Minister Poilievre Interviewed On Fair Elections Act

ballot-box

You have to give Pierre Poilievre this: he’s determined.

The Democratic Reform Minister has defended his now much-decried Fair Elections Act against hell and high-water — and at least one former Elections Canada CEO.

But as the clipping pace at which opposition to this bill mounts, the reality is becoming increasingly clear that the Minister is lacking answers for fundamental questions about the bill.

While he should be commended enormously for answering them, especially amid a culture of tight-lips — indeed, he did not have to accept an interview request from this lowly freelance journalist who he knows to be quite critical of the bill, and he did so anyway — but that simply isn’t enough.

Despite being repeatedly questioned, this Minister can still not give a compelling answer as to why he decided to eliminate vouching and the Voter Information Card.  All the evidence we have shows that, while there were problems in their administration, the issues could have been easily remedied.  Indeed, Elections Canada and its independent auditor devised a handful of ways to eliminate all irregularities and errors in administering the alternative voting methods.

Instead, Poilievre chose to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

And when it comes to expanding the use of politically-nominated staff in the Elections Canada hiring process, it is simply indefensible.  No modern nation should be opening the door for big-money political parties to send its partisans in to admit, or deny, voters their franchise.  Worse yet, Poilievre appeared to let slip that a driver for this change is perceived Liberal-bias on the part of Elections Canada.  (If true, and I can find no information about it, it is certainly worrying.)  Update: Former head of legal services for Elections Canada, James Sprague, calls shenanigans on this, saying that those were merit — not partisan — hires. 

Many aspects of this bill have the disgusting veneer of being inspired by advancing partisan — not just Conservative — interests.  Indeed, many aspects of this bill, like expanding the use of so-called ‘bingo sheets’ that track which voters have cast their ballot, are good news for the parties and did not appear to be vetted through a public policy lens.

Too many of Poilievre’s defences feel theoretical, or cooked-up in his office.  In teasing out everything he’s said to me, in committee, and in the House of Commons, an uncomfortable amount of his policy decisions appear to have been constructed in his mind, without due consideration or consultation.

Given that, it’s everybody-else who needs to vet this bill.  Not just the opposition parties, as they can’t be trusted with our democracy any more than the government can, but by everyone.  This isn’t a liberal-conservative, left-right thing.  This is a matter of how we run our elections.

Fact is: roughly 120,000 people had to be vouched for in the last election.  Many thousands, if not tens of thousands, used their voter information card as a proof of address.  If enough of those people are turned away in the next election, I posit that it would be less credible, and more fraudulent, than one where cheaters used the system to case a few illegal ballots.

Below is my edited interview with the Minister, where I peppered him with as many questions I had time for in our (admittedly, gracious) 25 minute conversation.  If you have your own questions, I’d encourage you to phone (613-692-3331), email (pierre.poilievre@parl.gc.ca) or tweet (@PierrePoilievre) the minister and ask him yourself.

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Thanks for speaking with me.  First and foremost, the question that’s been on my mind is: who did you consult with when you were preparing this bill, in terms of expert opinion in terms of Elections Canada staff or researchers, do you have the names of people you consulted with when you prepared this bill?

Obviously I met with Mr. Mayrand.  In addition to that, I wrote to all political parties, asking them to provide me with their written input.  I studied the reports that the Procedure and House Affairs Committee published, that’s an all-party committee which produced reports with the testimony of many witnesses, and I consulted reports that Elections Canada published on their website.  In addition to that, we met with People First, which represents disabled people, and we also met with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.  That’s just a sampling of organizations.

One report you cite a lot is the Neufeld report.  From my read of it, most, nearly all of the recommendations he makes are not only not included in the bill, but are contradicted.  That includes things like expanding the Voter Information Cards, expanding the vouching system, eliminating the polls, and eliminating political nominations to the Elections Canada staffing process.  What information do you have, to include things in the bill that were pretty much against what both Elections Canada and the independent auditor were recommending?

