Conservatives Ram Fair Elections Act Through the House

Julian Wolfe
May 14th, 2014

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.

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? 

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