National Electoral Reform Engagement Tour Report

Ministerial Message

In 2016, we launched a wide ranging National Electoral Reform Engagement Tour, and I am pleased to report a synopsis of what Canadians shared. We are grateful to everyone who attended an electoral reform dialogue event and contributed their perspectives to this important discussion. Held in every province and territory, the Electoral Reform Dialogue meetings offered people an opportunity to have their say about the voting system, electronic and online voting, and mandatory voting, and to learn and listen to the perspective of others.

We listened carefully to what Canadians had to say about a range of topics. Their thoughts will help and have helped to inform decisions and directions we take together to improve, strengthen and protect our democratic institutions. It is clear that Canadians are passionate about and have a deep personal connection to their democracy. They believe in our democracy, and believe that working with each other to improve it is a worthwhile goal. We agree.

I would like to thank the officials who supported the National Electoral Reform Engagement Tour, the parliamentarians who attended electoral reform dialogue events, and all the Canadians who took the time to participate and contribute to this initiative.

Honourable Karina Gould
Minister of Democratic Institutions

About the National Electoral Reform Engagement Tour

The Government of Canada’s public engagement on electoral reform was informed by five guiding principles: Effectiveness & Legitimacy, Engagement, Accessibility & Inclusiveness, Integrity, and Local Representation. Recognizing that there are no one-size-fits-all electoral systems, the dialogue focused on values and how to balance competing objectives informed by these values. These principles were developed based on lessons from Canada and abroad. These five principles provided a framework for discussions throughout the national electoral reform engagement tour.

The Government of Canada organized a series of dialogue events on this important issue. These dialogue events were open to the public, and held at locations across Canada in every province and territory. Electoral reform dialogue events were held in Iqaluit, Yellowknife, Whitehorse, Victoria, Vancouver,  Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Gatineau, Shawinigan, Moncton, Halifax, Charlottetown, Gander, and Happy-Valley Goose Bay.

The Minister of Democratic Institutions attended each of these events to join the conversation and opened the events with a brief statement. Government of Canada officials provided an overview of the five principles and various electoral systems. Participants then broke into small groups where they discussed electoral reform and then shared their thoughts and opinions with the larger group.

A Special Committee on Electoral Reform was established by Parliament in 2016. The Special Committee, over the course of six months, heard from hundreds of witnesses and participants and produced a thorough report in December, 2016. 172 Members of Parliament held local town hall meetings in their constituencies and shared what they heard with the Special Committee.  The Government of Canada launched, an online engagement application, to encourage as many Canadians as possible to have their say. Over 360,000 people in Canada took part.

What We Heard - Themes

The National Electoral Reform Engagement Tour focused on five key discussion points. Each electoral reform dialogue event explored the roles and responsibilities of citizens and Members of Parliament. Each dialogue event solicited views on: overcoming barriers to voting, barriers to voting, electronic and online voting, and mandatory voting, and electoral systems.

What follows is a synopsis of what was heard at these electoral reform dialogue events.

Our Democracy

At each dialogue event, participants were asked to respond to questions about the roles and responsibilities of Members of Parliament (MPs) and citizens in a democracy.

Participants said that the role of an MP was to be a voice for the community, both locally and in government. Some said that it was important that MPs represent their constituents to the larger political party and ensure local voices are heard in policy making. Others placed emphasis on MPs engaging with and being at the service of their constituents.  Attendees also drew attention to the responsibility MPs have in drafting, debating, and passing legislation. Participants highlighted qualities such as humility, flexibility, and intelligence as important to the role of MP. Some participants said they felt it was the responsibility of all MPs to pursue the public good.

On the roles and responsibilities of citizens in a democracy, participants said it was important for citizens to stay informed on current issues and on democratic processes. Citizenship was described by some as a privilege that came with responsibilities to engage in the political process. Others suggested that individuals do not need to be politically partisan to be engaged as a citizen. A responsibility to hold government and elected officials to account was advocated by some, as was a responsibility to ask questions and seek answers from government officials on important issues.

Attendees at the dialogue events were asked to share their thoughts on what makes a healthy democracy. Some participants suggested a government that represents all views and voices is important. Individual citizens being able to see themselves reflected in the government was raised, as was the idea that voters want to feel that their vote matters. A healthy democracy was described as one where different views are able to work together for common solutions. Ideas like equality, diversity, fairness, transparency, and accountability were pointed to as fundamental to a healthy democracy. The importance of respect for human rights and the rule of law was also highlighted.

