At the time this article was
written Linda Stagg was Secretary to the Chief Electoral Officer of British
government is predicated on free elections and the results must be an accurate
reflection of the will of the electorate. This article looks at some
constitutional, legal, procedural, and ethical reasons why we need an ongoing
independent electoral administration.
The prime purpose of an
electoral administration is to deliver democracy. The visible instruments of
democracy (elections, referendums, initiatives, recalls) make timely front-page
news. The underlying mechanisms, while perhaps less newsworthy, are
equally important. Scholars have pointed out that the procedures through
which representatives are chosen is crucial in judging the quality of electoral
written Constitution and unwritten convention including the Rule of Law, are
the basis of electoral law. Sections 3, 4 and 5 of the Canadian
Charter of Rights and Freedoms contain the essence of the democratic rights
of Canadian citizens, including in particular, electoral rights. Electoral law
codifies procedures to provide for the election of a legislative assembly or
parliament, and provides for an officer to administer that law.
The advent of the secret ballot
spawned the need for advance notice of who the candidates are, so ballots could
be printed and dispatched to various voting locations. “First used in South
Australia in 1856 it spread to almost all democracies within half a century and
has become a major factor in the development of free elections.”2
Today’s multiplicity of voting
opportunities underscores the need for sound planning, training and supplies
management. An electoral event is no longer limited to the casting and
counting of ballots on election day. There are also advance voting,
voting by mail, and special arrangements for National Defence and diplomatic
personnel, bush camp workers and home care residents to name a few.
Somebody has to show up on election day with ballots and a
ballot box, but there is much more to organizing an election.
In British Columbia, on election
day, the number of election workers totals over 30,000. For one day their
numbers equal – and maybe exceed – the entire provincial civil service!
For students of administrative law, this is a classic case in
sub-delegation of authority. It also demonstrates that delivering
democracy is a two-way street. These election workers need to be
confident in their new-found knowledge, and need to be assured that there is a
strong presence behind them where they can go with their questions. The Chief
Electoral Officer is ultimately responsible for their decisions and actions.
Candidates and their parties
need information on who can and cannot run for office, and the policies and
procedures for filing nomination papers. During British Columbia’s 1996 general
election, I had a conversation with a candidate that went something like this:
“The party chose me to be its candidate at the nominating convention, but the
party executive tell me I still have to file nomination papers. I don’t,
do I?” Stifling a smile I explained that yes, he did. I would not
have been smiling if he had called a few days later, with advance voting open and
nominations closed, wondering why his name and party did not appear on the
“What do you do between
elections?” that is the question we electoral administrators are most
frequently asked. The real question is, “Why should there be an
independent, ongoing electoral administration in the first place and why must
taxpayers support this election administration office? The answer
is that an ongoing electoral administration is a repository for ideals and
provides for a corporate memory. It is a place to concentrate the
specialised operational and administrative knowledge and expertise.
We consult, develop, plan, train
and educate. We re-visit our performance at the last election and
determine how we can do better next time. We administer by-elections to
fill vacancies resulting from resignations, deaths of members, and perhaps the
ravages of recalls. A large part of this office’s activity between elections
relates to keeping the voters list current. Because British Columbia
could have an election, recall petition or initiative petition at any time, the
list of provincial voters must be election-ready at all times. In a
parliamentary system the government can fall at any time, for example on a vote
“Since the early nineteenth
century, the compilation of an authoritative record of those in each locality
who satisfy the legal qualification for the franchise has been a key element in
A precondition to an election is an unequivocal, exacting determination of
who is entitled to vote. When voting was conducted by a show of hands in
the town square by men of a certain age who held land, there was little or no
need for a voters list. The system took care of itself. Today it
falls to the electoral administration to compile a voters list or some sort of
electoral roll. An accurate, current, and complete list must be ready to
facilitate an election , or there must be a legitimate means of compiling one
at the polling station on election day.
The trend today is to
continuous, computerised voters lists and away from traditional door-to-door
enumerations. The permanent list requires the ongoing presence of a voter
registration department with its own brand of information technology
professionals and other knowledge workers.
Voter registration is
essentially a licensing program. Individuals who meet certain criteria
have the right to have their names added to the list. When they no longer
qualify, their names must be removed. As the compliance audit is left to
the voters to keep the electoral administration informed, it is largely
self-policing. In most jurisdictions, there are various administrative
processes to facilitate the removal of dormant names.
