Linda Frum vs. Elections Canada

Should Elections Canada be trying to improve turnout?

Canada's Chief Electoral Officer Mayrand leaves after testifying before the Commons procedure and House affairs committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa

Over Twitter last week, Bruce Anderson and Linda Frum got into a bit of a debate over the question of what role Elections Canada should play in increasing voter turnout. And this has attracted some attention.

Senator Frum earlier pursued her concerns during a committee hearing with the chief electoral officer and she’s now written an op-ed explaining why she thinks Elections Canada is in conflict when it aims to promote voter participation.

Elections Canada is a bureaucracy with two missions: to ensure the integrity of the voting process and also to promote voter turnout. Those two missions are contradictory. You want the biggest vote total? Accept every ballot. You want to eliminate voter fraud? Eliminating improper ballots may reduce vote totals.

The senator’s argument seems to involve two premises: that in its desire to see voter turnout increased, Elections Canada has allowed and is pushing further for a voting system that is too lax; and that Elections Canada fears being blamed, or at least accused of failing, if turnout does not increase.

Somewhere in here is an interesting argument.

At issue here are the restrictions the Fair Elections Act would place on the chief electoral officer’s ability to communicate.

At present, the Elections Act establishes that “the Chief Electoral Officer may implement public education and information programs to make the electoral process better known to the public, particularly to those persons and groups most likely to experience difficulties in exercising their democratic rights” and that “the Chief Electoral Officer may, using any media or other means that he or she considers appropriate, provide the public, both inside and outside Canada, with information relating to Canada’s electoral process, the democratic right to vote and how to be a candidate.”

Under the Fair Elections Act, that section of the Elections Act becomes a dictate that “the Chief Electoral Officer may provide the public, both inside and outside Canada, with information on the following topics only: (a) how to become a candidate; (b) how an elector may have their name added to a list of electors and may have corrections made to information respecting the elector on the list; (c) how an elector may vote under section 127 and the times, dates and locations for voting; (d) how an elector may establish their identity and residence in order to vote, including the pieces of identification that they may use to that end; and (e) the measures for assisting electors with a disability to access a polling station or advance polling station or to mark a ballot.”

This new language been raised as a point of concern on a few fronts: the chief electoral officer’s ability to speak openly, Elections Canada’s civic education efforts and Elections Canada’s public advertising.

That Elections Canada should not be responsible for inspiring people to vote is an argument at the heart of the Fair Elections Act. And it’s not quite a novel argument.

In his opening statement to the committee last Wednesday morning, Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, a British scholar, noted that “the Committee on Standards also recommended that the Electoral Commission be stripped of responsibility for electoral policy and for encouraging participation in the democratic process. This was not because it felt that these were unimportant functions, but rather that they distracted the Electoral Commission from its core, nitty gritty administrative tasks.”

The committee he refers to is the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Its review of the U.K. electoral commission is here. The section on voter participation begins at page 47, but nearer the top, the committee writes that, “the evidence received during this inquiry suggests that: the very wide breadth of the commission’s mandate has led to a concentration on issues such as policy development and voter participation work at the expense of a more contentious proactive regulatory and advisory role; that this breadth of mandate introduced potential conflicts between a clear focus on ensuring the integrity and effectiveness of the electoral process and encouraging voter participation, combined with a wish to work closely with government on its electoral modernisation programme…”

(You can hear echoes of Pierre Poilievre’s arguments when the committee writes that the commission’s own work “suggests that it is competitive political parties that motivate people to exercise their right to vote.”)

Frum picked up on this point and pursued it later on in the session. Here is the transcript of that exchange.

Frum: You mention that the U.K. Electoral Commission recommended that it be stripped of its responsibility for encouraging democratic participation. Bill C-23 also has measures that will remove that function. It’s a very important function, democracy promotion, no one is saying it isn’t, but it will be removed from Elections Canada. I would like you to comment on where you think that function properly belongs in the process.

Pinto-Duschinsky: Clearly, we do want civic education in schools, for example. We want to have citizens informed that elections are going to take place and that they should come out to vote. The trouble is that general civic education tends to be a different function from the function of the nitty gritty of election organization. What we found in Britain was that it’s very tempting for an election commission to engage in that rather than in the more difficult and less glamorous task of making sure that Mr. So and So and Mrs. So and So on 155 number on that street is registered or isn’t registered. So they’ll tend to go after the soft activities of promotion rather than the core activities of election administration, so that’s the reason of wanting to remove the temptation to do something else.

