National Newswatch

OTTAWA — The COVID-19 pandemic is about to force another big break from tradition in the House of Commons: MPs using an app on their smartphones or laptops to cast votes remotely.

Party whips are still discussing some unresolved details, the most important of which is ensuring Canadians will be able to see how their MPs vote, in real-time, as they click yea or nay.

But government whip Mark Holland is optimistic that all parties will give unanimous consent to proceed with the voting app when the Commons resumes Monday after a six-week break.

Traditionally, MPs who support a bill or motion are asked to rise in the Commons and then nod their assent as their names are called, one by one, by the clerk. The same procedure is then followed for those opposed.

That changed last fall as the Commons adapted to the need for physical distancing and restricted travel to curb the spread COVID-19. Votes by videoconference were introduced, allowing MPs for the first time to vote virtually from remote locations.

However, they still voted one-by-one in response to a rollcall so Canadians could witness how each of them voted. Inevitable technical glitches meant a single vote could take up to an hour to complete, during which all MPs were required to stay glued to their seats and on camera.

That's about to change — again.

In a bid to speed things up, the Commons administration has developed a voting app, using combined facial and fingerprint recognition technology, to facilitate secure, one-click voting.

Rather than a rollcall vote, Holland said the plan is to allow a set "time window" — around 10 minutes — in which MPs can register their votes.

As always, a list showing how each MP voted would be immediately available after the results are announced. But Holland said the administration has also been asked to come up with a way to let onlookers know what's happening in real-time as each MP registers his or her vote.

"It's a little bit different than what people are used to," Holland acknowledged in an interview.

He said the administration opted for the time-window approach because it's easier to manage technically and faster than conducting a rollcall. It allows an MP who's having trouble connecting or other technical problems to work it out with Commons staff, without holding up voting by everyone else.

It also means MPs can resume doing other work as soon as they've voted.

"It means we can get done in 10 minutes what would have taken an hour and if we have eight or 10 votes in a row, suddenly all of that time is freed up to do the work that I think people elect us to do," Holland said. 

NDP House leader Peter Julian said his party supports the use of the voting app to increase efficiency while minimizing the number of MPs in the Commons as the second wave of COVID-19 ravages the country. But he said it's critical that constituents be able to see in real-time how their MPs are voting.

"That's a fundamental principle of democracy. Canadians need to know how their members of Parliament are voting," he said in an interview.

"Knowing it after the fact is fine ... but it needs to be in place for when we are (in the process of) voting ... This is how democracy functions, with transparency."

Bloc Quebecois House leader Alain Therrien said in a statement Wednesday that his party supports using the app. But he stressed the Bloc also believes the Liberal government must get unanimous consent before deploying it.

Conservative House leader Gerard Deltell, whose party has been the most reluctant to depart from traditional procedures during the pandemic, declined to comment.

Holland said it's "looking really positive" that the government will get unanimous consent for a motion to be introduced as the first order of business Monday. The motion would reinstate until the end of June the hybrid Commons format adopted last fall — a small number of MPs in the chamber while most participate virtually — with the voting app feature to be added as soon as possible.

While the app has been tested with each MP individually and with each party caucus, Holland does not expect it to be used immediately by the Commons because it still needs to be tested with all 338 MPs using it simultaneously. That can't be done, he said, until use of the app is approved.

Because there was no agreement among parties before Christmas on how the Commons should resume in the new year, all MPs are theoretically scheduled to be back in the chamber Monday.

But Holland said party whips are discussing how to keep the number of MPs to the bare minimum needed for quorum: 20, including the Speaker.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2021.

Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press

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