Achieving universal voter registration while ensuring a high level of privacy protection: The Canadian model

by Eve Robert // Published December 1, 2008
Canada has a system of universal voter registration: this means that the Canadian government has largely taken on the onus of registering its citizens to vote. It does so by capturing the information needed to register voters when citizens interact with various branches and agencies of the Canadian government. The Canadian system is highly protective of personal details, privacy and freedom of speech thanks to numerous institutional and procedural safeguards to the use and display of the National Register of Electors. First of all, the National Register of Electors is maintained by Elections Canada, an independent federal agency set up by the Canadian Parliament and headed by the Chief Electoral Officer. To avoid political partisanship in the administration of federal elections, this independency is protected in many ways: the Chief Electoral Officer is appointed by a resolution of the House of Commons, so that all parties represented there may contribute to the selection process. Once appointed, he reports directly to Parliament and is thus completely independent of government and political parties. In addition, he serves until retirement or resignation; he can be removed only for cause, by the Governor General following a joint address of the House of Commons and Senate.

Secondly, even though the National Register of Electors is updated thanks to information supplied by various government agencies it is important to note that there is no database linkage between Elections Canada and these data suppliers. Only basic information about each qualified voter (– name, address, sex and date of birth), indispensable to administrate an election, is extracted from these agencies' databases and sent to Elections Canada. More importantly, these information can only be transfered to Elections Canada with the « active and informed » consent of the individuals concerned. This means that citizens have to check a box on their income tax returns, citizenship application or change of address form to specify whether or not they want their name, address and date of birth to be forwarded to Elections Canada. They also have the right to have their information excluded from the National Register of Electors or prevent its transfer to the provinces and territories by writing to the Chief Electoral Officer. Not having their name and personal details on the NRE does not jeopardize their right to vote, since they still can register on Election Day. This opt-out provisions allow people not to be registered who don't wish to be registered – for security, religious or political reasons. Thirdly, there are many legal restrictions to the use of the voters list. The privacy of all information in the National Register of Electors is protected by the Canada Elections Act and the Privacy Act. Under these acts, the NRE information is made available to political parties and member of the House of Commons each year, and candidates at the time of an election, but can only be used for electoral purposes (such as in soliciting contributions and recruiting members). Any other use is an offence. The political parties, deputies and candidates who are given access to the list have to sign a declaration acknowledging that they will use the list only for electoral purposes and destroy it when they don't need it anymore. Even inside Elections Canada, access to the NRE is provided only to Elections Canada staff members who have been subject to a security clearance at the appropriate level and have a need to use it. When these staff members can perform their functions properly with a paper copy, they are not provided an electronic copy. The lists are kept secure thanks to locked offices, filling cabinets, password protection and encryption. This process is highly reliable and trusted, to the extent that a few month ago, Pakistani Election Commission even asked Elections Canada to store pakistan's electoral roll, because Pakistan itself does not have the infrastructure to prevent hackers from accessing these rolls.

Finally, a Privacy Commissioner (independent civil servant who reports directly to the Parliament) has the right, at any time, to audit how information for the National Register of Electors is collected, stored, updated and used to ensure that the elector's right to privacy is respected. His powers include investigating complaints, conducting audits, pursuing court action under federal laws, and releasing public reports on information-handling practices.