Today in the legislature we continued debating Bill 20, the Election Amendment Act, 2015. Sadly, despite numerous amendments and sub-amendments, the Bill passed third reading as every Liberal MLA present voted in support of the bill in an almost robotic fashion. Of the 48 Liberal MLAs eligible to speak to the bill, only three, in addition to the Minister responsible, even bothered to take up this opportunity. Two of these MLAs simply rolled out patriotic pabulum about the importance of voting and the warm reception that Canadian World War II veterans recently received in the Netherlands. Neither referred to anything specific in the bill leaving me wondering if they had actually read it. Only Liberal MLA Moira Stilwell had the courage to speak out against the bill and its disturbing ramifications. For this she should be recognized and applauded.
In an earlier post I addressed the reason why I was opposing Bill 20: Election Amendment Act 2015. Bill 20 implements a number of the recommendations made by the Chief Electoral Officer in his October 2014 report. However, only one of the Chief Electoral Officer’s three priority recommendations was implemented, and that concerned providing flexibility in opportunities for advance voting. One egregious addition to the bill not recommended by the Chief Electoral Officer and opposed by the Privacy Commissioner is new language that allowed political parties to obtain a list of voters that indicates which voters on the list voted in a previous general election. This list would be available between general elections.
Government introduced an amendment at committee stage, in an attempt to create a level playing field for independent members wishing to run for office. How this amendment took the privacy concerns to a whole new level. Government proposed that any candidate who ran in a previous election or is running in an upcoming election can obtain the list of voters that indicates which voters on the list voted in a previous general election or by-election.
This morning I tabled a petition of nearly 3,000 signatures from across British Columbia of British Columbians who were petitioning, respectfully, the honourable House to withdraw section 6 of Bill 20, the Election Amendment Act, 2015 and all amendments related to it. This petition was collected in just a matter of a few days.
Today was a very sad day for democracy in British Columbia. I hope that people across our beautiful province will speak up and let MLAs know that you are fed up with politicians putting their party ahead of the people they represent; that you are fed up allowing vested interests to influence election outcomes through campaign donations; that you are fed up being treated as a data point; that you are fed up with cynical campaigning — And the you demand better from this who you elect to represent you.
In a final attempt to delay introduction of the bill I introduced a so-called hoist motion. Below is the text of the motion and my speech, a video of my speech. The outcome of the votes are at the bottom.
A. Weaver: It is with a mix of frustration and desperation that I rise to table a hoist amendment of this Bill 20, the Election Amendment Act. The hoist amendment is this:
I move that the motion for third reading on Bill 20, The Election Amendment Act be amended by deleting the word “now” and substituting the words “6 months hence”.
A. Weaver: I feel that this bill is fundamentally at odds with what is in British Columbia’s best interest. We’ve seen amendments brought in at the last possible moment to address concerns of the Privacy Commissioner. The Commissioner’s concerns have been public knowledge for over a month. Yet the government’s amendments are circulated the day before the final debate on this bill is due to take place, preventing a proper view of the proposed changes.
The Privacy Commissioner first wrote a letter to government regarding Bill 20 on April 13, 2015, expressing serious concerns with aspects of the bill and urged the government to withdraw sections which amended section 51(2) of the Election Act . These provisions would give political parties the ability to receive information on who voted at the end of an election.
Her concerns were how this information would be used, especially since making the information available after the election runs contrary to the government’s stated purpose that this information was to be used for getting out the vote. Far from providing new tools for political parties to increase voter turnout, in my view there are legitimate concerns that provisions in this legislation could be used to do the opposite.
The members of the official opposition have spoken at great length during committee stage about the importance of our democratic reform and the need to reinvigorate our democracy. Over the course of this session, for example, as well, they’ve introduced the Parliamentary Calendar Act, 2015; the Legislative Standing Committee Reform Act, 2015; the Fixed Fall Election Amendment Act, 2015; the Youth Voter Registration Act, 2015; the Whistleblowers Protection Act, 2015; the Members’ Conflict of Interest Amendment Act, 2015; the Open Government Act, 2015; the Lobbyist Registry Reform Act, 2015; the Electronic Petitions Act, 2015; the Fairness in Financing Local Government Elections Act, 2015; and the Campaign Finance Reform Act, 2015.
