectives of moving to a fixed election date every four years was to eliminate the governing party's ability to use the timing of elections for partisan advantage, he notes. But that objective was undermined by calling the longest campaign in modern Canadian history.

"The absence of a maximum period for the elections ... combined with the fact that spending limits for parties and candidates are pro rated to the length of the campaign, can compromise the level playing field by favouring campaigns that have access to more resources," Mayrand says, adding that the marathon campaign also created administrative headaches for Elections Canada.

Among other changes, Mayrand recommends:

  • Putting bar codes on voter information cards so that voters can be quickly checked in electronically when they arrive at polling stations.
  • Restoring the flexibility of the chief electoral officer to conduct pilot projects using new technologies, such as online voting for disabled voters. This flexibility was removed in the Fair Elections Act.
  • Holding federal elections on a weekend day, rather than on a Monday.
  • Empowering the elections commissioner, who investigates violations of election laws, to apply for a court order to compel testimony in investigations and to lay a charge on his own, without the prior approval of the director of public prosecutions.
  • Empowering the commissioner to impose fines for violations that are not considered serious.
  • Tightening rules for financing of leadership and nomination campaigns. Current rules allow many expenses and contributions to go unreported.
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