The Liberals have long maintained that Canada’s first-past-the-post approach to electing governments is outdated, and needs to be replaced.
But the committee set up to examine electoral reform is also being asked to look at some other, less publicized questions. Namely, should Canadians be allowed to vote online for the first time in 2019? And should they be required by law to cast a ballot?
WATCH: Federal government unveils plans to overhaul Canada’s elections
Vote, or else?
According to Nicole Goodman, director at the Centre for e-Democracy and an assistant professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs, the upside to a mandatory voting law would be that turnout would instantly increase.
“One thing that is certain is that you’re getting everyone out to participate, ideally you’re getting the majority will,” she said.
The data supports this. Turnout in Canada’s last federal election was the highest in more than two decades, at 68.3 per cent. But by contrast, Australia averages about 95 per cent. Voting has been mandatory there since 1924.
“The downside to this is that not everyone is informed,” Goodman cautioned. “So some people may be making a decision not based on information, just because they have to vote … Is it really the majority will if people are just voting on a whim or randomly ticking off someone’s name?”
While Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef said Wednesday that committee members would keep “an open mind,” the Trudeau government may be heading into the electoral review process with the intention to push for mandatory voting.
In 2014, one of Justin Trudeau’s senior policy advisers, University of Ottawa academic Robert Asselin, advocated mandatory voting as a way to re-engage Canadians in the political process. Asselin, who suggested using small fines like Australia’s $20 penalty to enforce the law, is now a senior policy adviser to Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Goodman predicted there could be push-back from Canadians on this particular idea.
“That’s something that a lot of Canadians might want to see put to a referendum,” she noted.
One additional upside of compulsory voting, Goodman added, is that it usually leads electoral agencies to make voting much easier, because it’s mandatory — but that’s something Elections Canada should be doing anyway.
“Our electoral bodies need to be focusing on making voting as accessible as possible.”
E-voting could be introduced in stages
One way to make things easier might be allowing Canadians to vote online, or using technology in some other form during the electoral process (for registration, etc.). Elections Canada has been studying the question for years, said Goodman, and now the committee will be examining it anew.
Several municipalities in Canada have already waded into the e-voting waters, and provincial governments in Nova Scotia and Ontario have also studied it.
“I think it’s something that we may see in the future (federally), but it just hasn’t been right politically or contextually to move forward with it right now,” Goodman said.
The upside to e-voting is that it makes voting more accessible for citizens, but governments and citizens have raised concerns that have kept the idea from becoming reality in many jurisdictions. Among them: security, privacy concerns for the voter, the possibility of technological meltdowns that could compromise the results and the use of private companies to provide the technologies used.
“There seems to be some fear about the privatization of elections,” acknowledged Goodman.
Like mandatory voting, one of the main motivations for introducing e-voting is that governments believe it will increase turnout, but there is much more to the equation than that. Studies have shown that charismatic candidates, a particularly close race and the perceived importance of electoral issues (among many other factors) all play a role in getting people to the polls,
Goodman said that her own research has demonstrated “overwhelming support” among Canadians for the introduction of e-voting in some form, but she wouldn’t recommend that the government go full-tilt with a nationwide e-voting framework in 2019.
The best approach, based on experience other jurisdictions, seems to be a gradual introduction to work out any bugs.
“I would imagine that Elections Canada would either evaluate it in a byelection, or they would evaluate it among a specific sub-population of the electorate,” Goodman said.
— With files from the Canadian Press