Overcoming Barriers

Discussions around this theme highlighted barriers to participation in the voting process, whether physical, social, or economic. Also discussed were possible ways to reduce or remove these barriers.

Participants pointed to a number of physical barriers to participation in the voting process. Some spoke of transportation to polling stations as a barrier for individuals with physical disabilities and mobility issues.  A lack of services to support voters with disabilities, including sign language interpretation or polling stations that were not adequately accessible to those with mobility issues, was also raised by some participants. Other participants spoke about frequent relocation of polling stations as a barrier to voting.

Physical barriers to voting as unique to rural or remote communities were highlighted. This included long distances to travel to polling stations and the lack of polling stations in some remote communities or at work camps. Also raised by some attendees was a lack of options for Canadians living outside the country or for students living away from home to exercise their right to vote.

Barriers related to voter identification requirements were also raised. Participants spoke to the difficulty in obtaining the necessary identification to vote and to confusion over what types of identification are required.

Discussion at the events also turned to barriers to voting related to language, access to information, and communication. A lack of civic literacy among citizens was suggested as a contributing factor to low turnout during elections. Related to this, some participants cited a lack of understanding of the electoral issues of the day as a potential barrier. Unreliable internet access in rural or remote communities was highlighted as a barrier, noting a lack of easy online access to current information about the election or the voting process. It was asserted that language may be a barrier to understanding and obtaining information before and during the electoral campaign for some of Canada’s indigenous and ethnic populations.

Socio-economic barriers, such as poverty, were also raised. This included mention of Canadians who lack the time to vote due to work schedules, multiple jobs, lack of childcare options, or lack of funds to pay for transportation to polling stations. 

Voter apathy was highlighted by some participants as a barrier to participation in the democratic process. Some spoke of cynicism, laziness and disengagement among potential voters. Others asserted low voter turnout was a result of a belief the process makes it difficult for individual voices to be heard or that candidates and parties do not represent their views.  Still other participants pointed to negative advertising and “robocalls” as deterrents to participation.

Participants advocated a number of potential actions to mitigate barriers to voting. Some suggested the government do more to provide clear and concise information about the electoral process in more languages and more accessible formats. Others called for a change in the identification requirements at polling places, including a return of vouching. Some participants advocated for a lowering of the voting age or an increase in civic education services for youth. Making Election Day a national holiday, or take place on a weekend, and keeping polling places open longer were also proposed, as was the idea of increasing the hours of polling stations as ways to make voting more inclusive regardless of socio-economic status. Participants also advocated for services to be provided to voters who need them, including transportation to polling places, or childcare services.

Electronic/Online voting

At each electoral reform dialogue event participants discussed electronic and online voting. This included the perceived benefits and disadvantages of electronic and online voting, feelings about the paper ballot, and the effect this may have on participation levels by youth, persons with disabilities, and Canadians living abroad. Also discussed were concerns about the integrity of the voting system, such as potential technological issues with electronic and online voting, cyber-attacks and hacking, and privacy concerns.

A sense of nostalgia and sentimentality about the paper ballots was expressed by participants who shared a strong feeling of community and pride when exercising their democratic right in person at the polling station. Some participants viewed voting at polling stations using paper ballots as a secure, accurate, and trustworthy method to cast a ballot.  The idea that the paper ballot may be less prone to tampering or to inaccuracies through computer hardware or software error was highlighted. A need to have a paper record of the voting results for potential recount purposes was raised.

Participants suggested implementing pilot projects to verify the efficacy of electronic and/or online voting in reducing barriers, such as mobility issues, faced by some individuals participating in the voting process.  The role of the scrutineer in the voting process, and how that would be impacted by a shift to electronic/online voting was identified.

It was stated that online voting may be less expensive than the current paper ballot voting system and may decrease the number of spoiled ballots. Electronic/online voting, it was also suggested, may lead to more participation in the electoral process and faster calculation of voting results.

Discussion on electronic/online voting focused on security issues such as risks of hacking and electronic manipulation of vote results. The integrity of the vote, whether it be voter authentication or ensuring an accurate vote count, may be compromised with electronic/online voting systems was mentioned. Reliability and technical challenges relevant to online voting were also mentioned. Concerns were highlighted over privacy and anonymity of the vote if an electronic or online system were used. Concerns were also raised over online voters being susceptible to peer pressure or coercion by family, friends, or employers when voting from home or at work rather than at a voting booth.

