In a recent speech at the National Action Network convention in New York City, U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the issue of voter suppression and voter ID laws.
President Obama echoed Canadian election experts who point out that voting fraud is almost non-existent and there is simply no justification for introducing new, highly restrictive voter ID laws – as Republicans have done in the States and Pierre Poilievre and the Conservatives are doing right now in Canada.
“So let’s be clear. The real voter fraud is people who try to deny our rights by making bogus arguments about voter fraud.” – President Barack Obama, April 11, 2014
Sadly, the Unfair Elections Act is doing exactly what President Obama is warning about.
Conservatives persist in making bogus arguments about voter fraud, despite the fact almost all the irregularities investigated by Elections Canada are administrative errors. As a result, they are ramming through an unfair bill that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Canadians.
Canadians deserve a government that encourages people to vote, not the opposite.
To put it bluntly, Bill C-23 is a threat to our democracy, the latest in a series of attacks on what I would call “our Canadian way of Life”. We must not let the Conservatives get away with this unprecedented attack on our democratic process.
Our Prime Minister would have Canadians believe Elections Canada is being strengthened, when in fact, the opposite is true. The Unfair Elections Act is a thinly-veiled pursuit of a vendetta against the Chief Electoral Officer. Look no further than Bill C-23’s removal of the right of the Chief Electoral Officer to engage in democracy promotion and general public education which targets the more marginalized groups whose members are less likely to vote. Look also at how in C-23 the Chief Electoral Officer is put on the list of those expressly covered by the Conflict of Interest Act, when no other officer of Parliament is so singled out.
My colleague, Craig Scott, our Democratic Reform critic has identified at least 20 serious problems with C-23. To assist us in understanding what is happening he has grouped the problems into three themes:
1. Voter Suppression
The Unfair Elections Act removes two methods of voting that have proven effective in enfranchising voters who do not have standard I.D. documents, have no fixed address, or otherwise cannot meet the identity-proving requirements in the current Canada Elections Act. The long-standing Canadian practice of vouching allowed 120,000 people to vote in 2011. Elections Canada also expanded the use of its Voter Identification Cards (VICs) in three contexts in 2011 — youth attending university, seniors in residence, and Aboriginal people living on reserves. The exercise showed just how much potential there is for the use of VICs with a second piece of I.D. in allowing more people to vote.
The Conservatives have concocted claims that vouching and VICs are the source of widespread fraud by citizens — with NO evidence to back up this claim — and then use this as the ‘rationale’ to prohibit these forms of identifying voters. This method comes straight from the voter-suppression playbook of the US Republican Party.
The Unfair Elections Act also prohibits the Chief Electoral Officer from engaging in general public education and democratic outreach to groups less likely to vote. According to C-23, The Elections Canada civics-outreach Student Vote Program (SVP) will now be illegal for the Chief Electoral Officer to run. During the 2011 general election, over 500,000 students across Canada cast mock ballots through SVP in an effort designed to encourage them to vote when they turn 18.
Well over a year ago, MPs were briefed by the Chief Electoral Officer that, in the 2015 election, Elections Canada would continue to expand its efforts to enhance voter turn-out by placing polling stations on over 20 university and college campuses across Canada, as well as in, or near, urban Aboriginal Friendship Centres or similar facilities. According to Craig Scott who was present during this briefing, the Conservative MPs were not pleased with this news.
Based on this initial reaction, I would say that the voter suppression provision of C-23 should come as no surprise.
In Part II of this column I will look at the other two themes: “Pretending to Fight Electoral Fraud” and “Worsening the Distorting Impact of Money Politics on Our Democracy”.