Samara's statement on the Fair Elections Act

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Political News Thursday, March 27, 2014 View Count = 2657

Samara's statement on the Fair Elections Act

Today, Samara's executive director Alison Loat was invited to speak to the House of Commons' Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs about the Fair Elections Act. Read Alison's remarks to the committee below, and Samara's full submission and recommendations here. If you're on Twitter, you can follow the proceedings at #PROC.

Remarks to the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs

My name is Alison Loat, and I’m the co-founder and executive director of Samara, an independent, non-partisan charity that works to improve political participation through research and education. 

Today I’d like to discuss changes to Bill C-23 that our research suggests would help realize the ambition Mr. Poilievre set out in the Bill’s introduction to “ensure everyday citizens are in charge of democracy.”

Our concern at Samara is the declining participation of Canadians, both during and in between elections.  In 2011, only 38.8 percent of young Canadians voted.  Should these trends continue, this will further drive down turnout in Canada, already one of the lowest among Western democracies.  

It’s fair to assume that if only 38.8 percent of young people graduated from high school, it would be a national emergency. We should be similarly concerned with our dismal voting rates.

Apart from voting, Samara’s research indicates that Canadians’ political activity between elections, which includes joining or donating to parties or campaigns, is at or below ten percent, and much lower for youth. 

This low and declining participation is the largest problem facing Canadian democracy. Addressing it should be a paramount consideration of every Parliamentarian, and a stronger focus of this Bill.  

Samara’s focus group research confirms that people don’t vote for two main reasons: access and motivation. Access includes not knowing where to vote, or not having a voter registration card. Motivation includes believing that that one’s vote doesn’t make a difference or that politics doesn’t matter. 

First, and in general terms, we recommend several changes to increase access. These are detailed in our submission, and include: support for the Bill’s provisions to oversee voter telephone calls; concerns over the elimination of vouching and suggestions on improving efficiencies at polling stations.

Second, we have three specific suggestions to address the problem of motivation and to further citizens’ participation through both non-partisan and multi-partisan means.  

• First, enhance the role of the Chief Electoral Officer to provide and support non-partisan public education on Canadian democracy. Elections Canada should be encouraged to do a much better job here. Given the severity of the turnout problem in Canada, a well-funded independent organization focused on engagement should be strengthened rather than eliminated, particularly given its support of programs such as Student Vote that have proven results.

• Second, we recommend that, working with and through non-partisan civil society organizations, Elections Canada administer an innovative funding and research program based on current understandings of what is effective in increasing participation, and measure and report on the results.  This would be a valuable resource for political parties, teachers, academics, community groups and others who seek to address Canadians’ declining political participation.  

• Third, in order to ensure that political parties fulfill the spirit of Mr. Poilievre’s appeal in the House that parties “reach Canadians where they are in their communities,” we propose that parties allocate portions of their increased funds proposed in this Bill towards voter education and citizen engagement between elections.  Mr. Poilievre is correct in highlighting that parties and candidates play a critical role in encouraging participation, and no doubt that is part of why they are generously supported with tax dollars.  

However, declining voter turnout, together with Samara’s research, suggests there is room for parties to improve.  In a recent survey we asked Canadians to clarify what they expect from political parties, and grade their performance. Over half of Canadians agreed that parties’ most important job is “reaching out so Canadians’ views can be represented,” but gave parties a failing mark of 43% in that role.  

Dedicated expenditures could be used to facilitate visits of candidates and party members to classrooms or provide funding to organizations performing engagement work, to cite two examples. This investment in citizen engagement could help improve Canadians’ perceptions of, and bolster their involvement in, political parties.  

These three recommendations, coupled with further enhancements to voter access, will substantially improve Bill C-23 and Canada’s ability to tackle the most pressing problem facing our democracy—Canadians’ increasing disengagement from our own political process.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today and I look forward to answering any questions. 

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