They don’t seem well-matched for a public scrap. Pierre Poilievre, 34, is a rookie cabinet minister and Conservative ultra-partisan, whose every utterance sounds calibrated to score points. Marc Mayrand, 60, is Canada’s chief electoral officer, and talks like what he is: a veteran federal administrator who toiled, until recent years, in relative obscurity. Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Mayrand to head Elections Canada in 2007, presumably never guessing that the reserved former superintendent of bankruptcy would emerge as one of his party’s most persistent antagonists. But by the time Harper picked Poilievre last summer to spearhead long-awaited election law reforms, the Prime Minister had to be acutely aware that his new minister of state for democratic reform would be up against a dogged adversary.
Early last month, Poilievre tabled his Fair Elections Act, a blueprint for sweeping amendments to the Canada Elections Act. “Each fraudulent vote cancels out an honest one,” he declared, justifying his key move—ending the practice of allowing a voter who doesn’t bring regular ID to a polling station to have someone else vouch for his or her identity. Mayrand countered that more than 100,000 voters—many of them Aboriginals or seniors—will be denied the ability to vote if vouching is banned. Appearing before a House committee last week, he implied that Poilievre has failed to grasp the real issue. “It is essential to understand,” Mayrand told MPs, “that the main challenge for our electoral democracy is not voter fraud, but voter participation.”
In an interview with Maclean’s, Mayrand said if Canadian elections really were rife with fraud, tough steps would indeed be needed. But he says that isn’t what his officials find when they study the results after each election for signs of widespread improper voting, sometimes scrutinizing in detail a particular riding. “Each time we look at it, there is absolutely no evidence of any systemic or organized abuse,” he says. Asked why he thinks Poilievre put so much emphasis on the issue, Mayrand suggests politicians tend to inflate stories they hear about their rivals’ misdeeds. “There’s a fair bit of what I call urban legend in play here,” he says.
For a vivid illustration, consider Conservative MP Brad Butt’s recent telling of tall tales. Butt repeatedly declared in the House last month that he had “actually seen” and “actually witnessed” campaign workers picking up discarded voter information cards, mailed out by Elections Canada, from the blue boxes in apartment buildings in his suburban Toronto riding. He claimed that these devious campaign workers—presumably, not fellow Tories—would pass the cards out to supporters, who would then show the scavenged documents at polling stations, where they could be vouched for by conspiring friends, allowing them to cast fraudulent votes. Butt later admitted, however, that he had never really seen any of that occur. Asked in question period about his MP’s fabrication, Harper said Butt was “to be commended” for correcting the record. The episode not only embarrassed the government, it raised doubts about the reality of precisely the type of fraud Poilievre was targeting.
If Mayrand isn’t too concerned about fraudulent voting, he’s deeply worried about the way political parties operate. After the 2011 vote, for instance, parties were reimbursed $33 million by the federal government—without having to produce a single receipt to verify the campaign spending that qualiﬁed them for the rebate. “We’re talking about public funds here,” Mayrand says. “I don’t know any other case where governments disperse funds without being satisfied that they were properly claimed.” Poilievre counters that there’s no need for Mayrand to see those receipts on a routine basis; if he doubts a party’s expense report, he can always refer the matter for investigation to the elections commissioner, who can then seek a court order to get any documents. But Mayrand says he’s only seeking a power that provincial agencies already have, leaving the federal level “the only jurisdiction in Canada where political parties are not required to produce supporting documentation for their reported expenses.”
He has also red-flagged what he sees as a big problem Poilievre is creating, when it comes to policing future election spending. The act would exclude from capped campaign spending limits anything parties spend on reaching out to their past supporters, by phone, mail or email, asking for donations. “For anybody who has ever seen one, there is no practical way of distinguishing a fundraiser mail-out from advertising,” Mayrand says. “And it takes little imagination to understand that other partisan communications can be dressed up as fundraisers.” Even if get-out-the-vote messages could somehow be neatly distinguished from the fundraising kind, Mayrand says Poilievre makes no provision for Elections Canada to actually examine the material to make that judgment. “We would need to have access to the documents, which we don’t currently and won’t have under the bill,” he says.
It seems unlikely the Conservatives would be eager to offer Elections Canada a new job scrutinizing how they connect with their supporters. They have waged a running battle with the agency for several years. In 2011, the party pleaded guilty to campaign spending violations in the 2006 election. Two Manitoba Tory MPs clashed with Elections Canada last year when an investigation found that they had overshot their local 2011 campaign spending limits. And the so-called robocalls investigation, into deceptive calls that sent voters to the wrong polling locations in the 2011 election, continues. Some Conservatives have long since decided Mayrand is out to get them.
Mayrand asserts that his preoccupation isn’t with any particular party, but with all of them—especially when it comes to how they compile and use their increasingly sophisticated voter databases. “My concern is there are absolutely no rules governing the use of that information,” Mayrand says. Poilievre isn’t proposing any new privacy standards, but his reforms would increase the amount of detailed information the parties can collect after every election on who voted.
Up to now, parties have had only limited voting-day access to information on who shows up to cast a ballot. (Of course, the sanctity of the secret ballot means parties never find out who anyone has voted for.) Under the new rules, parties would be able to request the record for every polling station—called “bingo cards” in the jargon of election workers—to let them assemble complete lists of who voted and deduce who did not. Mayrand calls for rules on how parties manage that sort of data. For instance, he says individuals should be able to find out what information on them is being held, and should be notified if there’s a security breach that allows outsiders to gain access to what the parties have collected.
Political parties are not now covered by the privacy laws that regulate government institutions, or the rules on how private companies can use the information they collect on customers and employees. “I don’t know of any other entity that’s not subjected, in this day and age, to any basic standards regarding protection of privacy,” Mayrand says.
Most of the friction between Mayrand and Poilievre is over how elections are run and parties are regulated. But when it comes to curtailing Elections Canada’s ability to communicate, it’s hard not to see the Fair Elections Act as a bid to put the agency in its place. Poilievre’s reforms would limit Mayrand, and his successors, to passing along only practical information, such as how and when to vote. He wants to stop Elections Canada from being involved with, say, programs to encourage youth voting, or from publicizing research into elections. “It will be left to aspiring candidates and parties to give people something for which to vote, and to reach out to citizens where they are,” Poilievre says. It’s a vision of parties as central to Canadian democracy, the agency that oversees elections limited to an administrative role.
Mayrand is in a fight to preserve a larger mission for Elections Canada. But he worries about being drawn into the political arena that his office is meant to view with detachment. “The further we politicize our institution, the higher the risk of Canadians starting to lose confidence in it,” he says. “It takes a long time to build institutions. It doesn’t take long to undermine them.”