According to the members who tabled these bills, each is intended in one way or another to help enhance our democracy by, for instance, improving how we finance our elections, hold our governments accountable and engage British Columbians. Over the course of the debates on Bill 20, carried through to committee stage, the members of the official opposition have raised several concerns.
I would like to take a moment to dial in on one in particular, because it is of the utmost importance for the point I am about to make. The members of the official opposition have spoken substantially about the declining voter turnout that we have seen over the past several decades. To quote the member for Vancouver-Fairview: “When many of us were growing up, it was not uncommon to see voter turnouts in the 70s and 80s. When we now see voter turnouts of 54 percent called an increase in voter turnout, we should be alarmed.”
Similarly, to quote the member for Port Coquitlam: “I think all of us in this chamber — and in fact, people outside this chamber — have expressed concern about the decline in voter participation over the last few decades. There’s a constant desire to look at how we can increase voter turnout and how we can encourage voter turnout.” They are not alone. Almost every opposition speaker who stood up to speak to this bill and who raised questions during committee stage spoke about this concern.
One of the key solutions that members of the official opposition proposed was to register youth as voters as early as 16. This came up several times, both through official opposition questioning and my own questioning to the minister during committee stage. I, of course, have been actively promoting this idea also for quite some time. However, I think there is an important point here. The members who spoke in favour of this solution also generally recognized that on its own, it’s not enough. It is certainly a step in the right direction, but increasing voter turnout requires much more. It requires giving voters something to vote for.
In fact, the three ridings with the highest voter turnout in the 2013 provincial election were, one, Oak Bay–Gordon Head, the riding that I represent; two, Saanich North and the Islands, the riding that the member behind me here represents, and a riding that my colleague Adam Olsen ran in a very close three-way race; and third, the riding of Delta South, where 68 percent voter turnout existed. The member is just to my left here, sitting off camera. I welcome the member for Delta South.
What these three ridings have in common is that all of them had a strong, credible and viable third candidate who inspired people to get out to the polls, who gave them something to vote for, as opposed to vote against, traditionally in our vote-splitting arguments.
This brings me to the point at hand. In its current form, Bill 20 would make a significant change to laws surrounding the voter list. This came out time and time again during questioning in the committee stage. Time and time again, it appeared that this bill had not been thought out to the level of detail that we had expected for a bill like this to be brought before us. This bill would give political parties and any candidates access to information about who votes and who does not vote.
The opposition has spoken about the privacy concerns surrounding this change. They have, as I have, highlighted the concerns of the Privacy Commissioner.
In fact, the member for Saanich North and the Islands quoted the Privacy Commissioner specifically by saying this: “There must be clear limits on the use and disclosure of this personal information by political parties. For example, permitted use of this information for electoral purposes, as set out in section 275 of the Election Act, should be clearly defined, and political parties should be prohibited from using the information for commercial purposes or disclosing this information to any other organization or public body.”
During questioning during committee stage we were certainly unsatisfied that the steps have been taken to ensure that this would be the case. Now, while I agree with these concerns, I believe that both government and the official opposition have missed a key point. There has been no consultation about whether a political party or candidate should even have the right to know if somebody has voted or not. Until such a time that that question is actually asked and discussed, in my view, the information is the purview of the voter and the Chief Electoral Officer and no one else.
Putting aside the questions of privacy that I’ll discuss a little later, I want to turn to a separate issue that is the core of the government’s stated purpose of bringing the bill forward: voter turnout, a statement that we explored in great detail during committee stage. We’ve seen very clearly from other jurisdictions where voter turnout information is already available that more often than not, it’s used to slice and dice voter lists so that political parties can get more bang for their buck.
They do this by focusing more of their resources on targeting people who have a tendency to vote, because they know, as we do, that one of the biggest indicators and predictors of whether or not a person will vote in the next election is if they voted in the last election — a question I explored in some detail during committee stage. Contrary to all of the talking points about how this change will help increase voter turnout, the evidence shows quite clearly that it will actually support political parties to focus more than ever on the subset of registered voters who actually vote.
