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Liberals table elections law reforms aimed at making it easier to vote, harder to meddle

An Elections Canada worker, right, holds a voter's coffee as they record COVID-19 contact-tracking information at the Halifax Convention Centre as they prepare to vote in the federal election in Halifax on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan An Elections Canada worker, right, holds a voter's coffee as they record COVID-19 contact-tracking information at the Halifax Convention Centre as they prepare to vote in the federal election in Halifax on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
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The federal Liberal government tabled electoral reform legislation Wednesday that seeks to alter the way voters cast their ballots in a series of ways, while proposing measures to better protect the electoral process from foreign interference and disinformation.

Presented in the House of Commons by Public Safety, Democratic Institutions and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, the sweeping new bill advances amendments to the Canada Elections Act "to make it easier for Canadians to vote in a federal election" and enhance "trust in Canada's electoral process."

While not a full-scale overhaul of the federal voting system as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau once promised, when it comes to electoral participation, Bill C-65 proposes to:

  • add two additional days of advance voting, giving Canadians a total of seven days to cast their ballot;
  • improve the vote-by-mail special ballot process, including by allowing voters who registered for but did not use their special ballot to vote in-person on election day with safeguards to prevent double-voting;
  • make the 2015 pilot 'Vote on Campus' program permanent;
  • offer dedicated, on-site voting for electors in long-term care, including allowing staff to identify the best day and time for residents to vote;
  • give voters who require assistance, such as those with disabilities rendering them unable to mark their ballot, the choice of who may help them when voting; and
  • move the 2025 fixed Oct. 20 election date to the following Monday to not conflict with Diwali.

Further, the government is promising to take steps towards allowing voting at any polling station in an elector's riding, as well as to further study the measures needed to allow an "expanded" three-day voting period during general elections, eventually.

LeBlanc said Elections Canada raised concerns about fully enacting these two measures — included in the Liberal-NDP confidence-and-supply agreement — right now.

"[NDP Leader Jagmeet] Singh and the prime minister very much wanted to have a three-day voting period of Saturday, Sunday and Monday," LeBlanc said. "Elections Canada came to us with some thoughtful operational challenges," he said, citing concerns around finding suitable polling locations available over a weekend.

As a result, elections officials are being mandated to set out on an exploratory process, and come back to Parliament by 2027, with the aim of making further changes by 2029.

AI, disinformation, privacy targeted

Going beyond what was in the two-party pact, LeBlanc's bill adds other Liberal pledges and new efforts to shore up future elections from foreign meddling.

For example, Bill C-65 the "Electoral Participation Act" also stitches in Canada Elections Act amendments aimed at:

  • expanding key protections against foreign interference, including banning any foreign entity from unduly meddling or influencing Canadians to refrain from casting a ballot for a potential candidate or eligible party, beyond the election period;
  • banning "intentionally false or misleading statements about election activities or the voting process to disrupt an election or its results";
  • prohibiting contributions through money orders, pre-paid gift cards and crypto-assets, alongside new third-party contribution rules; and
  • clarifying rules around impersonation to include the misuse of artificial intelligence or deepfakes.

"The Elections Act has to evolve with new technologies," LeBlanc said. "And there's a real concern around the world, we've seen it in other jurisdictions, around the potential use of deepfakes … that can have a very serious impact on an election. It's certainly something that the security services talk to me about."

However, questions remain on whether the new deepfake and disinformation measures will be responsive enough to address incidents that may arise in the midst of elections, given the investigatory time needed, with a government official who briefed reporters on background indicating "the Canada Elections Act can only do so much."

When it comes to cases where verifiably false statements regarding election activities are knowingly made, an official said if an offence is determined, it could be punishable as a summary conviction of up to $20,000 and/or prison for up to one year. If it's a conviction on indictment, it could be $50,000 and/or prison for up to five years.

The Canada Elections Act is the country's fundamental legal framework regulating Canada's electoral process. It is administered by the Chief Electoral Officer and Elections Canada, while the compliance and enforcement elements are overseen by the Commissioner of Canada Elections.

The government says Wednesday's package of reforms are informed by recommendations from these officials, lessons learned from the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, as well as "the evolving global and domestic context."

Another major addition to the bill is a plan to impose new privacy policy requirements for federal political parties. Party privacy has for years been a preoccupation for politicos and information protection advocates, who have warned Canada's regime is lagging behind.

Under a past round of election law changes, the Liberal government made it so political parties had to post their privacy policies online, but stopped short of subjecting parties to tougher privacy rules and oversight for the data they harvest from the electorate, despite calls to do so.

Now, federal parties are expected to abide by new safeguards such as using locked filing cabinets, limiting access to voter contact information, disclosure requirements in the event of a significant privacy breach and tougher enforcement measures including administrative monetary penalties.

Hope to pass in time for 2025

Reforms to Canada's elections law can become contentious and it remains to be seen how this expansive package goes over with other parties.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, LeBlanc and his NDP counterpart Daniel Blaikie indicated a desire to see these measures passed in time for them to come into effect for the next federal election, required under law to be held no later than October 2025.

After leading negotiations for his party on the elements of this bill the NDP was pushing the Liberals to enact, Blaikie announced last month that he would vacate his seat on Parliament Hill as of March 31.

Speaking in what is likely to be his last media availability on Parliament Hill as an MP, Blaikie said he felt it was important to make expanding access for Canadians one of his final moves.

"Anyone who's worked on a campaign knows that there are often Canadians who are struggling to balance the obligations of work and family in a day, as well as get to polling stations in order to be able to vote," Blaikie said.

These election law alterations also come after years of heightened attention around the integrity of Canada's electoral processes, and amid an ongoing national public inquiry into foreign interference in relation to the last two federal campaigns. 

On Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participated in a session on technology, elections, misinformation and disinformation as part of a democracy summit. There, he announced $30.4 million for new projects meant to "strengthen democracy in Canada and around the world."

"Our democracies didn't happen by accident, and they won't continue without effort," Trudeau said in a statement. 

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