Welcome upgrades to Canada’s democracy

NationalPost.com – opinion
Aug. 19, 2011.   National Post

In a report released this week, chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand recapped the general election held on May 2. Canada’s democratic machinery functioned smoothly, and voter turnout was up to 61%, a disappointingly low figure, but at least a move in the right direction. The final cost of the election – $291-million, or $12 per voter – is a small price to pay for our system of government. Though the repeated elections between 2004 and 2011 tried Canadians’ patience, the blessings of stable, peaceful elections should not be taken for granted.

There were glitches, of course. Accessibility to polling stations remains an issue for some voters, and more must be done to ensure that every Canadian who wishes to cast a ballot is able to do so. This is doubly true for the military personnel whose sacrifices safeguard our freedoms – though more than 2,500 votes were cast by Canadian troops in Kandahar, Mr. Mayrand’s report notes that there were several hundred Canadians whose military duties did not permit them the opportunity to vote. Though logistics of sustaining a military conducting global operations are undeniably complex, the inability of deployed service members to vote is an unfortunate irony that should be addressed in time for the next general election.

But Mr. Mayrand’s report includes more substantive suggestions than simple incremental improvements to the existing system. We particularly welcome his suggestion that the government ban on transmitting election results before all polls have closed be revoked. The notion that voters in British Columbia would choose not to vote solely because returns from the eastern provinces may have already settled the election was always spurious – British Columbians have as much a stake in selecting their local MP as any Canadian, and the mandatory blackout of polling returns until they had a chance to vote was insulting and paternalistic in suggesting otherwise.

As if that was not bad enough, the ban is also laughably obsolete. The Internet and social media tools that enable the instant electronic transmission of local results resulted in many absurdities in the recent election. Media organizations that were fully aware of results in Atlantic Canada refrained from sharing that information with the public, while individual citizens made a mockery of the ban by tweeting the election returns, substituting the party affiliations for innocuous daily items that aligned with the colours of the political parties (“Results so far show that Atlantic Canada has four cans of Pepsi, two oranges and a cherry,” for example). When a law can be so easily flouted that it has literally become a joke, it’s time for that law to go. We applaud Mr. Mayrand for suggesting that Parliament should revoke the rule.

The willingness of Elections Canada to consider how to bring voting online is also welcome. Several provinces already allowed citizens to register to vote online, and this should be adopted at the federal level. Actually voting online is also a worthy suggestion, assuming a proper balance can be struck between making such a transaction both secure and simple enough to find broad public acceptance. Such a secure-voting system would do much to address the accessibility concerns of Canadians with disabilities and deployed members of the armed forces, and is a logical progression for a society where citizens are already comfortable using the Internet for routine banking and commerce.

The system would be imperfect and vulnerable to fraud and misuse, of course, but the same is true of traditional voting methods. A test case is planned for an upcoming by-election, and if it proves successful, an online voting system should be prepared for the next federal vote. That, combined with the removal of the outdated law against the transmission of results, would do much to give Canadian democracy a welcome update.

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