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Remote voting amid coronavirus can be done securely: House of Commons Speaker

Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau says Parliament will sit four times per week going forward
Speaking to reporters outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Wednesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the new Parliamentary schedule, which will see MPs sit four times per week, will allow the highest level of Canadian federal government will stay "functioning" during the COVID-19 pandemic.

House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota says he is now comfortable with the technology that could allow MPs to vote remotely during the hybrid Parliament sittings.

Just seven weeks ago, Rota told the House of Commons committee on procedure and House affairs that an electronic voting system for MPs was not something Canadians were going to see “in the near future.”

But Tuesday he told that same committee a “conceptual solution” has been developed using existing House of Commons security and technology.

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“We’re technically ready for virtual voting,” Rota said.

He said now it’s up to the House of Commons to decide how it wants to use that technology and what MPs are comfortable accepting.

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The committee will report back the House June 23 with its recommendation and then the parties would have to agree to resume a full sitting of Parliament in order to vote on an option to allow electronic remote voting.

The House suspended in mid-March as part of the national effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 and other than two emergency sittings with a reduced number of MPs present to vote on COVID-19 aid bills, the House remains suspended now. A special COVID-19 committee, with all 338 MPs as members, is standing in for the full House.

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At first it met virtually twice a week and in person once a week with a smaller number of MPs. In May, the House voted to expand the special committee to a hybrid format, meeting four times a week with some MPs participating remotely and others in the chamber in Ottawa.

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The Conservative and Bloc Quebecois wanted the full House to resume, arguing the special committee leaves out several tools afforded to opposition parties to get information out of the government. That includes the full powers of committees to summon witnesses, motions, opposition days and written questions.

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The Liberals and NDP balked, worrying that without the ability to vote from outside the chamber, some MPs who couldn’t travel to Ottawa in the midst of the pandemic would have their privileges breached. The rules that govern how the House operates are mostly contained in what are referred to as standing orders, which MPs vote on each Parliament. Those have to be amended to allow for virtual voting.

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Rota said the electronic solutions offer a number of options for MPs to look at, including surveying MPs to ask them how they vote, or asking them to press a button. Security codes or biometrics can also be used to verify their identities, he said.

Rota said the three biggest concerns are making sure MPs know what they are voting on, giving them sufficient time to get to a computer when they have to vote and that the House can confirm the identity of who is voting.

He said public votes are easier to secure because the results are transparent, so MPs can see if their vote was recorded properly. For secret ballots he has more concerns because there is no way for MPs to verify their vote was properly recorded. Secret ballots only happen for Speakers’ elections and on the rare occasion a decision about a private member’s bill is challenged.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau wants to ensure MPs can vote remotely
Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau wants to ensure MPs can vote remotely

NDP MP Rachel Blaney, who was participating in the committee from her riding on Vancouver Island, said she is theoretically in support of remote voting but wants every step to be taken slowly so every unforeseen circumstance can be addressed. She also insists that it only be an interim measure to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conservative deputy house leader and Ontario MP John Nater said in a written statement that the Conservatives won’t support any changes that make a virtual Parliament permanent, and that any changes that do happen must be temporary and specifically connected to the pandemic.

“Conservatives believe that members of Parliament must stand and be accountable for their votes in the House of Commons,” he said.

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MPs debate on how Parliament should proceed amid pandemic

Simon Ross, a spokesman for government House leader Pablo Rodriguez, said the Liberals want all parties to support electronic voting so the full House of Commons can resume.

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“We are 100 per cent in favour of electronic voting,” he said. “With it, all Canadians will be safely represented in the House of Commons, not only people living in Ottawa, Montreal or Toronto.”