The Broadbent Blog

How the (Un)Fair Elections Act would play out on the ground


The perception that a Conservative party agenda is written into the so-called ‘Fair Elections Act’ has the national media and pundits talking. And for good reason. In light of recent Conservative run-ins with Elections Canada and the RCMP, the skepticism towards the changes to the powers of the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) and the Commissioner of Elections Canada are understandable

While the media focus on these elements of the Act is warranted, there are other aspects of the bill that are equally troubling because of their potential effects on local campaigns in Electoral Districts (EDs) across the country.

The elimination of the practice of vouching in the proposed legislation has received some attention, but it’s important to be clear about how this actually works. Service and community organizations 'vouch' for homeless people and people without ID who are known to the organization. These individuals get a form that meets the election requirements for an ID and an address. If the vouching provision is removed through C-23, all of the people who utilized that method will no longer be able to vote.

Another vouching practice is for neighbours to vouch for neighbours. If you live in the same polling division as someone, you can vouch for them if you know them and know where they live. It seems that the Conservatives don’t trust us to know who our neighbours are anymore.

A typical polling location on Election Day in Canada is abuzz with action and energy. Campaign managers and staff line up teams of volunteers (and sometimes lawyers) to observe polling stations to ensure that the right to vote is not infringed upon by overzealous Elections Canada staff on Election Day. If these observers spot something wrong, they can make an official objection to Elections Canada supervisors and have that objection noted in writing.

Proposed changes contained in this Act would allow candidate representatives the right to go beyond observing the process to ensure fairness. Instead they will be able to insert themselves directly in the voting process via the new right to ‘examine’ voters’ identification before they are allowed to vote. This is a dramatic shift in roles for campaign volunteers, and is a recipe for conflict that could result in systematic bullying of voters and elections staff by partisan campaign volunteers.

Candidates’ representatives have virtually no training and in many cases can get the rules mixed up. Further, they are not impartial like Elections Canada staff must be, and the potential exists for them to target certain voters for challenge in order to give their candidate an advantage.  

Allowing a candidate’s rep to stand between the voter and the ballot box is a fundamental shift away from observer to actor, which will result in many peoples’ right to vote being challenged unnecessarily. This practice could also give voters the impression that these volunteers have real authority when challenging a voter’s credentials, further deterring them from voting.

This proposed change would act to further disenfranchise people who are already underrepresented in our electoral system. Aboriginal people, people with low incomes, people who move a lot, first time voters, students, homeless people, and many others could become targets for further scrutiny by candidates’ representatives who are there to do political work. And if unchecked that political work could result in rights being denied.

One of the least-understood new provisions in the Act allows parties to spend money above the current campaign expenditure limits by exempting the cost of raising money from previous donors. Election returns are already very complicated, and creating a new category for non-campaign expense spending will make it even harder for the public to evaluate whether rules were followed. Elections Canada will also find it tougher to get campaign financial statements approved, as this change will result in more disputes between Electoral Districts and Elections Canada’s auditors.

For the candidates and campaign managers who dream of overspending and getting away with it, this is a dream come true.

In addition to introducing some major new problems into the elections process, the new act also ignores one of the most frustrating parts of running campaigns in Canada: the inaccuracy of the voters’ list. Voter Information Cards (VICs) are sent to all registered voters before Election Day at their address as listed in the National Register of Electors. The Register’s target for accuracy is that the list should contain 92% of all eligible Canadian electors, and include home addresses for 80% of that group. That means that the National Register of Electors target is to have names and addresses for 73.6% of all eligible voters in Canada. While they achieve (and sometimes exceed) this target nationally, in some Electoral Districts the lists are much less than 73.6% accurate.

An inaccurate list means that when the Voter Information Cards arrive in many mailboxes, they contain the wrong names. Instead of dealing with the source of the problem – the inaccurate lists – the act proposes to no longer allow these cards as proof of ID or residency at polling locations on Election Day. Improving the quality of the lists would address the real problem of the voters who are getting left off these lists. Once again, these are people who move a lot, people with low incomes, Aboriginal people, first time voters, students, homeless people and other groups that are underrepresented in our democracy.

The Conservatives are focused on the wrong issues in Bill C-23. Instead of limiting access to the ballot box, adding spending loopholes, reducing oversight, and shutting down debate in the House of Commons, our government should strengthen our democracy by enfranchising people who are currently disenfranchised.

There should be dialogue across the federation that is encouraged by an open Parliament whose goal is to build a consensus among civil society and all parties in the House of Commons. If the Conservatives don’t change their approach with Bill C-23 upcoming elections will see fewer people getting out to the polls in 2015, and a further weakening of our democracy in Canada.

Trevor McKenzie-Smith has fifteen years of experience as a campaigner and is a Broadbent Institute training and leadership Fellow.

Photo: Adam Scotti. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA-2.0 license.