Canadians question fairness of Fair Elections Act

Bill C-23, better known as the Fair Elections Act, was first presented to the House of Commons on Feb. 4. It comprises a 252-page document that outlines many different amendments to current electoral acts and Elections Canada processes, involving voters, candidates and parties, and elections officials. Despite its name, however, politicians and citizens across the country question how fair the bill is and seek to see it thrown away.

Amendments in the bill include removing the ability of a voter to have someone vouch for their identity and address, removing Voter Identification Cards (VICs) as acceptable ID at the polls, and no longer allowing Elections Canada to publicly encourage Canadians to vote.

The sponsor of the bill, Minister of State (Democratic Reform) Honourable Pierre Poilievre of the Conservatives, backs each amendment of the bill as being beneficial to the fairness of elections. “The bill will make it harder to break the law and easier to vote,” he says in his Feb. 5 speech to the House of Commons. “It closes loopholes to big money, imposes new penalties on political imposters who make rogue calls, and empowers law enforcement with sharper teeth, a longer reach, and a freer hand.”

Poilievre and his colleagues say that the reason for removing the ability to have someone vouch for a voter’s identity at the polls is because of a report that was commissioned by Elections Canada in 2012. The report found that out of the just over 120 000 Canadians who used vouching to cast their ballot, about 50 000 cases had irregularities that could have resulted in a discarded vote, although no evidence of fraud was given in the report.

Critics of the bill, however, such as the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), an organization dedicated to advocating for students to the government and protecting students’ best interests, argues that vouching is very important for such marginalized groups as students, who may need to rely on such measures to exercise their right to vote.

“Students are of a transient nature,” said CASA National Director Jonathan Champagne. “Usually they are in temporary housing when they are at school studying, and so they might not have the other documents necessary and need someone to vouch.” With the enactment of Bill C-23, anyone without proof of identification and address will not be allowed to vote.

The removal of the VICs, a method of voter identification that Elections Canada has used for years, is also of particular importance to students. Poilievre says in his speech, however, that since approximately one in six electors will receive cards at an incorrect address, fraud may occur from people voting more than once, with multiple cards or in the incorrect jurisdiction.

Is this a problematic issue? It is difficult to say; there is no way of knowing exactly how many people used VICs as identification in the 2011 federal election, so the question that comes up has more to do with which is more important: protecting elections from a risk of unverified fraud or allowing Canadians to vote when they do not have photographic identification with their correct address on it.

“At the end of the day,” Champagne said, “making sure that people have the ability to exercise their democratic right to be able to vote trumps the quirks that might take place with those who seek to exploit the system.” According to him, VICs present as much of a potential for fraud as any other piece of identification. However, he says that doesn’t mean they should be removed altogether as an option.

On March 25, citizens in ridings all over the country presented their local MPs with signed petitions against the enactment of the bill. In Parliament, however, changes are pushing ahead, with all motions proposed by the NDP to avert the bill already rejected by the Conservative government. Debates continue and, at time of writing, it is unknown when the bill may or may not pass.

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