Robocalls May Need Regulating, Elections Chief Tells MPs

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ROBOCALLS ELECTIONS CANADA
Elections watchdog, Marc Mayrand, says it's critical that trust be restored in Canada's electoral system. (AFP/Getty Images) | AFP/Getty Images


Elections Canada may recommend the government regulate contact with voters during election campaigns, Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand told MPs today.

Following controversy over automated robocalls and live calls during the 2011 federal election, Mayrand says his next report will look at how new technology affects campaigning. Computer technology makes it much easier to call large groups of voters and to call them repeatedly.

The report will be presented by the end of this fiscal year next spring, Mayrand told MPs on the procedure and House affairs committee.

"The purpose of this report will be to suggest improvements to the Canada Elections Act in order to deal with a number of issues relating to new technologies and social media, as well as to how political entities communicate with electors during a general election.

"Among other things, it will address issues such as voter contacts, either through automated or live calls, and whether, or to what extent, these communications need to be regulated," he said.

Mayrand said the agency has received 1,100 complaints about misleading election calls, which redirected voters to the wrong polling stations.

But he said he had no new information about the investigation.

"It is ongoing and remains a priority for the commissioner. However, until the investigation has been concluded, I am not in a position to provide additional information to the committee," he said.

Mayrand had said he would update the committee on the robocalls investigation in June, but today he said didn't expect to have more information for them in the next month.

Etobicoke Centre case brings review

Mayrand also said Elections Canada is making it a priority to strengthen its procedures for voting day, following an Ontario Superior Court judge's decision to throw out the result of the federal election in Etobicoke Centre earlier this month.

The judge set aside 79 ballots because of irregularities at 10 polling stations in the riding, which was won by Conservative Ted Opitz by a margin of just 26 votes. Opitz is appealing the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In his ruling, the judge said the case shook the "confidence that Canadians must have in our electoral process."

"In light of recent events, we have readjusted our plans, to place a major priority on strengthening measures aiming to improve compliance with the procedures and standards applicable on voting day," Mayrand said.

"Our intention is threefold: first, to review the voter registration and voting processes based on what transpired in Etobicoke Centre," Mayrand said.

"Second, to assess the effectiveness of existing checks and balances; and third, to engage key stakeholders in implementing solutions for the 2015 election. We believe this is critical regardless of the outcome of the appeal."

Mayrand said Elections Canada has to figure out a way to do real-time quality control on the day voters cast their ballots. There are 65,000 polling stations serving 12 million electors on a single day, he pointed out, and it is often the first and only day workers and volunteers have those jobs.

"That a number of errors will occur, yes," he said.

Former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj, who had lost the initial ballot count to Opitz, has spent $250,000 on the legal challenge. Mayrand acknowledged most candidates wouldn't be able to afford a cost like that to find resolution under Canadian election laws.

"It’s something that maybe should be considered. That’s how the act operates. I expect the court will be asked to address the issue of costs. We’ll see how it’s going to be addressed there. Otherwise we’ll need changes to the legislation," he said.

Budget cuts hit agency

Elections Canada wasn't exempt from the government's recent round of budget cuts, and one of the ways the agency is dealing with its $7.5 million cut is by delaying planned programs. The agency cut its budget by about eight per cent, Mayrand said.

The program delay means a pilot project on internet voting will wait until the next federal election in 2015, rather than happening in a 2013 by-election. The pilot project requires parliamentary approval, he said.

Mayrand says he's concerned Elections Canada may not be able to afford its salaries by 2014, so the agency is going through a zero-based budget exercise, meaning starting from scratch and allocating money from there.

For future elections, the agency is looking at establishing new locations to vote by special ballot, such as university and college campuses, and community centres serving voters with disabilities, Mayrand said.

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