Controversy surrounds the Fair Elections Act, Canadians could care less

by Stephen Chartrand

On Feb. 4, Canada’s Minister of State for Democratic Reform, Pierre Poilievre, introduced the Fair Elections Act. The proposed legislation is now in its second reading and is proving to be highly controversial. If it passes Bill C-23 will establish new rules and regulations that will affect voters, candidates, political parties and election officials.

Some of these changes, and there are many, include major amendments to Canada’s election laws. The government’s move to abolish “vouching” and the use of voter information cards have generated the most contention. Under the current rules, if you cannot provide proper identification, you may still cast your ballot in an election so long as someone from your polling area can vouch for you. In the last federal election, approximately 120,000 people in 2011, roughly one per cent of voters, did not have the proper ID required to cast a vote.

In a March 24 Op-ed piece to The Globe and Mail, Mr. Poilievre highlighted the high proportion of irregularities in the vouching system as the motivating reason to eliminate it. Whether these irregularities are mostly administrative errors or cases of voter fraud is difficult to say. According to Marc Mayrand, the Chief Electoral Officer, vouching is often done for someone who can provide the proper ID but cannot prove their current address – usually students or someone who has recently moved.

The Fair Elections Act would also eliminate the use of voter information cards (which eligible voters receive in the mail, indicating where they can vote) as a way of proving where you live, which around 400,000 voters did in the 2011 election. Due to the controversy surrounding these reforms and the criticisms being made by academics, commentators and current and former chief electoral officers have caused the Conservatives to reconsider the legislation.

On April 25, Mr. Poilievre announced that the government would agree to and support a number of amendments to the bill prior to the House Committee on Procedure and House Affairs’ review. Although vouching will still be abolished, the government agreed to introduce a new measure in which a voter who has proper identification but can’t prove their current address, can still receive a ballot if they sign a written oath as to their residence, provided that a valid voter from the same polling area also signs a written oath attesting to the voter’s residence. Both the NDP and the Liberals have supported this amendment.

Campaign financing has also been a contentious issue. The bill proposed to exclude fundraising costs from election expenses that a party incurs in soliciting for party donations from past supporters. Mr. Mayrand said the move would not only “compromise the level playing field” between the political parties, as non-fundraising related expenses could easily be accounted as fundraisers, but would be “difficult if not impossible” to enforce. The clause was scraped as part of the government’s April 25 amendments.

The Fair Elections Act is introducing new limits to what the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada and Elections Canada can advertise to the public. Basic advertisements on when and how to vote will still be permitted; however, the department will no longer be allowed to encourage people to vote. Commentators have objected to this proposal by insisting that the new limits will force Elections Canada to cut its civic literacy programs. The government said these programs, such as Student Vote, will still be guaranteed for primary and secondary school students but not for adults. The responsibility of encouraging people to get out and vote at election time will now fall to the political parties.

While the bill does include a number of needed reforms, particularly legislative changes to fight voter fraud, the bill has encountered significant criticism for its proposed amendments on poll clerks, donation limits, third party advertising, robocalls and a clause which would allow political parties to collect data to see which registered voters did or did not cast their ballot.

According to a recent Angus Reid poll, 52 per cent of Canadians who weren’t familiar with the bill liked it, while 41 per cent of those who were liked it. Another poll, by Ipsos Reid found that only 23 per cent of Canadians were following the debate “closely” while 70 per cent of Canadians were fine with the proposal to eliminate vouching.

The government hopes to pass the bill before the upcoming 2015 federal election.

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