Non-voters will run the risk of being neglected, as parties focus their limited resources on those people deemed most likely to be worth the investment. This isn’t idle speculation. It’s found in study after study into how political parties in North America compete in elections. This is especially relevant in our first-past-the-post system where, rather than seeking a majority, parties only need to seek a plurality of voters, greatly reducing the number of voter contacts some parties feel are necessary to win.
It goes even further. Once parties know who actually votes, they can then layer their own support data on top of this and ascertain who their opponents’ supporters likely are. We saw this very clearly in the last election. In fact, we see this in almost every election — the use of tactics that border on voter suppression, in trying to convince your opponents’ supporters to stay home and not vote.
We saw this when the B.C. NDP phoned voters in my riding telling them that if they voted for me, they would split the vote and elect a Liberal, despite no evidence at all to back up the claim. We saw the same message when Liberals blanketed B.C. with messaging designed to undermine voters’ confidence in the NDP so that those voters who would never vote Liberal would perhaps be less motivated to vote at all.
In second reading of this bill, and explored further at the committee stage, the Minister of Justice dismissed suggestions that parties might use this information to “essentially badger non-voters through repeated and unwanted communications” by saying: “why would a party do that? The goal for any political party is to gain voter support. The last thing you want to do is to alienate voters through unwanted contact.” Oh, the naivety of the minister for quoting such fine, fine words that I obviously agree with. But in practice, they do not play out, as the evidence I showed before suggests.
It’s clearly seen in the above two examples. This claim that political parties would never act in abusive ways is simply not borne out by the evidence. A more publicized example, of course, is the robocall scandal in the last federal election. In this instance, supporters of certain parties were called and told that their polling had changed. The caller purported to be from Elections Canada but was in fact a partisan attempt to suppress votes from other parties.
Now, the relevance of that, of course, is that, as I raised in committee stage, the sections that were being brought into the Election Act here in British Columbia mirror those sections that were brought into the Elections Act federally as an attempt to actually find ways, I would argue, to skirt around the election financing requirements that were brought in by successive governments federally. And we’re seeing the trend here as well. That was clearly evident from the questioning during committee stage.
By giving political parties and candidates access to the voters list, including information on who voted, we will be allowing those parties to run more targeted and effective voter suppression campaigns. No longer will they need to waste resources blanketing a riding or an entire voter list. Now they would be able to target just that subset of voters that they know for a fact are more likely to vote, and they can throw even more resources at them, thanks to the savings they receive from not spending resources on non-voters.
This change is not about increasing voter turnout or reinvigorating our democracy. If the members of this House truly care about this goal, they will agree with me that we need more time to consider the changes we are about to make so that we can find other ways to truly increase voter turnout. For example, we could read again the report provided in the fall of last year from the Chief Electoral Officer, which clearly outlined his top two priorities: (1) voter registration of youth at the ages of 16 and 17; and (2) introducing, on a trial basis, innovative ways of actually conducting election voting.
The member for Vancouver-Langara also rose courageously in this House to speak against the provisions of the act that she feels “do not improve our democracy and do not improve our ability to increase voter turnout nor produce better oversight of election results.”
This is not a common occurrence to see a government MLA speak out against a piece of legislation, and I believe it demonstrates the seriousness of what we are considering here. The member laid out an elegant critique of these provisions. “I stand to speak out,” she said, ” against these changes because I know that they do not have anything to do with improving voter turnout or improving our democracy. Quite simply, these changes are in the interests of political parties, not in the interests of individual British Columbian voters.”
The member for Vancouver-Langara talked to her constituents, listened to her constituents and recognized that her constituents did not support this bill, and I wonder if others in this House on that side of the House have done the same.
There are a lot of ways to improve voter turnout, and the member noted that these don’t involve violating people’s privacy. The member went out and talked to the constituents, as I said. She discussed it with them, and again, to quote from her speech, “voters do not want political parties to have more information about them, including whether or not they voted. When asked, people distrust political parties and politicians and believe, in the majority, that political parties, if they could, would manipulate election results.”
Wow. Is that not a testament to the reason why voter turnout is actually declining — the increased lack of trust, the increased belief in people that politicians are not trustworthy, that if they could, they would manipulate election results? This is why the member for Vancouver-Langara spoke out against it, and it’s why I have spoken out against it. It’s why the member for Delta South has spoken out against it. It’s why the members in the official opposition have spoken out against it.
