This summer, we spoke with Canada’s officers of Parliament. We profile each in an eight-part series beginning Tuesday. Read them all here.
When he was offered the opportunity to quarterback Canada’s democracy, Marc Mayrand couldn’t refuse.
“Considering the significance of elections in our system of government… I don’t think it’s something you can simply turn down,” the country’s chief electoral officer said. “Canada is built on democracy, and the cornerstone of democracy is having free, fair elections that produce trustworthy results.”
But preserving the integrity of the country’s elections proved more challenging than Mayrand had anticipated. He juggles an abundance of logistics and administers what he considers a poorly-drafted law while constantly fielding questions about alleged fraud that took place during the 2011 federal election.
This job requires a public presence that runs opposite the life Mayrand lived before his appointment.
For 25 years, the Trois-Rivieres, Que. native quietly operated outside the scope of the public eye at Canada’s Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy, eventually rising to the top job there.
Although he was regarded as a reserved man, it quickly became clear after he took over Elections Canada in 2007 that he would not be pushed around.
As chief electoral officer, Mayrand oversees campaign financing and voting procedures for Canada’s 24 million electors. The job can cause pressure and stress, he said. But not intimidation.
“I’m not easily intimidated, so I’m not concerned about that,” he said, leaning forward in his seat at the meeting table in his Ottawa office. “Tension, yes.”
He set the tone early when, seven months into his mandate, he found himself in a showdown with MPs from four parties, including the prime minister. A Commons committee was asking Mayrand to change the regulations concerning female voters wearing veils in order to ensure proper identification.
He said that, as Charter-protected rights, the power to vote and freedom of religious expression were not his to fool around with. Doing so, Mayrand said at the time, would offend the act.
Although the chief electoral officer holds special powers under exceptional circumstances, he advised Parliament to take its will to change polling station rules into its own hands and hold a vote.
Prior to coming out of the shadows of the public service, Mayrand’s only experience with elections was as a voter—a point of view that makes elections appear relatively easy, he said.
Electors receive a card in the mail telling them where and when they can vote, show up at the polling station, cast a ballot, go about their business, then watch the results unfold later that night.
“But the logistics that requires such a simple act is quite outstanding. Overwhelming,” Mayrand, 60, said.
The sheer size of Canada, with many communities located in remote areas, is one challenge.
Nunavut, for example, is the country’s largest riding, with fewer than 17,000 electors in an area spanning more than two million square kilometres. Ensuring all potential voters there have access to necessary materials can prove demanding, especially during the harsher months.
“The challenge of the diversity of the country comes back strongly at you,” he said.
The chief electoral officer has for years sought changes to the Canada Elections Act, changes he said will help speed up investigations and modernize the overall system.
“We have a system that’s served us well for over 100 years now,” he said. “But it’s not sustainable anymore. We need to get more flexibility in the legislation and we need to facilitate the introduction of technology in the voting process.”
Further, and without question, Parliament needs to review the offences and penalties that fall under the act, he said.
“It’s all based on penal law,” Mayrand said. “And many of the offences are more administrative in nature … In some cases there seems to be pretty mundane conduct that’s sanctioned by penal law.”
The officer offered an example of an MP filing a return one hour late. Because that is considered an offence under the act, it calls for prosecution before a criminal court. Mayrand suggested this offence would perhaps be better served with an administrative fine, a privilege his office doesn’t have.
In other cases, severe offences receive what Mayrand said he considers inadequate sanctions.
There is, for example, the case of four Liberals who ran for party leader in 2006 and together still owe close to $400,000 on loans received.
Those candidates were granted several extensions beyond the initial 18-month deadline to repay their loans, but remain unwilling or unable to comply.
After the final extension passed, the elections commissioner, who leads investigations, concluded that the act, as written, did not afford the opportunity to bring the leadership hopefuls to criminal courts.
“We have a disproportionality from time to time between the actions and the sanctions,” Mayrand said. “The act is poorly drafted and I think there’s a clear expectation that debts should be paid … Yet when you look at the act, there’s no effective sanction. It’s a bit of a dead end, if I can say so.”
Some of Mayrand’s suggested amendments could have resulted in what is perhaps Elections Canada’s highest-profile investigation being dealt with a little differently.
Though one person was recently charged, Canadians are awaiting the findings of the ongoing investigation into alleged voter suppression tactics used in the 2011 election. Meanwhile, they have watched the country’s telecommunications regulator hand down hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to politicians and parties who broke the rules regulating robocalls.
“It’s an interesting comparison,” Mayrand said. “The CRTC is essentially leveraging administrative penalties. There’s been no trial, and the burden of proof is not beyond a reasonable doubt as it is in criminal matters.”
In short, the CRTC has different tools for dealing with its cases, some of which Mayrand has sought for Elections Canada.
Obtaining the power to hand down administrative penalties, and keeping the criminal process for “truly the most significant offences,” are issues Mayrand has brought to Parliament’s attention for years. His predecessor, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, tried to make similar amendments.
The Conservative government has long promised election reforms but has yet to deliver. As recently as April, the minister for democratic reform announced the legislation was ready to hit the House of Commons. But the bill was suddenly shelved, the government saying it had uncovered an issue at the last minute.
No one in government has offered a date for when it will have the reworked legislation ready.
With the next federal election just two years away, Myrand said his office is in a race against the clock to ensure the dark clouds hanging over the 2011 election don’t spread to 2015.
Mayrand will be responsible for administering any changes to the law, but said he is privy neither to the reason the legislation is constantly postponed, nor to the amendments that might be included. Despite the lack of information, he said he expects the legislation, whenever it’s tabled, to address these perceived shortfalls.
Mayrand said he is also hoping his office will be granted the power to compel witnesses—a power he has said could also help the investigation of the robocalls scandal move forward as many witnesses have simply, at the last minute, cancelled their appointments with investigators.
Despite these considerable shortfalls, Canadians should still have faith in the integrity of our electoral system, Mayrand said, suggesting Canadians be careful to not view elections only through the lens of the robocall scandal.
“Elections are very competitive by nature, and in any election you will see a situation where people cross a certain line,” he said. “And when there are people crossing the line, we intervene vigorously.”
Voters shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that more than 14 million of their peers cast legitimate ballots and had positive experiences during the 2011 election, he said.
And for those who didn’t, there is a process.
“There are mechanisms in place, and generally they work,” Mayrand said. “Can they be improved? Of course. Can they be improved from the point of view of timeliness? Yes, no doubt. Should there be more deterrents in the legislation? Yes, I do think so … but we shouldn’t lose all perspective on the quality of our elections. … Let’s be careful to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
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