Today in the legislature I spoke against Bill 20: Election Amendment Act at second reading. This Bill implements a number of the recommendations made by the Chief Electoral Officer in his October 2014 report. However, only one of the Chief Electoral Officer’s three priority recommendations was implemented, and that concerned providing flexibility in opportunities for advance voting.
The main recommendation of the Chief Electoral Officer was to facilitate youth participation “allowing the provisional registration of individuals when they are 16 years of age. The voting age would remain at 18, with provisional registration becoming an active registration on an individual’s 18th birthday.” This was not implemented. Another recommendation that wasn’t implemented was to provide “greater flexibility to the Chief Electoral Officer to introduce, on a pilot basis, a variety of new voting technologies.”
One egregious addition to the bill not recommended by the Chief Electoral Officer and opposed by the Privacy Commissioner is new language that allowed political parties to obtain a list of voters that indicates which voters on the list voted in a previous general election. This list would be available between general elections.
There is simply no way that this information would assist in improving voter turnout. If we accept that government’s motivation for introducing this bill is to improve voter turnout, then it is done in an incredibly inefficient and ineffective manner, one that requires the concomitant creation of a time machine to travel backwards in time. If, as is far more likely, this information is being gathered to enhance the databases of political parties, then it’s incredibly effective.
My own view is that whether a person votes or doesn’t vote is no one else’s business apart from the voter and Elections B.C. There are many ways of improving voter turnout, not the least of which is offering people something to vote for instead of vote against.
Below is the text of the speech I gave at second reading. I will be voting against the bill at second reading. If it passes then, I will be introducing several amendments at committee stage to ensure that the concerns of the Privacy Commissioner are incorporated into the Act.
Text of second reading speech
A. Weaver: I rise today to speak on Bill 20, the Elections Amendment Act. My speech today will revolve around three key elements of the bill. First, I’d like to discuss government’s apparent decision to give up its fight to better regulate the influence of big money during the pre-campaign period. Second, I’ll outline and speak in support of several aspects of this bill that follow from the recommendations made by the Chief Electoral Officer.
Finally, I’ll express my serious reservations about parts of the bill where, under the guise of increasing voter turnout, government has made it easier for political parties to build up their databases. Low voter turnout is a serious issue and deserves far more than a token effort to resolve it. I’ll touch upon this more later on in this speech.
First to pre-writ spending. I’ll deal with each of these in turn, beginning with the pre-campaign period. This is a complex issue that deserves some context.
In 2001 British Columbia became the first jurisdiction in Canada to introduce fixed election dates. Since then, we’ve been followed by seven other provinces as well as by the federal government.
With fixed election dates came new concerns about the role of money in politics. Many commentators warned of a free-for-all occurring in the days and even the months before the writ was officially dropped. This turned out to remarkably accurate. For evidence of this, just turn on Hockey Night in Canada and count the number of political ads that are aimed at the federal election that is still many months away.
In 2008 the province tried to address this new challenge and introduced an Election Amendment Act quite different from the one before us today. That bill set out financing limits for political organizations as well as third parties in the 60 days before the official start of the election.
Spending limits are incredibly important in a vibrant democracy. They work to promote equality in our political discourse. They ensure that wealthy voices don’t drown out the rest and retain confidence in our electoral system.
An important component of any electoral spending law is a limit on third-party spending. Without these limits, political parties can easily circumvent the rules by creating special interest groups to convey their message for them. The limits also prevent the possibility of wealthy individuals or organizations dictating the terms of public discourse and, by extension, the election itself.
One portion of the previous bill, the pre-writ spending limits for third parties, was struck down by the B.C. appellate courts. Their concerns were not with the principle of pre-campaign spending limits but, rather, with the heavy-handed way government put them into place.
The court ruled that the government’s definition of what constituted election advertising was far too broad. Instead of just stopping campaign advertising, it would have muffled commentary from any third parties, regarding the budget, throne speech and government legislation in a pre-campaign period that included the sitting of the Legislature.
Government rewrote their legislation, submitted it to the Court of Appeal and once again faced a ruling that their language was far too broad. It is in response to this history that I presume we see the Election Amendment Act, 2015, repeal the pre-writ spending not just for third parties but, rather, for all political parties as well.
It seems that since government’s attempts to create rules that cover a period before the writ is issued have so far failed the court tests, they are levelling the playing fields to ensure that political parties are not disadvantaged with limits that others do not share.
While I agree wholeheartedly with the government’s early attempts to control spending in the pre-campaign period, I recognize that it has been difficult to properly enforce these regulations, given the court’s ruling, but I would like to quote from the court opinion of Hon. Justice Ryan.