The member for Vancouver-Langara’s concern was that this change would only make people more cynical, more guarded and more skeptical about their relationship with politics. It was not the commercial uses that worried her constituents, but the use of the information for targeted political pressure.
I would not for one moment presume to know whether the member for Vancouver-Langara feels that the government’s last-minute amendments address her concerns. What I do know is that I listened closely to her speech and found myself sharing many of her original concerns, and these last-minute amendments that we discussed and explored in committee stage only amplified my concerns for the political occurrence of abuse.
Despite claiming that these amendments address the Privacy Commissioner’s concerns, the Minister of Justice “did not feel it was necessary” to run the amendments past the Privacy Commissioner when asked if she had consulted with the office. This has as much to do with the content of the amendments as the manner in which they have been introduced into the legislature. They have been slipped in at the last possible moment.
Before the break, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner issued a statement on these amendments. While acknowledging that an attempt had been made to address her office’s concerns, I reiterate that in her original letter she commented that the best course of action would be to withdraw the provisions of this bill related to providing voter turnout information.
As I stated earlier today, I do not think this is a thoughtful manner for government to propose amendments to legislation, especially when it concerns fundamental issues of privacy. I feel that this is a clumsy attempt to put political interests ahead of what is best for British Columbians.
It’s in our best interest to postpone this debate and gather the necessary information from the public — those who are affected — and from a variety of experts, those who have explored other jurisdictions before proceeding with this bill.
I now wish to turn to addressing a secondary concern of this bill that was revealed extensively during committee stage and why I believe it’s in our best interest to hoist it.
The debate has so far centred primarily around what the government’s stated intentions are with this information — namely, the claim that these provisions are to facilitate “get out the vote” efforts. There is, of course, another area of concern: privacy.
In order to properly evaluate the privacy concerns that exist within this bill, I think it’s important that we understand how British Columbians feel about their privacy and whether political parties are acting responsibly to those concerns. Through thorough questioning at committee stage, it became clear to me that government has not sought input from British Columbians.
Let me give you such input. In the 2014 Survey of Canadians on Privacy, a report that was prepared for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, nine in ten Canadians expressed some level of concern about the protection of their privacy, with 34 percent saying they are “extremely concerned.” This is an increase from 25 percent in 2012. Furthermore, 73 percent of Canadians, the largest proportion since tracking began, feel that they have “less protection of their personal information in their daily lives than they did ten years ago.” A third statistic that is relevant to this debate: 56 percent do not feel they have sufficient knowledge about how new technologies affect their personal privacy.
This is the context in which we must evaluate Bill 20, as explored in detail through committee stage — a massive majority feeling they have less control over their personal information, a growing number of people expressing serious concerns about their level of protection, and a majority feeling they do not posses sufficient knowledge to evaluate how new technology affects their privacy.
What’s fascinating is that this study found that those people with low knowledge tended to be highly concerned, compared to 16 percent who were unconcerned. That is, the highly concerned percentage was 33 percent, compared to 16 percent who were unconcerned.
However, gaining knowledge about the privacy implications did not make these people less concerned. Those with knowledge still were overwhelmingly “highly concerned” — that’s 26 percent — as opposed to being unconcerned, 6 percent.
Within this larger Canadian study, British Columbians as a group were the least informed about how technology affected their personal privacy, with only 34 percent saying they feel confident that they “have enough information to know how new technologies might affect my personal privacy.” That’s compared to 48 percent in the Atlantic, 46 percent in Ontario and 41 percent in the Prairies.
We have heard in this session the Minister of Education tout repeatedly — and I concur — the exceptional nature of our education system. Yet these statistics are very revealing. Only 34 percent of British Columbians feel confident they have enough information to know how new technologies might affect their personal privacy. That’s very troubling, and it suggests that the government has not engaged British Columbians, has not informed British Columbians. This is why this bill must be delayed through another six months, to give the government a chance to actually consult with the people of British Columbia.
Let’s have a look at how Bill 20 fares when looked at through this lens of privacy. Bill 20 would provide political parties with a complete set of data on who in the province is voting. It would also, due to the last-minute amendments moved by the government and passed at committee stage, allow candidates in an upcoming election and people who were candidates in a past election to receive the information about who voted in the riding. That certainly constitutes more information about British Columbians that may be used in unforeseen ways.
