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International group takes pass on monitoring election due to limited resources

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OTTAWA — An international body that specializes in monitoring elections is skipping this year’s Canadian election due to limited resources despite questions and potential concerns about the role of third-party groups, cybersecurity and social media in the campaign.

The Organization for Security and Economic Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, monitored Canada’s federal election in 2015 and recently deployed an advance team to determine whether it should repeat the exercise. Canada is one of 57 members of the OSCE.

The team came back at the end of August recommending a monitoring mission following interviews with representatives from the main political parties as well as Elections Canada, several government departments and outside experts.

While the team wrote in its report that it found “full stakeholder confidence in the overall integrity of the electoral process,” those interviewed identified several areas of concern that would warrant the presence of an extra set of eyes.

Those included changes to the election law by the Liberal government as well as efforts to protect the election from cyberthreats, the role of online media and social networks on the campaign, “and the effectiveness of oversight of campaign and campaign-finance rules.”

In particular, those interviewed “acknowledged concerns related to public perceptions of electoral security,” fears about disinformation campaigns and “potential loopholes” in the election law when it comes to spending limits and other rules on third-party actors.

Despite these concerns, Katya Andrusz of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said the organization decided not to send an observation mission because it has already deployed a large number of missions to other countries this year.

“As 2019 is a heavy election year and we have had some large-scale observation operations that have been demanding on ODIHR’s budget and human resources, it will not be possible for us to carry out an observation to the federal elections in Canada this year,” she said this week.

Ukraine’s presidential and parliamentary elections in particular have been a significant draw on the office’s “limited resources,” Andrusz said, while missions are also underway or expected for Poland and Belarus.

Dalhousie University professor Lori Turnbull, who was interviewed by the advance team in July, was disappointed the OSCE opted not to send an observation mission given some of the issues likely to come up during the campaign.

“It is a big election year globally and so if they made the decision not to come here, I get it,” she said.

“But at the same time, I would really have liked to have seen an observation just because of the different rules around third parties and because of the concerns around cybersecurity. I think it would have been really good to have that analysis done.”

Some experts believe Canada will be a test case of sorts for next year’s U.S. presidential election, both in terms of efforts to protect and attack the campaign, Turnbull said, which is another reason an independent assessment would have been welcome.

But there are also questions about how votes by expatriates will affect the election along with the effectiveness of rules around third-party groups and foreign financing and the reinstatement of vouching that are worth monitoring, she said.

“The changes that this government has made are integral to how we run elections and it would be interesting to have that objective analysis to see how things are working.”

The last time the OSCE sent an election-monitoring mission in 2015, it was on the basis of widespread concerns about the Fair Elections Act, which was rammed through by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government with limited consultation.

Those concerns included whether the law would prevent large numbers of voters from actually casting their ballots, whether campaign finance rules would benefit some parties and not others, and whether the law would negatively affect turnout among Aboriginals and other groups.

The Liberal government subsequently rolled back many of the changes in the Fair Elections Act with their own legislation.

Andrusz said there was no connection between the decision not to send a mission to Canada this time around and the changed political environment — it was solely a matter of money and resources.

“You can’t say: ‘Okay there was something we were concerned about last time, for example, and we’re not concerned now and that’s why we’re not coming,'” she said. “That comparison really doesn’t hold up.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2019.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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