Well I used the data that was available. While I disagree with the opinions of the people you mentioned, I took into consideration the facts that they presented.

Well let’s talk about those facts.  Let’s talk about the irregularities identified in the audit.  Those irregularities, according to Harry Neufeld himself are entirely staffing irregularities.  None of them have anything to do with any decisions made by the voters themselves.  They’re entirely either administrative, staffing, or procedural.  Why did you not look at the staffing or procedural issues around voting, rather than the processes themselves.

Why do you think those rules exist?

You tell me.

I presume they exist to protect the integrity of the vote.  Which is why we have procedures that the CEO’s staff must execute when people show up and cast their ballot.  According to the Neufeld report, in 50,000 vouching cases, the safeguards were not followed.  And the consequences of those irregularities were serious.  He did not, as Mr. Mayrand falsely stated in committee yesterday, conclude that these irregularities had no impact on the integrity of the vote.  Mr. Neufeld found and wrote that the errors were serious enough that a court could invalidate votes or overturn an election.  I think that’s serious enough to warrant action, and that’s what the Fair Elections Act does.

Yes, but Mr. Neufeld also writes that the reasons for those irregularities were “complexity, supervision, recruitment, training, updating the list of elections…”  The issues he identified were not at all mentioned or addressed in the bill.  The issues he identified go beyond vouching or Voter Information Cards, they speak to the fundamental irregularities.  There were tens of thousands of irregularities that had nothing to do with vouching or Voter Information Cards that had nothing to do with this bill.  Why didn’t you look at training and supervision at the polling sites as a focus for the bill?

We do, for example, make it easier for parties to recommend their Deputy Returning Officers and Poll Clerks earlier on so that there is more time for training.  The bill addresses the vouching and Voter Information Card problems.  The 165,000 irregularities that Neufeld highlights do include 50,000 vouching irregularities.  Roughly a third of all the irregularities are vouching-related.  Understandably, that area required action, and that’s what the Fair Elections Act provides. If Elections Canada wants to provide better training, there’s nothing in the law that bans them from doing that.

Well in his report, Neufeld — with concurrence from Elections Canada — suggested eliminating the [candidates’] abilities to suggest Elections Canada staff.  As they said, it provides poorly-trained staff, and it forced Elections Canada to wait too long — and I recognize that you expanded the timeline — but they still said that [candidates] have the power to nominate staff was problematic.  You actually expanded the ability of candidates, and campaigns and parties to suggest staff, where did you get this from and why did you make that decision?

The fact that parties would now be able to name Deputy Returning Officers and Poll Clerks rather than waiting until a candidate is nominated will allow more time for training.  Those positions are already named by party candidates.

Well that’s not true.  Elections Canada cannot use that staff until the deadline…It doesn’t really matter when you submit the list, it matters the day on which Elections Canada choses those staff people.

Yes, and often times candidates are not nominated until very late in the process, and that can lead to delays in the naming of the DRO and Poll Clerk.  We want to eliminate those delays.

Yes, but Neufeld basically said that that delay exists because candidates and campaigns had the power to nominate people.  Why not give Elections Canada the power to chose their staff on their own?

The reason is, parties choose them so that the Deputy Returning Officer will be from one party, and the Poll Clerk will be from another party, that allows both sides to surveil each other and keep the process fair.  Elections Canada doesn’t have a problem with party-named officials.  We know that.  How do we know that?  Because they re-named dozens of Liberal-appointed returning officers that were previous order-in-council nominations from the previous Liberal Government.  He re-named them, in the subsequent election, after we passed laws, in the Accountability Act, specifically making those positions non-partisan.  So it’s news to me if he suddenly has a problem with partisan nominations.

In the Neufeld report one of the suggestions from Elections Canada would be to have supervisors at the polling locations for the parties, but not at the specific booths.  There was also a suggestion that staff people could be added, under the act, to specifically deal with issues of non-compliance or irregularities.