“I am not persuaded that there are not ways of dealing with election advertising that do not interfere with political speech while Legislature is in session. For example, the fixed election date might be changed to a different time of year, the campaign period extended or the definition narrowed. These are matters for the Legislature to determine.”
Government’s attempt to control election spending was an important step on an issue that is pivotal to democracy. I must wonder, however, if we are not walking away from this effort prematurely. I would urge this House to take the advice of Hon. Justice Ryan. With a bill like this, we have an opportunity to tighten their definitions and resubmit legislation. With this bill, we have an opportunity to once again redefine the election process and allow every voice to be heard more clearly.
There are a number of positive elements in this bill. With that said, the elements of the bill that I support are as follows.
In October B.C.’s Chief Electoral Officer released a report on legislative recommendations. These were primarily commonsense measures that could bring about positive change. Government has put many of these into place in the Election Amendment Act before us today.
For instance, they have changed the rules surrounding advanced voting. By giving greater flexibility to Elections B.C., this bill would provide more opportunities for rural voters to cast their ballots early.
Government has also loosened the restrictions on leadership races with only one candidate. Before this, a candidate acclaimed with no opposition, and therefore no expenses, would still have had to fill out an expense report.
Finally, government has fixed inconsistencies in the vouching process. As it stands now, a person vouching for their friend has to prove their identity, while a person claiming to be a relative does not. By changing the vouching process, government has brought more confidence to our electoral process.
However, these were not the only recommendations made by the Chief Electoral Officer. During his consultation, the Chief Electoral Officer discussed solutions to an incredibly important issue facing British Columbians today and, indeed, Canadians as a whole. That is the issue of low voter turnout.
In the last election only 55 percent of eligible British Columbians voted, so 45 percent had a chance to speak, and they stayed silent. Cynicism, apathy, anger, a feeling that there was no one to vote for unless a “none of the above” box was added to the ballot — whatever their reason for silence, it is clear that action must be taken.
With this in mind, the Chief Electoral Officer advised government to take some action. He asked them to authorize Elections B.C. to give candidates a list of voter sequence numbers at the end of each advanced voting day as well as the election itself. The bill before us has followed the Chief Electoral Officer’s recommendation in this regard and codified an already existing practice.
While everyone in this House can recognize the need to address low voter turnout, it’s important to tread carefully. The information citizens give when voting should be used with the greatest care, and this bill must safeguard this responsibility.
These concerns are echoed by the Privacy Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham. I would like to quote Ms. Denham’s letter to the Minister of Justice.
“I fully support the need to address low voter participation, and I recognize that the purpose of sections 96 and 99 amendments is to increase voter turnout in a manner that is controlled by Elections B.C. and fair to all candidates. It’s important to ensure that personal information disclosed to candidates during advanced and general voting is only used for this purpose [and] I would also recommend that Bill 20 require that voter participation information disclosed pursuant to sections 96 and 97 be destroyed following the election.”
It’s with this in mind that I’ve put two amendments on the order paper. Following the advice of the Privacy Commissioner, these amendments would require the voter information gathered by candidates in the new ways laid out in section 96 and 97 to be destroyed following the election.
I recognize the government’s rationale with respect to these sections. I simply urge them to move forward with the utmost caution when it comes to disclosing any voter information.
In fact, my own view is that whether a person votes or doesn’t vote is no one else’s business apart from the voter and Elections B.C. There are many ways of improving voter turnout, not the least of which is offering people something to vote for instead of vote against.
Privacy concerns also render section 6 of this bill very worrisome. This section would require Elections B.C. to offer the list of voters to registered political parties. This list would include their name, address and the new addition, advanced under this bill, of whether or not they actually voted. It did not come from the Chief Electoral Officer’s recommendations, and it has faced serious criticisms from the Privacy Commissioner. To quote Ms. Denham once again:
“The original reason the Legislature authorized Elections B.C. to compile a list of voters was for the purpose of administering elections. I am deeply concerned that the proposed amendments allow for other uses and expand the already broad ability of political parties to collect information about voter participation.
“It would also certainly exceed what British Columbians anticipate when they provide their name to Elections B.C. I do not believe there has been any public consultation on this expanded use of the voters list.”
I recognize that much of this information is already collected by scrutineers and, as such, available to political parties. I recognize government’s argument that this simply codifies existing practices and is intended to increase voter turnout. However, I feel that these arguments fail to recognize one simple fact: this information is given out after an election.
Hon. Speaker, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that it will be very difficult to get people to vote in an election that has already happened. If we generously prescribe government’s motivation to getting out the vote, then it is done in an incredibly inefficient and ineffective manner, one that requires the concomitant creation of a time machine. If, as is far more likely, this information is being gathered to enhance the databases of political parties, then it’s incredibly effective.
