05/28/2013 03:12 EDT | Updated 07/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Election chief needs new robocall laws by spring 2014

Marc Mayrand, Canada's chief electoral officer, told a parliamentary committee today he needs long-promised electoral reforms in place by the spring of 2014 to be ready for the next federal election in 2015.

He also said Tuesday that new laws would probably speed up current robocall investigations.

"We are up against the clock," Mayrand told the committee. "We need to know the rules of the game well ahead of the game being played."

Mayrand has recommended several reforms to prevent a repetition of the misleading robocalls that occurred during the 2011 election. The robocalls purported to be calls from Elections Canada, and directed people to go to the wrong polling location. Over 7,000 of these calls took place on the morning of the May 2 election two years ago, and were directed at voters in the Ontario riding of Guelph.

Elections Canada has since received reports about similar misleading calls in over two-thirds of ridings across the country, and is investigating over 1,400 complaints.

Last week, a Federal Court judge found that fraud, due to robocalls, took place in the last election and that the information used to target certain voters most likely came from the Conservative Party's CIMS voting idenfication system.

Judge Richard Mosley could not find enough evidence to implicate the Conservative Party or any Conservative candidate.

In March, Mayrand wrote a report recommending people should be compelled to answer questions or produce documents in an Elections Canada investigation. On Tuesday, at the committee, he pointed out that three "persons of interest" have refused to answer questions in the Guelph investigation. He explained that those three people cannot be referred to the RCMP because they are not suspects.

Another recommendation would mandate telemarketers carrying out robocalls to keep records of the voice messages and names of the commissioners of the calls for at least a year. Mayrand has also suggested harsher penalties for impersonating an Elections Canada official, or a party or candidate, ranging from fines of up to $250,000 and up to five years in jail.

Only 1 charged in robocalls probe

Mayrand said Tuesday if these reforms are passed, current investigations into the misleading robocalls of 2011 might be speeded up. Elections Canada has been investigating for well over a year, but only one individual in Guelph has been charged.

In March 2012, when the robocalls scandal was dominating the news, MPs voted unanimously to bring in electoral reforms within six months. But no new legislation has been brought forth by the government.

Tim Uppal, minister of state for democratic reform, was about to table legislation a few weeks ago, but it was abruptly withdrawn. Mayrand said he was not consulted about the proposed reforms.

A spokesman for the minister said Uppal has met with Mayrand to discuss Mayrand's recommendations to Parliament.

"The minister has read the Chief Electoral Officer's recommendations, discussed them with him, but obviously cannot share the details of draft legislation that isn't even before Parliament," Cory Hann said in an email Tuesday to CBC News.

"Our elections reforms are something our government has taken very seriously in ensuring we took the time to get it right. We committed to introducing legislation, and we will introduce legislation," Hann said.

In the wake of former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj's unsuccessful attempt to have the courts overturn the results of the May 2011 election in Etobicoke Centre due to a series of procedural errors, Mayrand asked to be allowed to pilot a project that would allow voters to fill out voter registration online.

"We need to modernize the electoral system. We're out of sync with the times," Mayrand told the committee.

Sounding frustrated, Mayrand spoke of having to deal with documents, certificates and signatures when people show up to vote on election day and are not on the voters' list.

"Canadians deal less and less with paper," he said.

Elections Canada must cut jobs

Mayrand has also asked for more staff for election days, and more time to train and recruit elections officials. However, he also noted that Elections Canada has had to undergo a budget cut of eight per cent, and must eliminate 32 full-time positions out of 372 employees.

He told the committee he will have to go back to Treasury Board for more funds.

"We will have 30 new ridings in 2015. We will need staff to support these new ridings," he said.

Mayrand also said it's time to stop the practice of political parties nominating partisans to serve as election officials on voting day.

Traditionally, the party of the person who won the previous election in a riding suggests the name of the deputy returning officer, and the party of the person who came second offers up someone to be the polling clerk. The concept behind this system was that the political parties would monitor each other to ensure voting was conducted fairly.

However, these days, Mayrand pointed out, the political parties can only find enough people to fill about a third of the positions. But, he said, Elections Canada is forced to wait until close to election day for the names of the people put forward by the parties, and then has to recruit and train the remainder of staff needed at the last minute.