Q&A: Canada's top election official on voting, cheating and reforming

In this week’s Maclean’s I write about Marc Mayrand, Canada’s chief electoral officer. Mayrand is often called a “watchdog,” the informal category that also includes federal officials like the auditor general and the privacy commissioner. But doesn’t just enforce the rules for voting and political finance to make sure nobody’s gaming the system, he also runs federal elections. It’s that hands-on, operational role that sets him apart; he must actually keep the election machine in order, and knows better than anyone where it’s in need of repair. Here is an edited transcript of my recent interview with him, the basis of this week’s story:

Q. The government has promised to reform Canada’s elections law. In brief, what needs to be changed?

A. We need to bring the legislation into the twentyfirst century. We need to rely more on technology. We need to find ways of reducing complexity in the system. We need to improve accountability in the system. We need more transparency around political parties’ and local [riding] associations’ financial affairs. Last election we reimbursed all parties $30 million based on a simple report [from them] that didn’t provide any invoices, any supporting documentation.

Q. You’re for clearer reporting, but not necessarily tougher penalties.

A. We need to do two things. We need to bring some proportionality between the offences, the issues and the sanctions. Right now for the most mundane non-compliance issue, as well as for the most severe one,  we rely on criminal procedures. So we need to adjust that. And for more severe offences, we need to bring effective, dissuasive, deterring sanctions.

Q. You’re at the pinnacle of the Elections Canada organization. Just below you, but much in the news these days, is Yves Côté, the elections commissioner who handles enforcement. Should there be changes to his powers?

A. We need to tool the commissioner, who runs investigations, with proper mechanisms to ensure effective but timely investigations. One of the main recommendations I’ve made is that the commissioner be allowed to compel witnesses who have relevant information about a case to provide that evidence to the commissioner.

Q. Wouldn’t that be an unusually far-reaching authority?

A. Many regulatory agencies have that power, the Competition Bureau, for example. Most of these powers are subject to pre-approval by a court. There would be some oversight over the exercise of this power.

Q. Would a political operative who fears facing charges have to turn over evidence?

A. Not a suspect. We’re talking about third parties who have relevant information. A suspect has the right to remain silent and an investigator would respect that. We’re talking about people who have relevant information, who are not suspects, but who increasingly refuse to attend interviews with investigators.

Q. You say “increasingly.” The robocalls investigation seems to be very protracted. Has there been less and less cooperation with Elections Canada in recent years?

A. Well, on investigations I would suggest there seems to be a pattern developing where people increasingly refuse to meet with investigators. That makes it difficult for the commissioner to pursue matters. At times, it makes the case more complex. That’s why we end up with investigations that take far to long to come to a conclusion.

Q. Let’s turn from enforcing the rules to what voters experience at the polls. How do you think the average voter’s election-day experience should change?

A. In the shorter term, we need to find ways of reorganizing the work at the polls. It’s not unusual at advance polls to see long lineups. People would have to wait two hours. We think there’s ways to go around this.

Q. I understand much of the problem is that small percentage of voters who show up but aren’t registered and don’t have standard identification.

A. They don’t have I.D. They need to be registered. They show up at the poll and need to be vouched for by someone. This is a very labour-intensive process, a rather complex process. We need to review the whole way that work is assigned at the polling station. You can specialize staff to deal with exceptions. They wouldn’t slow down the others.

Q. Wouldn’t encouraging more online registration help?

A. Online registration would seek to reduce the number of polling day registrations. We would like to expand an online registration service to allow Canadians to see if they are registered, and, if they are, are they at the correct address, and, if they are, where should they go to vote. You can find that now. But they should also be able to indicate that they’ve moved and change their address, all online. Or if you’re a new Canadian, and you’ve turned 18, you should be able to register online. That’s what young Canadians would prefer to do. Longer term, we have to look at online voting.

Q. Why not just require a driver’s licence, passport or health card—some clear, common, government-issued photo identification?

A. The problem stems from the fact that we don’t have a national I.D. card. Passports are not cheap and they’re not held by a majority of Canadians. Even drivers licences, there’s 15 per cent who don’t have one.

Q. Automated, recorded calls are a routine part of election campaigns. Is there a way to stop the occasional misuse of such a widespread technique?

A. Part of what I’ve recommended to Parliament is that both parties and candidate campaigns keep records of who they are contracting for telemarketing purposes, and provide access to Elections Canada of those contracts. Also requiring telemarketing companies to maintain records, because what we’ve found is that some have very little records. So at least maintaining proper records by telemarketers and campaigns. Finance records, records of scripts, records of how many calls and what numbers were called.

Q. Has anyone in politics told you they don’t want to keep such records?

A. Honestly, no. And this [recommendation] been in the public domain for some time now. I haven’t received any direct comment saying that this couldn’t possibly be done. These are basic requirements that in my mind should be introduced.

Q. Do you have routine discussions with the government ministers of state responsible for drafting the electoral reform legislation? It used to be Tim Uppal and now it’s Pierre Poillievre.

A. Routine? I wouldn’t say routine. I’ve had the odd contact with them. As an agent of Parliament, I report directly to Parliament. The process that’s envisaged in the act is that I put the recommendations out asking for legislative changes. A House committee examines them and then reports to the government, which takes them into consideration.

Q. Are you satisfied with that or would you like to sit down and hash these questions out with Pierre Poilievre?

A. I think at some point it would be beneficial to get a little bit more involvement with the crafting of the legislative proposal. Elections Canada isn’t there to dispute the public policy aspects. It’s there to make sure that it works.

Q. You were the federal superintendent of bankruptcy before becoming chief electoral officer in 2007. That’s quite a change. What was it about this job that attracted you?

A. I was solicited. I thought when it was presented to me that it was something you can hardly refuse. What is more fundamental than running the elections, which give legitimacy to our whole government system? Everything flows from genuine, credible elections.

Q. There have been so many controversies since you’ve taken over the job. Problems with government MPs’ local campaign finances. The bigger issue of the robocalls allegations. Sometimes it’s whispered that you are overzealous in seeking out wrongdoing.

A. I don’t think we’re looking for wrongdoing, or chasing wrongdoing. These wrongdoings tend to come to us. It’s been part of the job. Parliament has built a very complex regime around campaigning, political financing, all these things. Some would argue inordinately complex rules. We have to administer them. The purpose, and this was recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada, was to ensure a level playing field. Anything that betrays this level playing field has to be acted on. Often I read in the media that these are “Elections Canada’s rules.” I’m sorry, we don’t set any rules; we simply apply rules set out by Parliament. We can’t turn a blind eye when these things happen.


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