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Marc Mayrand urges modernization of Canada’s outdated electoral process

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand is pictured on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 21, 2016.

PATRICK DOYLE/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's outdated way of conducting federal elections has reached a tipping point and must be modernized to meet the needs and expectations of voters, says the chief electoral officer.

The Canada Elections Act is based on how elections were conducted in the 19th century, when communication with the regions was limited, oversight was minimal and election administration was local, Marc Mayrand told a news conference Wednesday.

"It is a process that is entirely manual, rigid and slow."

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In last fall's election, Mayrand said long lineups at advance polls were the result "of unduly rigid and cumbersome procedures," frustrating Canadians who expect the voting process to "align with their lifestyles and personal or family situations."

"I strongly believe that federal election administration has reached a tipping point and that action is required now to ensure we can meet electors' changing needs and expectations."

He is recommending a number of reforms to bring the process into the 21st century, making use of modern technology.

For instance, he wants voter information cards to include bar codes that could be electronically scanned as soon as voters walk into polling stations, rather than forcing them to wait for a poll worker to strike their name off a list.

"There is no reason why voters should wait in line at one table while there is no lineup at other tables," he said. "An electronic list, available at all tables, would allow workers to strike off the names of voters in real time."

Mayrand is also recommending that elections be held on a weekend day rather than the traditional Monday.

In last year's campaign, he said there was record turnout at advance polls over the Thanksgiving weekend, suggesting that many people find it more convenient to cast ballots when they're not trying to juggle work, school and other weekday routines.

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Some of Mayrand's recommendations are aimed at making voting more accessible for groups who typically turn out in the lowest numbers. For instance, he is proposing to pre-register 16 and 17-year-olds so that they're on the voters' list when they reach the voting age of 18.

He also wants Elections Canada to be empowered to conduct pilot projects with online voting for people with disabilities.

Mayrand is set to retire at the end of the year after 10 years at the helm of Elections Canada. While his final recommendations to Parliament call for numerous procedural reforms, he used his swan song news conference to issue a warning against the governing party using its majority to unilaterally impose significant changes to election laws.

"I believe that changes to the Elections Act should reflect a broad consensus, that's for sure. And I believe that a single party, whatever the majority of that party is, should not be entitled to change the act unilaterally."

In a parting shot at past Liberal and Conservative governments, Mayrand said there used to be a tradition in Canada that no major changes to election rules were made without multi-party support. Since 2004, he said there have been "too many attempts" by governments to proceed unilaterally, including an overhaul of the political financing regime by the Liberals and the Conservatives' controversial Fair Elections Act, to which Mayrand himself had strenuous objections.

In his recommendations to Parliament, Mayrand urges parliamentarians to consider following the lead 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.

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Adopting that principle would likely doom the Trudeau government's promise to replace Canada's first-past-the-post voting system in time for the next election in 2019. The Conservatives, who hold almost 30 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, have vowed to oppose any change to the voting system unless it is first put to a vote in a national referendum.

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