We are creating the position of central poll supervisor to help provide assistance.  We’re also ensuring that Elections Canada has the ability to increase staff resources in heavily-trafficked polling locations which will allow congestion to be relieved.

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Marc Mayrand vs. The Fair Elections Act
The Fair Elections Act Showdown
Question Period with Elizabeth May, MP
The cases for and against vouching
Democratic Reform Take Two
Building Poilievre’s Electoral Fraud in the Sky

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Let’s back up to these Returning Officers.  Do you have a problem with the fact that there might be Liberal partisan influence in the system?  Is that something you’re concerned about?  Is that the impetus for the bill?

The Act doesn’t change the nomination process.

Okay, but does that influence your perception of how Elections Canada works?

No, it simply points to the fact that Elections Canada endorsed the naming of previous partisan appointments to positions within the local election apparatus.  If they’re okay with it, then so are we.

Isn’t that kind of: ‘two wrongs don’t make a right?’  If the issue is getting non-partisan staff, shouldn’t you be trying to expand the non-partisan staff, and not the reverse?  Because this could, in effect, make all Deputy Returning Officers and Poll Clerks partisan-recommended, whereas it’s currently only 20%.

No, I think the principle of partisan candidates of making recommendations, for Deputy Returning Officers and Poll Clerks, is well-established and long-practised under the existing act, so there’s nothing fundamentally different about this bill.

When it comes to the Commissioner’s role, there is concern about moving the prosecution side of things into the office of the Director of Public Prosecution.  Have you been told by anyone, either in the Commissioner’s office or the office of the Director of Public Prosecution, that merging the investigation and prosecution ends of that role would improve his ability to investigate?

I think independence is always a good goal for any investigator.  There are dozens of offences in the act that deal with the conduct of Elections Canada.  It is impossible for the Commissioner to carry out his investigation related to those offences, given that he works for Elections Canada.  Right now, the Commissioner has no independence whatsoever.  The CEO appoints him, hires his staff, sets his budget, directs his investigation, and can fire him at any time.  That’s not independent.  The changes to the Fair Elections Act will give the Commissioner a freer hand.  He’ll be the deputy head for the purposes of human resources, which is a technical way of saying that he’ll control his own staff and he will have freedom as to how he’ll carry out his investigation.  The Fair Elections Act is explicit that he carry out his investigation independent from the Director of Public Prosecutions…And so, I think it’s a fully justified change.

Were you told by anyone in those offices that it would, in fact, improve and facilitate investigation and prosecution.  Is that something that you have assurance of, or is it more, honestly, theoretical?

Look, we do have experience with this.  The Director of Public Prosecution is already responsible for laying charges and prosecuting every single charge that could come under the Canada Elections Act.  And that’s been the case since the adoption of the Accountability Act, about seven years ago.  Every charge that’s been laid under the Elections Act ever since has been done by the DPP.  No one has ever suggested that he’s not independent.  Marc Mayrand has never questioned the independence of the DPP.  I don’t even think the opposition has questioned the independence of the DPP.  He is appointed by a rigorous independent process that includes a committee composed of all political parties, two senior public servants, and a law society, after which it has to be re-confirmed by a parliamentary committee.  He can only be fired after there’s been a vote in the House of Commons, and all of his prosecution under the Elections Act has to be done without any involvement of the Auditor General…I think it’s a perfect place to house the investigator.

What motivated making these ‘bingo sheets’ (that show who voted) the day after an election? For what practical purposes would the parties need to know who voted and who didn’t?

Well, first of all, parties already have this information.

Well, it’s not actually compiled.  From my understanding, parties don’t actually use this information to track voters, it’s used for get-out-the-vote purposes.  Because it’s so scattershot, and it’s so poorly organized, that it’s never really been used for database purposes.  Is that why this is being changed, so that it’s easier to facilitate voter tracking?

