Stéphane Perrault has been imagining everything that could go wrong with the 2019 federal election for four years.
The Elections Canada chief electoral officer and his team have run through an array of scenarios in partnership with Canada's security organizations, political parties and the federal public service, preparing for such issues as:
What happens if there's a data breach, and it is not known whether it's domestic or foreign interference?
What if there's a cyber attack on a political party?
How will Elections Canada respond to misinformation about the electoral process?
The independent, non-partisan agency has run mock election drills in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Gimli, Manitoba and Saint John, New Brunswick to prepare and establish who plays what role in an election crisis.
"We haven't had to do this in the past," Perrault said in an interview with National Observer. "I've been working with Elections Canada for over 12 years now. I don't think we've ever been so prepared."
The landscape of elections has changed drastically since the 2015 federal election won by Justin Trudeau's Liberals. Disclosures of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election campaign won by President Donald Trump has electoral authorities in Canada and other countries on guard for interference.
A report by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller that describes Russia's interference as"sweeping and systematic," is a case study of what could go wrong and how voters lose faith in the democratic processes. There have also been allegations of interference in the United Kingdom's Brexit campaign and French President Emmanuel Macron's emails have been hacked. Foreign interference has also been cited in Turkey, Ukraine and Germany.
"There's no reason to think that we will somehow be exempt from all this," Perrault said. "It's something that's been happening in every jurisdiction around the world to different degrees."
Perrault said Elections Canada is working closely with security partners such as the Communication Security Establishment, as well as political parties and media for the first time "in order to make the election a success."
While "there is no indication in Canada that anybody out there is trying to favour one party over another," he remains concerned about a diminishing trust in the electoral democracy around the world.
"That's the main concern that we have and that we are working to prepare for and build resilience for," Perrault said. "I'd say we're fully prepared."
'The language that we're using to talk about elections has changed'
Elections Canada has benefited from watching other jurisdictions deal with unexpected cases of interference and deal with online misinformation, Perrault said, and the next country with an election will benefit from seeing Canada's election process play out in this new environment.
"I don't know of any country that could be better positioned for an election than we are, which doesn't mean that we aren't invulnerable or that nothing wrong is going to happen," Perrault said. "But I don't think that we could have a better system than we do now."
Over four years, the agency has built a new data centre and made Elections Canada's digital architecture more secure. The number of advanced polling days and locations has been increased.
When it comes to misinformation, Elections Canada has a limited capacity, Perrault said. The agency can't affirm if a political statement is true or exaggerated, for example, because that would appear partisan.
"Our role is to make sure there is no misinformation or disinformation about the electoral process," Perrault said.
The agency has created the first-ever elections misinformation team designed to ensure accurate information about the electoral process. This team of 20 will monitor social media to capture and correct misleading information about a polling location or results, for example. The corrections will be communicated in ads, tweets and other Elections Canada communications.
"Everyone can access (the online ad repository) to cross-reference information so that there is no risk or concern about impersonation," Perrault said. "We want to be transparent...I think we'll build an element of trust and hopefully other stakeholders will do that too."
The agency also has arrangements with Twitter, Facebook and Google, so they can intervene if there is, for example, an impersonation of Elections Canada on their social media platforms.
There is a catch, though. "We cannot influence them to shut down content that is wrong, offensive, abusive," Perrault said. "We are content neutral except when it comes to information about the electoral process."
Omnibus legislation to update Canada's election laws in an age of misinformation was passed last December. It includes a provision that makes it an offence to make false statements about a candidate for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election. But the provision applies only to false statements about whether a candidate has broken the law or withdrawn from the election, or the candidate's personal and professional details and affiliations like citizenship, place of birth, education, qualifications or membership in a group. Elections Canada cannot play a role in monitoring these matters.
Misinformation is a concern of non-profit civic organizations as they prepare for the October election, too. Several were invited to Elections Canada's first-ever workshop with stakeholders and volunteers to figure out how to remove barriers to electoral participation. Called "Real Tools for Real Situations: The Journey to the 2019 Federal Election," the workshop was held at Toronto's Ryerson University on Thursday, where Perrault spoke about the importance of collaboration in order to deliver "accurate, official, and unbiased information about the federal election."
The CEO, Stéphane Perrault, is welcoming our stakeholder network.— Elections Canada (@ElectionsCan_E) May 9, 2019
“Every election is a tangible reminder of the power of collective action. And all of us in this room have witnessed the empowering effects of citizens exercising their democratic rights.” #InspireDem19 pic.twitter.com/YF2MaYpgji
John Beebe, senior advisor of democratic engagement exchange at Ryerson's Faculty of Arts, told National Observer at the workshop that he worries Canadians watching elections around the world will believe that "the whole system is broken and no matter what I do it's not going to matter." The challenge, Beebe said, is to stop people from being skeptical to the point that they remove themselves from the democratic system entirely.
To do that, Beebe said the electoral process needs to learn how to connect people to democracy, as opposed to asking them to vote out of civic duty. "We have to make elections inviting," he said.
To do so, civic engagement groups are trying to convey a complex electoral environment in simpler and more accessible ways, with the help of Elections Canada.
"In 2015 we were talking about civic literacy, like pretty much in isolation," said Carissa Di Gangi, associate director at ABC Life Literacy Canada. "But I feel like with this 2019 election, it's how civic literacy intersects with digital literacy intersects with the critical media literacy."
Voters now need "an extra set of skills" to determine how to deduce headlines and election coverage before voting day. "We have to ask ourselves 'how much weight do I put on this headline? How much does that impact my vote yes or not?' And that lies in literacy now, whereas in 2015 it might not have," Di Gangi said. This means talking through people's concerns about if and how their vote will be accurately counted and why they should make the effort.
"The language that we're using to talk about elections has changed," she said.
Sam Reusch, who works with young voters with the non-profit Apathy is Boring, said there is a silver lining: today "there is an idea of democracy being a cause." Young people are watching the news worldwide and seeing a "rapid fire spread through our democratic institutions" and are actively engaging with all the complexities.
"I think because of the sheer volume of information that we're taking in on a regular basis on our phones, we're better at telling the difference now between truth and false," Reusch said. "Misinformation often causes an emotional response. That emotional response, as we've seen, can cause a lot of things to happen in an election."
Canada, she says, needs to be ready for that.
Editor's note: this article was edited for clarity about the online ad repository on May 15, 2019 at 7:20 p.m. EST