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Conservatives Ram Fair Elections Act Through the House

The Conservatives successfully rammed their amended Fair Elections Act through the House of Commons today by a vote of 146 to 123. The election reforms are set to make voting more difficult in 2015, requiring voters show a photo ID containing an address (which is limited in scope). Bill C23, as initially introduced seemed to be an attempt to rig the next election but while some of the more radical changes have been crossed out, the alarm bells ring at the nature of the amended legislation and the motives behind it.

Here are the highlights:

  1. The incumbent candidate or incumbent party will have the power to appoint polling clerks. This gives the incumbent party a major advantage in the next election and could sweep irregularities under the rug. Is it only a coincidence that the party proposing this is the very party that would like to retain their majority government in 2015? The measure of handing over the power to appoint polling clerks to the incumbent party and candidates was dangerous to begin with but has been amended out of the Fair Elections Act, meaning Elections Canada will continue the practice of appointing non-partisan polling clerks independently.
  2. Spending rules would be loosened in a manner that creates a loophole. Currently, if a party hires a company to solicit funds, it counts as an election expense capped based on the population of a given riding. The loophole in the new legislation would not only allow parties to use soliciting calls for fundraising, but also for support. Yearly donation limits per person would also be raised to $1,500 from $1,200. The savings would give a party with a lot of money the tools to raise even more money. This would benefit one party greatly: the Conservatives.
  3. The Chief Electoral Officer will be silenced through a new limit in what he/she can speak about. Many Canadians looked to Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand for answers when non-Conservative voters in over 200 ridings were subjected to an unprecedented act of voter suppression by misleading robocalls advising them of a phony change in voting location. If made into law, Mayrand would no longer be allowed to speak about investigations into election irregularities, nor would Elections Canada be allowed to create turnout campaigns to increase voter turnout. The decision to silence the Chief Electoral Officer and restrict his power raised eyebrows and in conjunction with some of the other changes in the initial draft of the bill could have lead to possibilities of electoral irregularities. The amended version, however, will allow the Chief Electoral Officer to speak freely and report on any matters as he can today. In addition, while the initial draft of the legislation would have stifled voter-turnout campaigns, the amended version encourages Elections Canada to support programs which teach primary and secondary school students how to vote.
  4. Voters will need to bring two pieces of identification that proves a voter's address - notably a driver's license. Before 2007, being on the voter's list gave voters a free pass but as Conservative MPs cite an Elections Canada 7% error rate on voter information, voter ID has become a must for voting in federal elections. This move is estimated to consequently take away voting rights from over 100,000 people who don't have a driver's license. Based on demographics, those who would be barred on identification issues are more likely to vote for the opposition. Adding this new dimension would also make voting more difficult, possibly driving down an already low voter turn out. Who benefits from that? The Conservatives.
  5. Whereas the initial version of the legislation would have canceled vouching, it now requires people without valid ID to be vouched by someone with proper ID.
  6. In the initial draft, the legislation required calling companies to hold on to scripts and recordings from election calls for a year. The amended legislation extends this time to three years.

Despite some of the drastic overhaul of the Fair Elections Act, critics remain unconvinced it will benefit Canada's democratic process.

"This bill will result in some people having more difficulty voting," Former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley said. "Some people will not go to the polls because they are confused, so it's a form of self-disenfranchisement."

"What I do not understand is why you require two pieces of ID if you're going to be vouched for by somebody else."

Kingsley also challenged the notion of voter fraud and asked for proof.

"Prime Minister, please tell us who they (fraudsters) are. Let us document exactly who is disadvantaged by the rules and who is advantaged... and get a grip on this once and for all so we start making decisions as a country."

The opposition parties too, remain unconvinced. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau reiterated his pledge to repeal the Fair Elections Act if elected Prime Minister, adding, “The changes that have been made (to the initial legislation) aren't good enough, and if we form government in 2015, we will establish a much fairer principle around elections and repeal C-23.”

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said the bill would “weaken our democracy and make voting harder across the country.”

Mulcair added he had issues with the removal of using the voting card as a valid ID with an address and its lacking of a provision to give the elections commissioner the power to compel witness testimony during investigations into suspected infractions to electoral laws.

The current elections commissioner Yves Cote recently announced his investigation into the robocall scandal was killed because he couldn't get witnesses to testify their claims. This leaves the investigation as a cliff hanger where there are no answers but the conclusion suspecting wrongdoing remains in place.

This is a point Kingsley also raised, saying, "I would have been satisfied with the result (of Cote's report) if people had been compelled and we still had found nothing."

The Conservatives rushed the legislation through the third reading and used their majority to restrict debate and pass the legislation to the senate where it is expected the Conservative majority will pass it into law.

It is worth recalling that on November 26, 1996, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper was a Reform MP on the opposition benches, that he opposed then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien's use of his majority mandate to pass amendments to the Canada Elections Act.

"In speaking on behalf of the Reform Party," he said, "I intend to oppose this bill that imposes changes to the general elections act without the consent of the opposition parties. These changes are not necessary and they are also dangerous to the operation of Canadian democracy."

Funny enough, everything Harper said in 1996 is reflective of the direction his government is taking today. In 1996, he added this behavior "is the kind of dangerous application of electoral practices that we are more likely to find in third world countries."

Harper's Conservatives effectively used their majority to rush and pass legislation that left the opposition and experts uneasy. This is a point Mulcair charged in his criticism of the legislation. "If they are still trying to use their majority to force through these changes without approval of the other parties in Parliament, it is unprecedented in Canadian history to do this sort of thing with no support from any other expert or from any other political party," he said.

One thing is certain, the legislation was a lot worse before it got amended to its current state. Nonetheless, the complicated new ID rules may inhibit Canadians from voting and changes to Canada's mail service set to take place this year won't aid the matter. While vouching is still an option for those that find themselves in the ID issue, it itself creates a hassle that really shouldn't exist in a democratic society where each ballot is tracked anyway.

The purpose of this bill, despite its gutting, is to alter the odds of the next election. With 30 new ridings in perceived Conservative-leaning areas and the ID changes set to affect those who likely wouldn't vote Conservative it is clear some of its provisions may need evidence or thought before coming to law. However, if the initial draft of this legislation passed today, the question on everyone's mind, as it was when it was introduced, would have been: Is the Fair Elections Act an attempt to rig the next election? Share this article and join the discussion and let us know what you think: Facebook, Twitter, Google+.