Now, where should it be? This will depend on the activity. I mean, clearly if schools are involved, then we want to make sure that it’s those authorities that are responsible for education. If it’s public information, in Britain, there’s a central office of information that is engaged in public information campaigns, so it could well be a body that is responsible for public information there. I think there are a number of answers. You obviously do need to ensure that democracy promotion and get out the vote is politically neutral; in other words, there isn’t a temptation for a particular party to say, “Let’s have a special campaign among a group that will vote for us in practice.” There must be some confidence that all groups are being targeted. Provided that that happens, then I think one of the educational public information bodies is a logical place for that. But again, provided that it’s clear that the motive isn’t to punish Elections Canada; it’s to define functions properly and to enable them to be fulfilled in a more rigorous way.

Frum: I want to ask you just one quick question. You just made a comment about targeting specific groups. Removing that from any body in particular, just as a general principle, if you have any organization that is trying to promote fairly, neutrally and in a non‑partisan way get out the vote, once the campaign starts focusing on particular groups, are you saying that would then make it a less legitimate campaign; in other words, if it’s not an equally distributed focus?

Pinto-Duschinsky: This is a very difficult question and one that I must admit I’ve not made up my mind on. Let me tell you why.

A number of years ago, almost as old as Senator Baker’s years, I did a piece of work during Mrs. Thatcher’s premiership. We discovered then, as now, that there are certain groups that tend not to register to vote in the polls, such as young people or people of no fixed abode. So there is a common‑sense reason to target efforts on those groups that are under‑registered in order to register them, and there is a legitimate reason.

It turns out that in Britain, some of those groups disproportionately vote for the Labour Party rather than the Conservative Party, so that there is a motive for Labour to want to register them and for the Conservatives not to want to register them.

I have mixed feelings because on the one hand, I feel that public efforts need to go where those efforts are needed. In other words, one shouldn’t take note of the fact that immigrant voters are likely to vote Labour.  If they’re less registered than others, we want to register them.

On the other hand, there may be a temptation when one party is in government to try and target those groups that are likely to vote for it. In that way, there is the opposite argument that one should go across the board and not try and target particular groups lest that turns into a party political set of motivations.

I’m not sure. I would be very interested to discuss the principles on that further.

Frum and Pinto-Duschinsky moved on to a different matter, but not before Pinto-Duschinsky offered that “I think that sincere discussion on different sides of this is the way to try and resolve that kind of thing.” (Note: British people are adorable, aren’t they?)

This discussion carried over to the committee’s session on Wednesday afternoon. Professor Paul Howe argued Elections Canada’s should take a leading role in addressing youth turnout, particularly in the field of civic education (for instance, the Student Vote project or, Howe theorized, ads encouraging parents to bring their 18-year-olds to the polls with them). Professor Pauline Belange questioned whether there was evidence to suggest Elections Canada’s efforts to increase turnout have been successful. Professor Nelson Wiseman questioned the idea that higher turnout as an end in and of itself and suggested that the elimination of door-to-door enumeration was a problem.

At the end of that afternoon meeting, Paul Thomas suggested that the committee consult with the U.K.’s electoral commission to see what has been done there on this issue of outreach. I’ve sent off a note to the commission to ask for more information and will happily post whatever is sent along.

Professor Thomas has given this some thought and recommended “that Section 18 of the Fair Elections Act be amended to ensure that it does not silence the voice of Elections Canada in ongoing debates over how to improve electoral democracy in Canada. In terms of its outreach and communications activities, Elections Canada should concentrate on awareness of the election system, the mechanics of voting and the challenges faced by different demographic groups in exercising their right to vote. To support such outreach activities, Elections Canada should continue to conduct research on the propensity to vote.”

All that said, we might follow Pinot-Duschinsky’s advice that a “sincere discussion” might resolve this matter. Here is Elections Canada’s summation of its outreach and information efforts. Should all of those efforts cease on account of a potential conflict of interest? Is the objection theoretical or are there specific efforts that Elections Canada should cease?

As for the problems raised by the Neufeld report, to which Frum referred, both Harry Neufeld and Marc Mayrand came away from that recommending that one solution was to expand the voter information card. Could a system be put in place that would alleviate concerns about the use of those cards or have we decided that those cards are unsalvageable as a proof of address?