Louis Lavoie is a former Director of
Operational Planning and International Services with Elections Canada. At the
time this article was written he was a consultant in electoral systems.
The importance of reducing
expenditures and improving programs, systems and procedures concerning voter
registration in Canada is again on the public agenda. This article argues that
in order to find ways for saving substantial amounts of money it is necessary
to do away with the repetitive and antiquated enumeration systems at all levels
of government and in the process reduce the election period by up to fifteen
days. Times have changed and so have the life styles and our systems must
Voter registration is the basis of
the democratic process. Without it, citizens could not legitimately cast the
ballot to which they are entitled. If a voter registration system is to be
judged appropriate to a free and democratic society like Canada it must be
designed according to the following principles:
it must enable all qualified citizens to be included on the list of
it must be designed so as to prevent fraud.
it must be widely accepted as an authoritative and legitimate means of
orderly listing the electoral population.
it must provide universal accessibility, be widely perceived as fair and
reasonable, and work effectively in terms of cost.
Canada is the only major democracy
in the world that waits until an election is called to register electors to
vote. Since the exact date is always unknown, the federal and provincial
governments assume much more responsibility for voter registration than do
governments in other democracies.
Few of the basic details of the
registration system in Canada have changed since 1938. The fundamentals that
were put in place at that time largely define the system today which is
lengthy, complicated and cumbersome. Registration is also the most costly part
of the election and is certainly a less practical system than the ones in force
in other countries which do not enumerate at each election. The United States,
Mexico, United Kingdom and France all have some form of permanent lists.
At the federal level in Canada, by
far the most expensive portion of the election is the enumeration organized by
Returning Officers in each of the 295 electoral districts with an average of 70,000
electors each. The cost of the 1988 federal enumeration was about $24,655,000
for payments to enumerators. In addition, an amount of $3,145,000 was paid for
Revision which follows enumeration. There was also an amount of over $8,500,000
for the printing and mailing of "vote at cards". Hence the total cost
of voter registration for the 1988 federal election was just over $36,000,000.
When indexed to 1995 costs this amount comes to nearly $50,000,000.
Available provincial data would
indicate that a comparable amount was spent to register voters for recent
provincial and territorial elections. At this time only British Columbia
maintains a permanent list. At the municipal level, lists are sometimes
prepared from available local records and often computerized.
The Minister responsible for
electoral reform in the province of Quebec, tabled Bill 40 in the National
Assembly introducing a computerized permanent list system for the Registration
of Electors which would be used at provincial, municipal and school electoral
events. These lists would be updated from the Quebec Register of Health
Insurance. It is estimated that the new procedure would allow a reduction from
47 to 33 days for the electoral period and would save millions of dollars over
the next few years.
The Quebec plan calls for a
complete enumeration in September of this year in preparation for the municipal
elections followed by a Referendum to be held some time in the fall. This
enumeration would create the database for the revised Registration system to be
used at provincial, municipal and school board elections.
Types of Permanent Lists
There are generally two types of
permanent lists. The difference between them is the length of time during which
additions, corrections or deletions may be made. Both types are continuous in
that the information once gathered is retained indefinitely. The two basic
types are as follows:
1) where there is a stipulated time
for registration or changes in the registration, and the subsequent lists are
in force for all elections ordered during a period of as long as one year
beyond a given date, such lists are called "closed lists" or simply
"permanent lists". As these lists are based on information that is
already a few months old at the time they are "closed", they get out
of date rather quickly, particularly where the mobility of the population is
rather high. This is the type of lists that are in use in many West European
countries including the United Kingdom.
2) Where additions, corrections and
deletions are allowed to be made at any time up to a fixed date before election
day, such lists are called "continuous electoral rolls". In Australia
where this type of lists is in use, changes in the register may be made at any
time up to and including the day of the issue of the writs of election.
The main difference, however is
that the second type normally provides for more up-to-date lists. In both cases
the onus is on the individual elector to register as opposed to the Canadian system
of enumeration where this responsibility rests with the State.
The Introduction of Permanent
Lists in Canada
The question of permanent lists has
been researched and studied a number of times in Canada, namely:
1968 - Report of the Representation
Commissioner on Methods of Registration of Electors and Absentee Voting (N.
1975 - An Examination of Possible
ways of Reducing the Election Period (Jean Marc Hamel)
1986 - White Paper on Election
1992 - The Royal Commission on Electoral
Reform and Party Financing (Government)
The Royal Commission made several
important recommendations related to registration. Their recommendations were
considered by the Special Committee of the House of Commons on Electoral Reform
and as a result of Bill C-114 most of them are now part of the Canadian
Election Act. These changes had the effect of modernizing to some extent
the process of enumeration and making it more efficient and voter friendly. The
Commission did not recommend the installation of a permanent lists at this time
mainly because of the mobility of the Canadian population and the complexity of
establishing a system which could be used by the federal, provincial and
In 1992, for the first time in
Canada, all federal lists of electors were computerized by inputting the data
gathered by enumerators using a standardized software: the Elections Canada
Automated Production of Lists of Electors system (ECAPLE). The system was
nationwide, organized and implemented by electoral district. It was thus
possible to use the district lists for the Constitutional Referendum on the
Charlottetown Accord in October 26, 1992. The system offers a number of
advantages, not the least of which is improving the efficiency, and accessibility
of the enumeration records. All of the information can be stored on a compact
disc. The system is ongoing, and benefits should continue to accrue, not only
at the federal level but hopefully through eventual sharing of information with
municipal and provincial election officials. Representatives of Elections
Canada in Ottawa have met on a number of occasions with representatives of
Provincial Electoral Authorities to discuss various operational systems aiming
at the development of a generic model which would permit the use of continuous
electoral rolls at all levels of government in Canada. The reaction from the
provinces has been positive to this date but more consultation is needed.
