By: Derek Locke General Manager

The Fair Elections Act - A Step Backwards for Technology Adoption in Canadian Government

There are numerous hot button topics in the news these days and the introduction of Bill C-23 – the “Fair Elections Act” is  certainly on my list of favorites. For those of you who are not in the know - Bill C-23 was introduced on February 4th, 2014 by the Conservative Government ostensibly to combat the scourge of voter fraud and irregularities in Federal Elections. Sadly, there are a number of clauses in the legislation that seek to limit the powers of the Chief Electoral Officer and put an end to things like allowing Elections Canada to run advertising campaigns encouraging people to vote and funding public education and outreach programs designed to teach children, aboriginal groups and minorities about the value of democracy and voting. With voter turnout at an all-time low for all levels of government, these measures seem to be short sighted and regressive. Fans of Canadian comedy will know that Rick Mercer agrees with this assessment, as outlined succinctly in one of his latest rants

The other interesting element of Bill C-23 is that it looks to prohibit Elections Canada from conducting any alternative voting method pilot projects that involve “electronic voting” without the consent of the plenary House of Commons and the partisan appointed Senate. This would essentially put an end to any future exploration into the development of on-line voting systems at the Federal level without first getting the green light from a group of Senators – whom with an average age of 64.8 years old are undoubtedly on the “bleeding edge” of technology innovation and adoption in Canada. Those who oppose the exploration of technology to streamline and simplify the voting process will claim that there are too many security concerns in an on-line voting system and that technology is not yet ready for primetime. Ironically, Marc Mayrand, Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer, disagrees given that he sought approval to test internet voting in a future Federal by-election as far back as 2011.

At the local government level, there is a growing amount of evidence to support the validity and further exploration of electronic voting. Local Governments have been using electronic voting with a considerable degree of success in recent elections with 59 municipalities in Ontario and Nova Scotia having already offered some form of electronic voting in civic elections conducted in the past 3-4 years. The Town of Cobourg, Ontario first introduced electronic and telephone voting options in 2006 and then did away completely with paper ballots in 2010. Beyond the internal cost savings that were realized (which some industry advocates estimate at roughly $2.00 to $4.00 per voter using more labor intensive paper based procedures), Cobourg had an overall voter turnout of 47.3% - three percent higher than the Provincial average. While this does not demonstrate a markedly higher return in terms of participation, it certainly supports the belief that, at worst, electronic voting will have no negative impact on the total number of votes cast and at best – there are incremental gains to be had. Incidentally, there have been no cases of fraud or voting irregularities reported by Municipalities offering on-line voting systems to date.

We know the world is going mobile and the proliferation of connected devices (mostly phones & tablets) is growing exponentially every year. We know that the Federal Government is trying very hard to make wireless coverage and connectivity as comprehensive and inexpensive as possible (why else would they be taking on the Big 3 – Telus, Bell and Rogers to reduce contract terms and price fixing). We know that our demographics are changing every year and the “I signed up for facebook the week after I was born” millennials are moving in to take over jobs and drive the economy. Why on earth then, would we implement regressive policy changes at the Federal level that would limit education and awareness (god forbid we teach young people the value of democracy and voting) and then preserve the “horse and buggy” voting systems that we use today?

I often wonder where the impetus for real technology change needs to occur in Canadian government. Often Municipalities feel a need to acquiesce to higher levels of government and let them lead us in to areas of policy change and reform. However, in terms of technology advancement, maybe it is really time for local government to lead and not follow, lest we find ourselves lingering in a perpetual state of indecision and pontification. The conservative mindset behind the Fair Elections Act seems to support the need for more technology innovation and adoption at the grass roots level. I look forward to seeing where this takes us as we move into a Municipal election cycle this year again in Ontario, BC and Manitoba. For those who are interested – I have included a link to an Elections Canada report on electronic voting with several interesting case studies cited.