The electoral process requires
an informed electorate. Voters need to know their rights and obligations.
Reaching first-time voters, like young adults, new Canadians and groups
of individuals with traditionally low levels of participation and
representation, presents its own set of communications challenges. Voter
outreach and education are therefore ongoing, and include activities such as
speaking engagements, media relations and translation of registration and
The Office of Chief Electoral
According to a British Columbia
Member of the Provincial Parliament “So much of the public discontent around
the electoral process is around partisanship. There needs to be an office
above politics that that puts forward the notion of parliament as law makers,
and each person who obtains that office obtains it from a process that has not
been compromised in any way.”4
The office of Chief Electoral
Officer (CEO) is uncompromisingly non-partisan. It is a statutory
position that maintains the necessary independence to ensure that the election
process is free from influence by the executive government of the day.
In British Columbia, appointment
of the CEO is essentially an ‘Act’ of the Legislature. The CEO is
appointed by the Crown, as represented by the Lieutenant-Governor, acting by
and with the advice and consent of the Legislative Assembly. Similar words
appear in the enacting clause at the beginning of every Bill introduced into
The selection process in British
Columbia is typical of most jurisdictions. The CEO is not chosen through
a civil service competition, but rather selected by an all-party committee, and
then confirmed by Resolution of the Legislature. The all-party committee
denotes a convergence of political thought in the selection process.
In some jurisdictions Returning
Officers also known as District Electoral Officers are recommended by
politicians. Once appointed, however, they must set their politics aside
and run an impartial event. The trend is to move this office away from
politics. British Columbia’s District Electoral Officers are appointed by the
CEO and must conduct themselves in a non-partisan, apolitical manner.
Electoral administration and
expertise are fundamental functions of government. Although electoral
administrations do indeed draw on the expertise of election consultants and any
number of private contractors, the prime function is decidedly a public sector
responsibility. When non-governmental organisations need election
expertise, they turn to a government’s election experts for consultation.
These experts may be called upon to observe, or in some instances conduct
votes for these organisations. Elections BC has been called upon to lend
its expertise and assist with elections for members to governing bodies of
financial, religious and First Nations organisations.
There is a direct and positive
correlation between administrative procedural transparency and independence
from political influence. Independent agencies are more willing to take
measures to ensure their ‘level playing field’ is seen to be staying level
Transparency begins with disclosure of financial contributors and
contributions. Spending limits for parties, candidates and third party
advertisers provide an avenue of equity.
In most jurisdictions with
election finance legislation, parties and constituency or riding associations
must first of all comply with the requirements for registration, and then file
annual and event-related financing reports. In addition to being the
registration and financing regulator, this department or office serves much
like a library. It is the central repository for reports and the point of
contact for anyone researching election finance. These aspects of
democracy are usually administered by an election finance organisation.
Only if people have confidence
that their election system is honest and open will they participate in it.
“Having a professional group of election officials will go a long way to
provide this confidence. If we can establish this globally, we can at
least hope that people will pick up ballots instead of bullets.”5
In the absence of a permanent
office or without a credible ongoing electoral administration, a jurisdiction
takes a big risk. If an electoral event is not well run, there is a general
distrust of the system, and the participants and public have no confidence in
the results. If the public has no confidence, they will not participate,
and will mistrust the government and its administration.
A permanent, independent
electoral administration is one of the pillars of a democratic system.
Those of us who work side-by-side, for and with senior electoral
administrators, have come to know that for them, delivering democracy is much
more than a job. Democracy is more like an element of their personal
faith, or at the very least, a vocation. I am certain there are people like
them in every one of the world’s more than 100 democracies.
1. Blais, André and Gidengil,
Elisabeth: Making Representative Democracy Work, The Views of
Canadians, Vol. 17 of the Research Studies, Royal Commission on Electoral
Reform and Party Financing (Lortie), Dundurn Press, Ministry of Supply and
Services Canada, 1991, p. 3.
2. The Blackwell
Encyclopaedia of Political Institutions: Blackwell
Reference 1987, New York, New
York, edited by Vernon Bogdanor, p. 190.
3. Ibid, p. 527.
4. Linda Reid, MLA for Richmond
5. F. Clifton White, Elections
Today: News from the International Foundation for Election Systems, Vol. 7,
No.3, 1998 p. 9 [reprinted from IFES Newsletter, Vol 3., No. 2 Fall 1992].