A study by the Bureau of Management
Consulting considered feasible, in principle, a system of voter registration
which would encompass:
an initial enumeration to establish
updating the lists through the use
of existing governmental information sources such as postal change-of-address
cards, citizenship records, provincial vital statistics records, etc.,
a mailing to households after the
writs are issued for a general election;
a period of a few days following
the issue of the writs for correction of the lists.
Arguments "For" and
"Against" a Permanent List
In the White Paper on Election Law
Reform, published, by the President of the Privy Council in 1986, there is a
chapter on permanent voters' lists, in which are listed a number of arguments
for and against such a system are presented.
The arguments for include:
A significant shortening of the election period.
Duplication of effort at the three levels of government could be
One list for all levels of government would be less confusing and
The cost of such a system could be estimated with reasonable accuracy
following a detailed operational study; while it may be costly in terms of
system development in the long run it should result in substantial savings.
Some of the arguments against were
A permanent list would not necessarily be more accurate, more complete
or up-to-date than a list compiled by the present enumeration followed by
A permanent list system places more responsibility for registration on
the individual than does our current system. In the United States where voter
registration is purely voluntary on 50 to 60% of the potential electorate
registers. Canadians' registration on the other hand is estimated to be 90%.
The major problem with permanent lists is how to keep the information
current. This is a particular problem in Canada where there are no fixed dates
for elections, and there exits a high level of population mobility.
Another argument is that electors may object to the practical
implications of a computerized Voters' list. For example, people might object
to providing Canada Post with changes of address if that information were to be
used for other purposes. People may distrust the existence of such a large
integrated data bank.
Implementation of a Reliable
The greatest challenge in implementing
a permanent list could be determining how to update the lists in a manner which
is efficient, cost effective and acceptable to the Canadian public.
One method for gathering the necessary
data for updating the lists could be using the information provided by
Citizenship and the Post Office.
To vote in Canada an elector must
be a Canadian Citizen and be eighteen years of age. Citizenship registration
could be made compulsory for all Canadians with the issuing of a Citizenship
Identification Card including name, possibly address, photo, and year of birth.
Such a card exists at the moment, but its existence is not compulsory or well
known and there is a charge of $35.00 to obtain the card.
It is suggested that this type of
identification card might be preferable to using Health Insurance data which is
not related to Citizenship. The Post Office could supply information on changes
of address on a monthly basis. Of course, the final responsibility for insuring
that the information is accurate would rest with the voter.
For a computerized permanent
electoral list to be accurate and effective there would be a need for a great
degree of collaboration between the federal level and each of the provinces and
territories. Duplication must be avoided and the various elements of the system
need to be standardized. The installation of permanent lists could present
difficulties at the outset but there are surely benefits in the long run in the
shortening of the election period by about 15 days and lowering costs as in
Ultimately the necessary changes
would be the responsibility of our members of Parliament since the Canada
Elections Act would need to be modified again to permit the development of a
system of continuous electoral roll or permanent lists suited to the Canadian
Effects of Implementation
Doing away with enumeration would
mean the elimination of house-to-house visitations by enumerators who often did
extremely competent work in difficult situations. For a federal election
approximately 85,000 enumerators are hired for a period of about one week at a
salary of about $275.00 or a total of over 23 million dollars. If we add the
figure for the provincial and municipal elections, this amount is more than
Furthermore, it has become much
more difficult to recruit good enumerators for reasons of availability and
renumeration. This problem is more acute in Western Canada. Another factor
which complicates enumeration is the fact that people are away from their home
more often than they use to be, and/or people simply refuse to open the door to
strangers. This was particularly the case in the most recent provincial
election in Ontario, which took place on June 8, 1995.
The cost of the 1993 federal
election was estimated at 187 million dollars as reported to the Standing
Committee of Procedure and House of Affairs of the House of Commons at its
meeting of April 21, 1994. The costs may be higher when all expenses are accounted
for but a revised total amount was not readily available. This was the most
costly election in history. Except for the Province of Quebec, there was no
enumeration at that election which resulted in a significant saving but this
was compensated to a large extent by a more elaborate revision system. There
were also significant increases resulting from the implementation of Bill C-114
which facilitated the exercise of the right to vote for certain categories of
electors. There were also many improvements in Communications, in the
development of strategic planning, and in the use of more advanced technology.
I suggest that it is important to
continue adapting the area of Voter Registration to insure that the system is
responsive to taxpayers' concerns; however, we must also ensure any changes to
the system do not tamper with our basic democratic principles.