As the drama over alleged Chinese interference in Canadian elections plays out in Ottawa, the B.C. government introduced its own bill this week to try and tackle the rise of election disinformation.
The legislation, if passed, would make it illegal to deliberately and knowingly make false statements about elections and election candidates.
“It’s super important,” said Attorney General Niki Sharma.
“The integrity and the trust in our electoral process is fundamental in every democracy. And we constantly need to evolve our election rules to make sure we're keeping up with challenges, or different issues that the elections are facing.”
People caught breaking the rules could face fines of up to $20,000, while online websites that fail to remove disinformation in advertising could be hit with $50,000 per day.
“There will be pretty severe consequences,” Sharma said in an interview.
The bill targets “making false statements about objective biographical information” about candidates or senior officials of political parties, including if someone has been convicted of or charged with a crime, what a person’s citizenship is, their place of birth, education and membership in a group.
Some of that would be covered under libel law, but not all. And going after someone in court for mistruths can be costly and take time. The bill gives independent watchdog Elections BC the power to swoop in and have false facts removed within 24 hours.
The list echos controversies seen elsewhere, like in the United States where some groups questioned the citizenship and birth certificate of former president Barack Obama. But it would also cover alleging someone is part of a hate group, or lying about whether a person has a criminal record.
If the bill becomes law, it would be illegal to spread disinformation about voting itself, such as where a polling station is located, the time it is open and who is eligible to vote.
The goal would be to crack down on groups that try to redirect legitimate voters to the wrong location at the wrong time, thereby attempting to influence the election outcome in the favour of one candidate.
The proposal makes a lot of sense. But it also raises the question of whether people who mistakenly pass along a false fact about a candidate might be caught up in penalties for what could have been an innocent mistake.
Sharma said that won’t be the case.
“The object is to go after intentional interference with elections, so that is somebody who's spreading disinformation that's clearly wrong in certain categories that are there to affect the election, and will influence the election,” she said.
“This is to draw a clear line around that behaviour. And the chief electoral officer, an independent officer, can adjudicate where this is showing up and its impact on the election. But it gives them the powers to step in when they see that.”
The proposal actually comes from Election BC’s chief electoral officer, Anton Boegman, who suggested the provisions in a 2020 report that warned disinformation, election interference and campaign collusion were all on the rise worldwide.
Boegman cited the 2016 Brexit referendum, foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and a three-fold rise in cyber threats to advanced democracies since 2015.
More recently, several media outlets have reported ongoing Chinese interference in Canadian elections, including a network of candidates in the 2019 election in an attempt to move its own agents into elected office and in areas of influence within parties. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has resisted calls for a public inquiry.
B.C.’s election laws weren’t written to consider modern-day social media advertising, bots or coordinated campaigns on modern platforms like Twitter, Facebook, WeChat, YouTube or Google.
How Elections BC plans to monitor those sites, and issue orders for them to comply with provincial election laws, remains unclear. It is perhaps the biggest question mark over the bill – whether technology giants will listen to, or act upon, complaints from the province.
The legislation also proposes tweaks to the law to make it easier to vote, especially by mail. More British Columbians cast ballots by mail or in advanced voting in the 2020 election than in person on election day.
The bill would allow people to have more locations to drop off mail-in ballots if they ran out of time to get them in the mail, as well as let the chief electoral officer make other improvements.
One of the more interesting provisions is a change that would impact blank ballots, which are sometimes mailed out to early voters who request them. Normally, you have to write the name of the local candidate, and any reference to the party or the party leader gets the ballot disqualified. But the bill proposes to allow people to vote by naming the party leader, and still have it count towards the local candidate.
The Opposition BC Liberals say they will canvass the bill extensively during debate, to make sure there are no unintended consequences or trickery being imposed by the governing NDP.
But the larger ideas behind the legislation make sense.
With the onslaught of misinformation out there, rising from all quarters, our election process needs all the protection it can get.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.