Giving voter turnout information to political parties after an election seems to contradict the government’s claims that this has anything to do with increasing voter turnout. One of the reasons cited in discussions of this provision notes that with decreasing engagement, some political parties are facing a shortage of volunteers. This is putting pressure on political parties to find scrutineers and other election day volunteers to help them get out their vote.
I have significant issues with this line of reasoning. In my view, the use of technology in elections should be used to enhance the relationship that a candidate and a political party has with the voters. It can’t help facilitate an ongoing relationship with far more voters than was previously possible.
However, if we allow it — that’s technology — it can also boil the incredibly important human interactions that are essential in a thriving democracy down to data points, and this we must be concerned about this.
To maintain a connection to the electorate requires hard work, especially in a time when voter engagement is on the decline. If we truly want to address voter disengagement, let’s do it in a way that offers new engagement opportunities, not by providing political parties with information about the electorate that boils it down to data points so that they don’t have to worry about working hard to gather it themselves.
Furthermore, this provision is especially discriminatory towards independent candidates. Right now only political parties will be able to take advantage of it. There’s no reason for independent candidates, like the esteemed member for Delta South, to be boxed out of the process even further. A variety of voices gives life to debate in the House. The act, whether intentional on, provides a huge advantage to political parties at the expense of independent voices.
I’d urge government to retract this section entirely. It’s poorly constructed, it did not come through consultation, and it does not serve the interests of British Columbia.
Failing that, I’d urge them to adopt another amendment that I’ve added to the order paper. It would not fix the act entirely, but it could be an important step in the right direction. This amendment would address one of the Privacy Commissioner’s most important concerns and put stringent conditions on the use of voter participation information. It would allow Elections B.C. to regulate the use of information under the definition of electoral purposes and explicitly prohibit the use of information for commercial purposes or the disclosure of information to any organization or public body.
Now let’s turn to voter turnout. Ostensibly, the aforementioned new disclosure is made in order to increase voter turnout. If this really is the case, government has missed its mark entirely, sacrificing privacy without fixing the problem. Government needs to get serious about dealing with low voter turnout and address it in a way that actually has the evidence to back up its claims. It deserves serious discussion and debate, and it deserves to be the very core of this bill.
With that in mind, there are certainly ideas I would love to have seen in this bill that could take practical steps toward increasing voter turnout. One example is an idea that was actually raised by the official opposition in the last election and has been recommended by the chief elections officer: bring in voter register to 16. By lowering registration age, we would empower Elections B.C. to work with driver’s licence programs as well as schools.
Every single high school student in the province of British Columbia is required to take social studies in grade 11, and a large part of the class is learning about democracy and citizenship. This unit could culminate in registering to vote, with the importance of this duty fresh in the minds of the students taking the course.
We should have all British Columbians registered by the time they can vote; 18- to 24-year-olds have the lowest voter registration rates, and voting is habit-forming. A generation that votes when they’re young is far more likely to do so when they’re older. If we can impact change at a young age, it will carry forward in the years to come.
In fact, perhaps we should be reducing the voter age to 16. If 16-year-olds are allowed to drive, perhaps we should initiate a conversation concerning whether they should be allowed to vote as well. After all, the youth of today live the consequences of the decisions we make. It’s important that we engage them early in our democratic institutions.
This would be a positive step forward, but alone it is not enough. We need to start a serious conversation on how to rebuild public engagement and convince British Columbians to let their voices be heard. We should have consultation from a wide variety sources and forum that draw bold legislation that can impact real change. This should start with the introduction of a ban on union and corporate donations, as is the case federally. Neither unions nor corporations vote. People vote.
In conclusion, there are many things that our electoral system requires, many ways to breathe new life into our democracy. We need spending limits in the weeks leading up to a campaign. Groups with the most money should not be able to drown out every other voice. If we’re going to hear the diverse set of voices that make up a dynamic campaign, we need to keep the drone of money down.
At the same time, we need to carefully balance spending limits with people’s right to criticize or compliment government and its actions. In its previous laws on pre-writ spending, the government’s goals may have been noble, but its delivery was flawed. This prognosis rings unfortunately true for the legislation before us.
Getting out the vote is remarkably important to any true democracy, but it cannot come at the expense of the rights democracy is designed to protect. There is no way I can justify trading our privacy for a weak attempt — an unjustified attempt — at increasing engagement. If government is serious about bringing more people to the polls, they should make a concerted effort to do so. They should engage stakeholders, work with experts and build consensus. If they brought forward a bill which promised to effect real and positive change in this area, then I would support it wholeheartedly.
As it stands, I cannot support this token effort when real action is needed. I cannot support an attack on privacy when entrenched political parties are the only ones who will benefit. For these, I cannot support this bill and will be voting against it at second reading.