Much of the debate over the government's proposed changes to Canadian election laws has focused on its plan to eliminate vouching, a process that lets those without proper identification have someone else in the same polling division swear to their name and address.
A less-discussed change proposed in Bill C-23 would also roll back a pilot program that allowed 400,000 people to use their voter information card as proof of address in the 2011 election.
Those who work to promote democracy — the current and former heads of Elections Canada, along with other experts — say removing those options would essentially deny the vote to tens of thousands of people. Harry Neufeld, who studied problems in the 2011 campaign, says 520,000 people could lose their right to vote.
The Conservatives say there are 39 forms of ID that let people prove their name and address when they vote in a federal election, arguing that's enough to get rid of vouching and the use of the voter information cards as proof of address.
But how easy is it to prove you are who you say you are when you cast a ballot?
The experts who so far have appeared before the procedure and House affairs committee have raised concerns about the list provided by Elections Canada, and defended by Pierre Poilievre, minister of state for democratic reform.
The biggest catch seems to be the need for voters to prove where they live. Take away the driver's licence, and it gets complicated.
Here are three things to know about the way Bill C-23 would change how Canadians could identify themselves to cast ballots in federal elections.
1. Few pieces of ID list address
Voters don't just prove their identity to cast a ballot: they have to prove where they live too. And while Elections Canada says 85 per cent of Canadians have a driver's licence — based on the numbers they get from provincial licensing offices — that penetration drops in urban areas like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, where better public transit systems mean fewer people require cars to get around.
One of the democracy experts appearing before the committee Thursday made that point. Student Vote's Taylor Gunn, who lives in Toronto, told the committee that he doesn't have a driver's licence.
"My health card, embarrassingly enough, is my only piece of official ID and it doesn't have my address on it. My wife couldn't vouch for me right now [under Bill C-23]," Gunn said.
Government issued ID like passports, social insurance number cards and birth certificates do not show an address.
2. Originals required
No driver's licence? No problem. Poilievre told MPs in question period Friday that photo ID and government-issued ID aren't required. His critics, however, say it's not that easy.
The list of accepted identification includes "things like utility bills, [Old Age Security] or Employment Insurance cheques, statement of attestation from aboriginal reserve, Indian status card, a student card, the list goes on and on. It's 39 different options. We just think it's reasonable that people bring some form of ID when they show up to vote," Poilievre said.
The list also includes bank statements and insurance policies. Unless, that is, the documents are delivered by email. A printed version of emailed documents won't suffice. Instead, voters would have to go to the bank or the hydro or insurance company — or dig through their paper files at home — to find an original copy. And they'll have to know that before they head to the polling station to cast a ballot on the advance polling day or election day.
3. Other options
For those who don't have a driver's licence, they could present a lease or have a letter of attestation from a shelter, soup kitchen, student or senior residence, or long-term care facility. But that requires more planning than simply heading to the polling station on election day.
Neufeld, the former chief electoral officer in British Columbia and now a consultant, says if the government is worried about vouching, there are ways to make it more secure.
There are problems, he says, including rushed poll clerks not keeping detailed records of who is vouching, or for whom they are vouching.
He said he likes a method used in Manitoba elections.
"If they have two pieces of ID but neither of them definitively proves their residential address, then they have to sign a declaration that the address they're claiming to live at is indeed their address," Neufeld said Thursday after speaking to MPs.
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"The Fair Elections Act will ensure everyday citizens are in charge of democracy, by putting special interests on the sidelines and rule-breakers out of business," says Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre. Read more about the Fair Elections Act <a href="http://www.democraticreform.gc.ca/eng/content/harper-government-introduces-fair-elections-act" target="_blank">here.</a>
Crackdown On Illegal Robocalls
The legislation proposes a <a href="http://www.democraticreform.gc.ca/eng/content/backgrounder-protecting-voters-rogue-callers" target="_blank">mandatory public registry</a> for mass automated election calls, jail time for those convicted of impersonating an elections official, and "increased penalties for deceiving people out of their votes."
No More 'Vouching' For Your Buddy
In the interest of cracking down on voter fraud, the bill would prohibit the practice whereby one Canadian vouches for another's identity at a polling station. In fact, voter information cards will no longer be accepted as proof of identity. <a href="http://www.democraticreform.gc.ca/eng/content/backgrounder-fair-elections-act-cracking-down-voter-fraud" target="_blank">But the government says voters will still have 39 forms of authorized ID to choose from in order to prove their identity and residence.</a>
Independence For The Elections Commissioner
The Commissioner of Canada Elections office, responsible for enforcing the elections law, will be moved under the mantle of the public prosecutor's office, not Elections Canada. Conservatives believe this will give the commissioner <a href="http://www.democraticreform.gc.ca/eng/content/backgrounder-independent-commissioner-sharper-teeth-longer-reach-and-freer-hand" target="_blank">more independence</a> as the Chief Electoral Officer will no longer be able to direct him to carry out investigations. In future, the commissioner would be appointed by the director of public prosecutions to a non-renewable, seven-year term. The legislation <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/02/04/fair-elections-act-poilievre-robocalls_n_4723565.html" target="_blank">also bars</a> former political candidates, political party employees, ministerial or MP staffers or employees of Elections Canada from being named commissioner. <a href="http://www.democraticreform.gc.ca/eng/content/backgrounder-independent-commissioner-sharper-teeth-longer-reach-and-freer-hand" target="_blank">Tories believe the legislation will give the commissioner "sharper teeth" and a "longer reach" to seek out stronger penalties for offences.</a>
More Donations Welcome
The ceiling for individual political donations would be raised to $1,500 from $1,200 and party spending limits would be increased by five per cent. Union and corporate donations are still banned, though.
The West Won't Have To Wait
A long-standing ban on the <a href="http://www.democraticreform.gc.ca/eng/content/backgrounder-fair-elections-act-respecting-democratic-elections-defending-freedom-speech" target="_blank">premature transmission of election results</a> will be lifted, meaning voters in Western Canada will get to know how things are shaping up out East before heading to the polls. Broadcasters can share results from Eastern Canada on election night, even if the polls aren't closed in the West. The government believes this change will uphold free speech.
New Rules On Political Loans
The legislation would raise the amount candidates can <a href="http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/02/04/conservatives-unveil-fair-elections-act-which-they-say-will-crack-down-on-illegal-robocalls/" target="_blank">contribute to their own campaigns to $5,000.</a> Leadership contestants will be allowed to give their own campaign up to $25,000.
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John Patrick Stanley