As I stated above, despite the government’s suggestion that the information would be used responsibly, I think it’s imperative upon us that we consider the possible abuses permitted by the legislation. It’s my opinion that the legislation before us contains a number of areas of such possible abuse, which is why we need time to explore this further, to actually close any loopholes that would allow such abuse.
In response to a specific subamendment to actually replace the Chief Electoral Officer by the Privacy Commissioner, to actually approve the policy requirements, I was given an answer that essentially said: “They work together. Trust us.” Well, there has been too much of this trust-us in this Legislature for quite some time. Sadly, trust-us just is not working.
We want to see the details. We want to know that the details have arisen from consultation with British Columbians. We want to see the evidence behind those details, not a trust-us approach, as this government is taking on this particular bill and everything else of late that seems to be coming through this House, whether it be the education amendment act or whether it be LNG and the fantasy that British Columbia lives in as to its wealth and prosperity for one and all.
This approach may rightly feed the growing number of Canadians expressing serious concerns about their level of protection. Again, this is an important point. There’s nothing that outlines any enforcement to ensure the privacy rights in this bill. I re-emphasize that.
Another important point is the total lack of consultation concerning the change. Providing voter information was not recommended by the Privacy Commissioner but was instead expressed by political parties as worthy of exploration. At no point has there been any attempt to properly assess whether British Columbians support this change or, indeed, whether they are even aware this change is taking place. Looking at privacy concerns, then, this legislation only feeds feelings of a loss of control by the electorate. It constitutes a change whose full implications we cannot rightly assume British Columbians are aware of.
To sum up this argument, then, this legislation is being considered without addressing the overriding privacy concerns that are being expressed by British Columbians. It does not clearly lay out a regime that British Columbians could feel confident about and, in fact, is being brought forward in a rushed manner where amendments and subamendments are brought to bear at the last possible moment. I think it’s important that we consider additional evidence and analysis of privacy considerations for political parties as I make my argument that this bill needs to be hoisted.
What else does the evidence tell us about privacy? A critical concern for political parties should be that Canadians feel more confident giving personal information to organizations when they feel confident in or trust that organization. As the member for Vancouver-Langara pointed out, “trust” in political parties from the electorate is depleted. We regularly see the reports of cynicism about politics.
The minister’s own talking points cite the lack of engagement in political parties as a key reason this is being brought forward. Yet the manner in which it has been brought forward would refute this as amendments have appeared at the last moment, appearing to have skirted a review from the Privacy Commissioner. Is this the best way to bring legislation forward concerning privacy, when transparency and expert opinion are so critical in building trust? I think not.
I want to look at this bill from another angle as well. This is the angle from the Canadian Standards Association’s model code for protection of personal information. It’s particularly important to look at it through the lens of this model code and in light of the evidence that arose during committee stage. There are ten principles in this code: (1) accountability; (2) identifying purposes; (3) consent; (4) limiting collection; (5) limiting use, disclosure and retention; (6) accuracy; (7) safeguards; (8) openness; (9) individual access; and (10) challenging compliance. After going through committee stage, it’s clear to me that there are provisions in Bill 20 pertaining to privacy that do not fare well according to these standards, and I’ll expand here.
For identifying purposes. In my view Bill 20 fails to align the stated purpose, which was increasing voter turnout in an election, with the manner in which the information is gathered by “request after the election has taken place.”
It seems like a stretch to link this to voter engagement for the reasons I have given earlier and given during committee stage. We don’t today, as of this date, have an invention called a time machine to use such information to increase the voter turnout in an election that has already happened.
For consent, Bill 20 fails spectacularly. Not only are the provisions related to privacy advanced by the political parties and not Elections B.C., there have been limited attempts to actually inform or educate British Columbians as to what information may become available. This is one of the more important issues concerning privacy, in my view.
With limiting collection, I have similar concerns to identifying purpose. The collection of this information is not limited in such a way that it is clearly used only for increasing voter turnout. The fact that this information is gathered by political parties after an election limits the applicability of the data to its stated purpose — to increase voter turnout. I retract all of this once a time machine is invented and we can actually go back and use this data in an election that has already occurred. But as of this point, such a machine does not exist.