They do use it.  We all use it.  Anyone who says they don’t is committing political malpractice.  Frankly, if you want voter turnout, let parties have access to public information.  So, look, right now, you can have scrutineers stand at a voting location and mark off the name of every person who comes in to vote.  In fact, they’ll often leave and, come back, and be updated by the local Elections Canada person as to who came to vote while they were gone.  This provision, it’s simply an extension of that.  Any, quite frankly, you want to know who it helps?  It’s small parties and independents who don’t have big volunteer bases.  The Conservative Party has by far the biggest volunteer base.  That has been the case, probably since the year 2000, definitely since the year 2004.  We have scrutineers at almost every voting location at every competitive riding in the country.  We’re the party that can collect this data right now legitimately, and openly.  The ones that can’t are the ones who are small, who don’t have a volunteer base.  They will benefit from having the same information as the larger parties have.

Yes, but don’t you think that this will incentivize going after those who you know will vote, and push you to not waste your time going after those who don’t?

Maybe the opposite.  Maybe parties would see those who didn’t vote as an excellent group to do outreach.  By definition, previous non-voters are uncommitted to other political parties, and therefore represent a tremendous opportunity for an entrepreneurial candidate to try and bring in.  So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  And it’s public information.  What a secret ballot means is that no one gets to find out who you vote for, it doesn’t mean that no one finds out that you voted.  The vast majority of Canadians vote on Election Day, at a polling location, where other people with eyeballs are found.  So everybody knows that you go out to vote, it’s not a secret.  People don’t walk in, covering their face, hoping that nobody finds out that they cast a ballot.  This information is not private, it’s public already, so there’s no possibility of any kind of privacy breach.

I want to ask you about attestations.  It’s something you’ve been mentioning that offsets the eliminating of vouching and the Voter Information Card.  You’ve said that homeless shelters or apartment buildings can sign these letters to make sure that people can vote.  But in the Neufeld report, it shows that some 20% of landlords or organizations found it a challenge to issue attestation letters.  Numerous people who were tasked with writing these letters didn’t even know about it.  Do you think that the attestation fix is an adequate one to ensure that everyone entitled to vote, can?

Our amendments to Section 18 require Elections Canada to inform people about the types of ID that they can use to cast their ballot.  I would urge Elections Canada to make this form of identification more widely known, so that it can be more widely practiced.

Even with the attestation and the other forms of ID, the Canadian Government in a BC Supreme Court case basically made the case that the only reason that these restrictions on ID were constitution were because of the “failsafe” of vouching.  Now that you’re removing this failsafe, are you worried that the Elections Act may become unconstitutional?

We’re confident in the constitutionality of the Fair Elections Act.

The BC Supreme Court case basically came down with its decision upholding the Act on the back of the fact that there were these alternative methods of voting.  Now that both of them have been eliminated, from my read of this case, that wouldn’t be true.  Have you properly lawyered this?

We would only introduce a bill that we believe would be constitutional.

Thanks.

Thank you.

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Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling

 

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  • ElaineMay

    Re the Bingo cards; why would scrutineers even be necessary if Elections Canada were doing all of the work the scrutineers currently do?

    And why put in a provision that a scrutineer/candidate’s rep or agent can challenge/ask for ID?

    Scrutineers are not supposed to be identifiable as belonging to a particular party in a poll i.e. no tag indicating they’re from the “XYZ” party.

    So how will voters know who these folks are? If I’m a scrutineer I can just demand ID from a voter?

    Sounds like it could be a form of intimidation.

    Do not like it, at all. And I have worked as a scrutineer at numbers of elections.

  • justinling

    Hey Elaine: scrutineers are mostly there to check the ballots after the voting is over, and to collect and check the bingo sheets. The DROs and Poll Clerks are the ones checking ID and whatnot — they’re recommended via a list submitted from the candidates of the 1st and 2nd place parties.

    Elections Canada still vets these people, and they’re overseen by Poll Clerks (who are hired in a non-partisan manner.)

