Elections Canada proposes measures to protect nomination contests from interference

Elections Canada is proposing possible changes to protect the political nomination process from foreign interference. These include banning non-citizens from participating in candidate selection, requiring parties to publish contest rules and explicitly prohibiting certain practices, such as voting more than once.

The Federal Election Agency outlines the proposed steps in a discussion guide intended to help chief election officer Stéphane Perrault draft final recommendations to be submitted later this year to a commission of inquiry into foreign interference.

“We recognize that some changes may impose a burden on political entities or impact internal policies,” the discussion guide said.

“We believe the gains are important: nomination contests that voters have confidence in and fewer opportunities for electoral irregularities that could cause Canadians to question the legitimacy of elected members of parliament.”

The Canadian Press used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the guide and an accompanying May 30 briefing to Perrault.

The guide was prepared for a planned June meeting of the Political Parties Advisory Committee, a forum where registered parties can meet with the chief electoral officer to discuss the administration of elections, the implementation of the Canada Elections Act and matters relating to political financing.

It is noted that at the committee’s annual general meeting last September there was “little enthusiasm for changes” to the regulations surrounding nomination competitions.

However, in early May, an interim report from the federal investigation into foreign interference, led by Judge Marie-Josee Hogue, indicated that nominating contests could be a potential gateway to interference.

Stephane Perrault, chief electoral officer for Elections Canada, answers questions from a lawyer during his appearance before the public inquiry into foreign interference in federal electoral processes and democratic institutions, Thursday, March 28, 2024, in Ottawa.
Stephane Perrault, chief electoral officer for Elections Canada, answers questions from a lawyer during his appearance before the public inquiry into foreign interference in federal electoral processes and democratic institutions, Thursday, March 28, 2024, in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In this context, the chief electoral officer “has a duty to consider ways to increase the transparency and security of nomination contests,” the guide said.

A report published early last month by the House of Representatives’ National Security and Intelligence Committee raised concerns about how easily foreign actors could exploit loopholes and vulnerabilities to support favoured candidates.

“This is an important gap because a number of constituencies in Canada are considered ‘safe seats’ for one party or another, so a successful nomination can lead to the election of a candidate,” the report said.

Canada Elections Act Limited

The briefing note to Perrault points out that the Canada Elections Act currently provides for “limited regulation” of federal nomination races and candidates.

For example, only candidates who accept $1,000 in contributions or incur $1,000 in expenses are required to file a financial return. Elections Canada has no way to verify whether campaigns fall below the threshold.

Furthermore, the law contains no specific obligations regarding candidacy, voting, counting or reporting of results, other than the identity of the successful nominee.

The “preliminary ideas for discussion” fall into two categories: strengthening the nomination process and improving the transparency of political financing, the discussion guide says.

One significant change would require voters in nomination contests to be Canadian citizens, similar to the eligibility requirement for elections. “Non-citizens may be more vulnerable to intimidation by a foreign state,” the guide said.

By providing access to current voter registers, eligibility can be checked.

An alternative proposal would limit voting rights in nomination contests to citizens or permanent residents.

Other possible changes include:

  • require parties to publish rules for nomination contests, including who can participate, who can vote, voter identification requirements, the voting process and how the results can be challenged;
  • require parties to publish more complete voting results, such as the number of votes cast and the distribution of votes;
  • an explicit prohibition on practices such as inducing an unauthorized person to vote, intimidation to influence someone to vote, offering or accepting bribes in connection with voting, and casting multiple votes;
  • requiring all candidates to submit a financial statement;
  • and a ban on the purchase of party memberships in bulk or using campaign funds.

The guide stresses that parties still have the option to select a candidate without holding a nomination contest. “The recommendations would only apply if a contest is held.”

Matthew McKenna, a spokesman for Elections Canada, said Friday that the conversation with members of the political party advisory committee last month “is part of an ongoing process.”

“We look forward to continuing that conversation with political parties.”

The briefing note to Perrault suggests a legal change that would require parties to have a set of publicly available rules for nominating contests. The Commissioner of Elections Canada could have an oversight role, and potentially impose fines for non-compliance.

Another option would be to ‘leave it up to the parties to regulate themselves’, which is currently the case for parties’ privacy policies.

A key question is whether Elections Canada would regulate nominating contests with rules similar to those for federal elections, including matters such as election workers, identification and ballot counting.

“This would clearly be a huge undertaking for the agency and is not a preferred option,” the briefing note said. “Such an approach would also likely be strongly opposed by the parties.”

McKenna confirmed that Elections Canada “does not intend to conduct nomination contests on behalf of parties, but believes that rules can help protect those contests.”

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