For limiting use, disclosure and retention, I feel that we can legitimately question the retention aspect of the voter information. I attempted to address this with amendments to earlier sections of the bill during committee stage to require the destruction of this information once the election was over. Not to belabour the point, but if the purpose is to drive voter turnout up, why are we receiving this personal information after an election, and why would parties need to retain this information?
They wouldn’t. They wouldn’t need this information. And that became very clear during questioning at committee stage. For accuracy, this bill would ensure that parties can keep this information up to date. I’m not sure that that is exclusively a good thing, as I think there are legitimate concerns this information could be misused
With regard to safeguards, I’ve spoken earlier about my concerns that this bill does not lay out a legislative regime where information is being adequately protected. This really comes down to two points. The Privacy Commissioner does not have a legislated role in the act, despite the clear triggering of her jurisdiction and despite the fact that we tried, in amendments, to get that legislated role included.
In looking at openness, it remains to be seen whether these privacy policies will contain a requirement that they be made publicly accessible. I don’t know. You don’t know. We haven’t been told. “Trust us” is the answer we get.
With individual access, British Columbians should expect to be made aware of the existence, use and disclosure of their information. To a certain extent, technology is changing the rules about data acquisition, but we must be careful that we don’t swing that pendulum too far.
The Canadian Standards Association’s model code for protection of personal information may or may not be the appropriate tool to use in analyzing this piece of legislation. It is certainly one that would look favourably upon certain provisions in this bill. However, without an ability to adequately consult the Privacy Commissioner to ascertain whether amendments that are tabled at the last minute address all of her concerns or whether other amendments that were put forward by members of this Legislature would have addressed them even better or completely or not at all….
Without this information, I am left to find whatever other tool I can. It is the use of the Canadian Standards Association’s model code for protection of personal information.
In conclusion, it’s fitting to conclude this section by quoting directly from the Privacy Commissioner’s letter to the minister on Bill 20 so it is clearly on the record what it is that we are voting on.
“The amendment to section 51(2), however, extends beyond the objective of increasing voter turnout. This is because it authorizes the release of voter participation information to political parties after an election or by-election.
“Unlike the disclosures discussed in the previous paragraph which codify an existing practice and are directly tied to getting out the vote on voting day, the purpose of this disclosure is for political parties to receive personal information in a comprehensive and accessible format after voting day in order to perform analytics and other uses.
“This disclosure was not recommended by the Chief Electoral Officer, and the purpose of this disclosure is not directly tied to getting out the vote. It is also not a disclosure allowed by most provinces in Canada.”
These aren’t my words. These are the words of the Privacy Commissioner. These are words that should have been adhered to. Yet “Trust us. It’ll work out” is the answer that we get.
The original reason the Legislature authorized Elections B.C. to compile a list of voters was for the purpose of administering elections. I’m deeply concerned that the proposed amendments allow for other uses and expand the already broad ability of political parties to collect information about voter participation.
It would also certainly exceed what British Columbians anticipate when they provide their names to Elections B.C., given that I do not believe there has been any public consultation on this expanded use of the voters list.
If this act were to proceed, Elections B.C. would be disclosing personal information that is likely to be linked with other information in political party databases and elsewhere. This linking and the associated analytics can be used for creating voter profiles, targeting voters, fundraising, sharing data across systems for secondary purposes, collecting non-consensual information, inappropriate communication from parties and other intrusive uses. This became absolutely apparent during committee stage as members in the opposition probed the minister on various sections in the proposed bill.
I’m not persuaded that any of these uses are consistent with the foundational purpose for which the compilation of the list was originally permitted. Given the above, I urge government to withdraw the proposed amendments to section 51. Personal information compiled for efficiently administering elections should not, from a privacy point of view, be provided to political parties for their broader use. People are not data points, and they should not be treated as such.
I urge members on all sides of this House to recognize that this bill was brought in prematurely and that additional time — six months in particular — is required and necessary to actually go to British Columbians, the voters of our province, and ask them what they think, whether they support this and what they believe the role of the voters should be in terms of enhancing, or not, voter turnout.
Hon. Chair, with that, I thank you for your attention, and I certainly hope the hoist motion is supported