Dragging democracy into the 21st century

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TheStar.com – news/canada/politics
Published On Thu Aug 18 2011.   By Tim Harper, National Affairs Columnist

Tackling voter apathy, Marc Mayrand concedes, is beyond his pay grade.

But Canada’s chief electoral officer does want to make it easier and more convenient to vote and he seems determined to drag the creaking Canadian democratic machinery into the 21st century.

It remains to be seen if the party with the most dedicated voter base will back him.

If Mayrand gets his way, Canada’s federal voting system will be a modernized entity reflecting reality by Oct. 19, 2015, when Canadians next go to the polls.

He has acknowledged that the archaic legislation which governs the system “no longer allows us to meet the evolving needs of electors and candidates.”

For starters, he believes the reality of social media means it is futile to try to outlaw the use of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook — or whatever we will be using four years from now — on election night.

Canadians are used to real-time information, never more so on election night, regardless of where they live.

A court challenge to the election night blackout, brought by CBC and CTV, will be heard next March.

They argue withholding information contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, so the court may beat Parliament on this one.

Mayrand wants to start dabbling in Internet voting, testing it in a byelection after 2013 and freeing up the Internet to allow citizens to advocate for candidates.

“The use of new technologies can improve the federal electoral process by enhancing both equality and freedom of expression,” Mayrand says in his report on the May 2 vote.

He also wants to make it easier to register voters, perhaps following the lead of Alberta and British Columbia (and soon Ontario) which allow Internet registration.

He is also looking at ways to reduce lineups at polling stations on voting day and making better use of advance polls, where Canadians voted in record numbers in April.

It’s about as good a read from a bureaucrat as you are likely to find in this town.

“It’s the most forward-looking report of an electoral officer I have seen in a very long time,” says Marc Chikinda, the dean of the faculty of communications studies at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

It would be hard to imagine why a government would not look favourably on such common sense reforms.

But the Conservative government excelled in getting its supporters to the polls, and that was a major factor in Stephen Harper’s majority victory May 2.

Post-election polling shows that voters who said they would vote Conservative took the time and effort to do just that, while those who said they were voting NDP did not back it up with the same level of election-day action.

Every reform suggested by Mayrand would appeal to younger voters, not the Harper demographic in 2011.

About 15 per cent of Canadians are over 65. But they turned out in droves, with a turnout approaching 80 per cent, to vote overwhelming for the Conservatives.

In the 18-30 age group, Conservatives struggled to reach 20 per cent support, but the party benefited from the fact that barely one in three in that age group bothered to vote.

Overall on May 2, 61.1 per cent of eligible Canadians voted.

Clearly, Mayrand can push for any number of election reforms, allowing Canadians to vote from their couch while watching the hockey game, and some still will not bother.

When Statistics Canada surveyed the 7.5 million eligible voters who didn’t bother to cast a ballot, they found that 28 per cent were simply not interested.

But another 23 per cent said they were too busy and another 10 per cent said they were out of town.

Canada’s chief electoral officer wants to make it more difficult for them to use that excuse.

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