Unequal Internet access, unreliable networks, and hardware issues were identified as deterrents to online voting, particularly for those living and working abroad or in rural and remote areas. A lack of computer literacy among some voters was also raised as a potential barrier created by electronic/online voting.

Mandatory voting

Every electoral reform dialogue meeting included a discussion of whether voting should be mandatory in Canadian federal elections. While some believed voting should be made mandatory others were opposed to the idea. Supporters of mandatory voting raised a variety of points to validate their position. For example, they indicated turnout would likely increase if all eligible voters were required to cast a ballot. Those who did not support mandatory voting agreed that greater voter turnout is an important goal but they did not agree mandatory voting was the right way to achieve it.

Mandatory voting discussions generated many questions from electoral reform dialogue event audiences. Participants raised questions about whether voters would be punished for not voting. These participants believed financial or other penalties might disproportionately impact those who face barriers to voting, and could also undermine voting as a personal responsibility. There was some discussion on whether incentives could be used in lieu of penalties. Participants raised questions about the cost to administer and enforce mandatory voting, and asked whether alternatives such as making election day a statutory holiday or requiring voting on weekends could increase voter turnout. The right to refuse to vote or to refuse a ballot was also asserted by some, and participants questioned how mandatory voting would impact this right. 

Electoral Systems

Participants expressed a great diversity of opinions about what kind of voting system was best for Canada.

Some expressed support for a form of proportional representation. Those who advocated for proportional representation offered several points about their position. Overall, those who supported proportional representation voting believed it was a fairer way of electing Members of Parliament. They said that it would help to make every vote count in an election and help voters avoid making strategic voting decisions. They also suggested that proportional representation systems tend to elect more women, youth, and members of traditionally underrepresented groups in Parliament. Proportional representation advocates also said such systems would help ensure that opinions held by a minority of Canadians were understood and listened to in Parliament. Others said that while proportional representation might allow for more ideas to be discussed, a proportional representation system could lead to more disagreement and ultimately accomplish less. Others who did not favour proportional representation raised questions about the complexity of such systems. A potential loss of local or regional representation under a proportional representation system was identified as well. Questions were raised about the impact of voting for a party as opposed to an individual in a proportional representation system. The possibility of fringe views being given more influence over government policy in a proportional representation system where larger parties must bargain with small parties was raised as a concern.

Those attendees who spoke in favour of proportional representation proposed a diverse range of models, including a purely proportional list, mixed member proportional, as well as a ranked ballot single transferable vote system. While some identified proportional representation systems that would add additional seats to the House of Commons, others emphasized not adding new seats to the House of Commons. Mixed-member proportional for rural constituencies combined with single transferrable vote for urban ridings was recommended as a way of preserving rural and remote representation in the House of Commons.  Mixed-member proportional representation was also preferred by those who wanted to vote for individual candidates on the ballot. Others recommended alternative vote to elect Members of Parliament combined with proportional representation to elect Senators.

An instant runoff ranked ballot system was also proposed by some participants, and others advocated for the current first past the post model. An alternative vote with a fifty-percent-plus-one threshold was proposed as a way to way to achieve a fair outcome. Still others pointed to consensus-based systems used in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, and also used among certain Indigenous governments in Canada. Some in attendance at the dialogue events favoured a referendum before making any change to the electoral system, while others did not.

The current voting system should be maintained, according to some participants. They stated that a First-Past-the-Post voting system worked well overall. They questioned the importance of changing the voting system. The current voting system was described as simple and straightforward.

Some participants advocated against focusing on electoral system reform and instead advocated for a greater focus on other democratic reforms, such as increasing voter participation, accessibility, and civic literacy. On civic literacy in Canada, some called for more opportunities for Canadians to learn about the democratic process. This included both before and during election campaigns. Others highlighted a need for this information to be easily accessible and simple to understand.

Participants spoke to the values they believed should be represented in a democratic system. Attendees said they valued simplicity in an electoral system or on the ballot. They also valued learning more about electoral systems, democratic values, and Canada’s democratic institutions overall. Some, particularly in the North and in remote communities, emphasized a need to maintain the link between MPs and their local communities and constituents. Electoral systems that promote collaboration and cooperation among diverse viewpoints, or that discourage partisanship were highlighted. 

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