    Poilievre’s bill expands the power of the parties to nominate DROs/Poll Clerks.

    • Pingston

      Justin, you clearly don’t understand the role of the scrutineer. See my lengthy reply above for greater detail and to have your eyes opened. DROs and poll clerks have been recommended by political parties for centuries. Everyone working an election has come from a political recommendation. This is not a change. What it’s meant is when a DRO retires the party in power recommends their replacement. they then stay in place for life. Do the research. How many DROs in the last few elections were in their 70s and 80s? Many. I know of one who was close to 90 after having been appointed by the Liberals in the 1960s. he was well-known for slow responses to any queries. hated change. Hated new rules. Wouldn’t use them. He became a disaster. That’s why regular replacement of these people will keep things on track.

  • Pingston

    Ling shows and declares his bias. He sets the bar for “compelling evidence” and then determines when it isn’t. This may work for a seasoned columnist but not for someone whose output we’re offered as having value.

    The problems with the current electoral system are well-documented. Indeed, the Auditor Generals report from 1989 has been pointed to recently in several online forums: http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/english/parl_oag_198911_10_e_4259.html None of the elections since 1989 have been seamless, but matters seem to have worsened with Marc Mayrand at the top of the heap. Poorly or fully untrained staff, missing staff, polls that move, polls that don’t open or close on time, the problems are growing.

    Mayrand hired a buddy, Harry Neufeld, former chief electoral officer in BC to write a report that would rationalize all of the Elections Canada incompetence and take him off the hook. It tries to. It points out that hundreds of documented administrative errors take place in EVERY polling station. Neufeld says this is because poll workers work provincial, municipal and federal elections and confuse the rules. Some excuse. The budget of Elections Canada provides for training. Are tests then given and those failing not used? This is a critical role which pays well and must be done properly. No excuses. Read the Neufeld apologia: http://www.elections.ca/res/cons/comp/crfr/pdf/crfr_e.pdf

    Ling has never worked in an election. He has never served as a scrutineer. Never watched ballots counted. I’ve done these things. It’s an eye-opener. Some scrutineers are so professional and detailed you literally don’t know the party they represent (each party has the opportunity to have a scrutineer at each poll) which is as it should be. The discussions of whether a ballot is spoiled or not matter whether an election is close or not; most scrutineers take the high road but some fight for each vote based on the party they represent.

    And if you’ve ever been at a meeting where the political hacks started discussing how to use the rules (such as vouching, proxy voting — now replaced by special ballots) to tweak the results your eyes will be opened. Within the past 15 years I attended a public NDP meeting to listen. It must have been presumed I was an NDP insider because when talk turned to exploiting every voting rule no one looked my way. This was an urban Toronto riding with lots of immigrants. A group was dedicated to xeroxing hundreds of proxy voting forms and getting them signed by people who didn’t speak English and would have no idea what use was being made of them. When talk arose about how to explain things, the ‘expert’ advised “say as little as possible”, “tell them it’s a good thing and not to worry”. The plan, presumably followed, was to submit all of these proxy votes for the NDP candidate, of course. It was legal but morally dubious. I called Elections Canada. I was told if people were “breaking rules” they’d be caught. That was it. By the explanation and plotting I saw, no rules were being broken. There were over 5,000 ‘targets’ for the proxy votes. Many were in seniors’ complexes, but some were in condos, apartments and houses filled with extended families. “Get all the names, get all the signatures” was the rule. I never went back. I haven’t seen this done so blatantly at other meetings, but I can’t imagine other well-organized campaigns didn’t also use proxy voting like this, and that special ballots and vouching aren’t also targeted for the loopholes. Hence any tightening is welcomed. Go to the Elections Canada website and it stresses that you must show ID — http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=vot&dir=ids&document=index&lang=e — so why is the vouching option left so wide open for abuse?

    When we oversee foreign elections, voter ID is critical, as is single voting (ink on the thumb). Why not so here?


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