OTTAWA - Pierre Poilievre won't stop citing a report to justify cracking down on potential voter fraud, even though author Harry Neufeld says the Harper government is misrepresenting his report and ignoring his recommendations.
"We are going to keep quoting Mr. Neufeld's report because it contains the facts that obviously support our position that people should have ID when they show up to vote," the minister for democratic reform told the House of Commons on Friday.
He accused opposition MPs of ignoring the "hard facts" contained in last year's report by Neufeld, a former chief electoral officer for British Columbia who was commissioned by Elections Canada to review the problem of non-compliance with the rules for casting ballots in the 2011 election.
However, Neufeld suggested it's Poilievre who's ignoring the facts.
He told The Canadian Press there's not a shred of evidence that there have been more than "a handful" of cases of deliberate voter fraud in either federal or provincial elections.
"I never said there was voter fraud," Neufeld said in an interview. "Nor did the Supreme Court, who looked at this extremely carefully."
Neufeld said the government's efforts to prevent voter fraud are aimed at a non-existent problem. And he predicted they'll wind up disenfranchising thousands of voters and resulting in a rash of court challenges.
Elections Canada commissioned Neufeld's report after a court challenge of the results in the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre revealed numerous irregularities. That case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which last year rejected a bid by the failed Liberal candidate to overturn the results.
Poilievre has repeatedly cited Neufeld's report to justify two controversial provisions in his bill to overhaul the Canada Elections Act: prohibiting voter information cards as a valid piece of identification and ending the practice of allowing people to "vouch" for voters who do not have the proper identification documents.
He continued doing so Friday, reciting excerpts from the report that show "courts may overturn elections as a result of the errors" in administering the vouching process and information cards.
"We think that is very serious. We're going to solve that problem," he said, adding that he disagrees with Neufeld's conclusions, but not his facts.
But Neufeld said Poilievre is being "selective" in his reading of the report and urged him to read it in its entirety.
"He's a bright guy, obviously. He can read and, you know, he should go to the recommendations and he should look at the entire context of the issues that were behind the problems with vouching."
In his report, Neufeld estimated that an average of 500 "serious administrative errors" were committed in each of the country's 308 ridings.
"Serious errors of a type the courts consider irregularities that can contribute to an election being overturned were found to occur in 12 per cent of all election day cases involving voter registration and 42 per cent of cases involving identity vouching," he reported.
Neufeld concluded there were multiple causes for the errors, including "complexity, supervision, recruitment (of poll officials), training, updating the list of electors." At no point did he suggest ineligible voters were deliberately trying to cast illegal ballots.
Neufeld recommended that voter information cards should be more widely allowed as valid pieces of ID. And he recommended that the vouching process and paperwork should be simplified and elections officials better trained to avoid irregularities in future.
In the Etobicoke Centre case, Neufeld noted in the interview that the Supreme Court specifically said there was no evidence of deliberate voter fraud.
Nevertheless, he said "urban myths" about voter fraud still endure. For decades, he's heard stories about busloads of out-of-riding people arriving at polling stations to vote illegally or nefarious individuals scooping up dozens of discarded voter information cards in apartment building lobbies and using them to orchestrate illegal voting schemes.
Conservative MP Brad Butt last month claimed several times to have personally witnessed the latter scheme but, after Elections Canada began investigating his claim, he eventually apologized and clarified that he was recounting anecdotal stories.
"You hear it so often, I think some people believe it," said Neufeld, who has 33 years of experience overseeing elections.
"I don't believe it. I've heard it from politicians and I've said to them, 'Please, provide me some evidence' ... Never, never a single shred of evidence has been provided."
Like chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand, Neufeld said he fears Poilievre's efforts to prevent voter fraud will end up disenfranchising people who have trouble producing identification with proof of their address — primarily students, seniors, the poor and aboriginals.
He predicted that the bill will eventually lead to court challenges by those deprived of their fundamental democratic right to cast ballots.
"I think we would see a huge outpouring of absolute anger because my experience is, when people are denied the right to vote and they feel they're legitimately qualified and that there's not a good basis for denying them that vote, they get very angry," he said.
"And I would not be surprised if there was a rash of court challenges from people following the (next) election if Bill C-23 goes through the way it is."
If the Conservatives' argument about the threat of voter fraud is accepted, Neufeld said he's worried that the government will eventually move to eliminate other special balloting procedures, such as voting by mail or registering at the time of voting, and impose more and more identification requirements, such as proof of citizenship.
"The argument doesn't have any logical, factual grounding but, nevertheless, it keeps being used and I think it's a slippery slope to say, 'Oh yeah, we can't trust anyone, we gotta have them prove everything in terms of eligibility before we give them a ballot.'"
New Democrat MP Paul Dewar was dumbfounded by Poilievre's insistence that his interpretation of the Neufeld report is correct and the author's is wrong.
"Let me get this straight. The top priority for the government is about voter fraud that it does not know about and actually has no evidence of. This is quite astonishing," Dewar told the Commons.
"So the question is: will the Conservative government actually listen to Mr. Neufeld's evidence and not be guided by this citing of 'could,' 'maybe,' or 'should,' but actual evidence of voter fraud, of which Mr. Neufeld said there was none and the Supreme Court said there was none?"
Poilievre said he assumes Neufeld will be called as a witness before the committee studying his bill. But he made it clear he won't be swayed by his testimony.
"The reality is that Canadians believe there should be good voter identification rules to ensure that people vote only once and only in the ridings in which they live," he said.