OTTAWA — The Conservative government’s proposed changes to the election law will weaken the public’s trust in the electoral process and could lower voter turnout, a leading public policy expert says.
Paul Thomas is an emeritus professor at the University of Manitoba, a widely published expert on Canadian politics and a member of a commission that advised Parliament on recent federal electoral boundary changes in Manitoba.
He joins a long lists of experts who warn that there are problems with the proposed Fair Elections Act and that it risks disenfranchising many voters. Research in other countries shows that political attacks on election agencies weaken public trust and lead to lower turnout rates, Thomas says. That’s part of the message he plans to deliver to MPs when he addresses a Commons committee studying the act via video from Winnipeg on Monday evening.
“This should not happen in Canada, which has one of the strongest reputations in the world for staging fair and free elections under the supervision of Elections Canada, the oldest independent and impartial national election body among established democracies,” Thomas says, according to speaking notes shared with The Huffington Post Canada.
The government’s election law is under review by a committee with a majority of Conservative MPs. The bill has been attacked by every opposition party, and all of the expert testimony so far has been critical of the Tories’ proposal. Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, however, says his bill is “excellent.”
He told CTV’s “Question Period” on Sunday that it is “still too early to say” whether the government will contemplate any major alterations.
“I feel comfortable defending everything there,” he told CTV. “I think it's a very fair and reasonable elections reform package.”
Thomas says he’s very concerned that the government is ramming changes through Parliament that affect Elections Canada and the democratic process without consulting the arms-length electoral body itself or opposition parties.
Several countries have recognized that such fundamental laws should not be changed “hastily and unilaterally” by the governing party, he says. In Britain, most election laws require advance consultation with the national Electoral Commission, a practice he recommends that Canada adopt.
In New Zealand, changes to the Electoral Act require the support of 75 per cent of the members of the House of Representatives.
“[It] lessens the perception that the governing party is changing the law to gain partisan advantage,” Thomas notes.
Thomas believes it's wrong for the government to eliminate voter information cards used by some citizens in 2011 to help prove their address. He is also critical of the elimination of vouching, a practice that allows someone without sufficient identification to cast a ballot if someone they know vouches for them.
The government has not presented any hard evidence of voter fraud, he says, and the elimination of the two measures “does not strike the right balance between upholding the constitutional right of Canadians to vote and the highly remote risk of voter impersonation.”
Thomas believes it is wrong for the Tories to restrict Elections Canada’s ability to communicate and promote electoral democracy. He notes that the Conservatives supported a unanimous motion in 2004 calling on Elections Canada to expand its activities to ensure accessibility for disabled voters and to encourage young Canadians to vote.
He is critical of the government’s decision to bring the commissioner of Elections Canada under the Director of Public Prosecutions, in a department headed by a minister. Thomas warns that this could jeopardize the commissioner’s independence.
Thomas wants the government to scrap a loophole created in the bill that would allow political campaigns to contact donors without counting the expense towards their spending caps. He says it is difficult to image how fundraising calls would not involve an appeal for votes and he believes the calls could also be used by political parties to attack their political opponents. There is “no conceivable way that Elections Canada with its present authority could monitor and enforce compliance with the provision,” he adds.
He calls for several other changes to the bill, among them:
– Giving the commissioner of Elections Canada the authority to seek court orders forcing potential witnesses to testify.
– Extending privacy laws to political parties (at the moment, almost no rules govern how the parties use the data they collect on voters).
– Developing codes of conduct with Elections Canada to guide the behaviour of party candidates, paid staff and volunteers.
Thomas says these changes would help political parties comply not just with the letter but with the spirit of the Canada Elections Act.
Thomas, however, is unlikely to change the government’s mind. Poilievre told CTV that he disagrees with similar proposals put forward by Marc Mayrand, the head of Elections Canada. But the minister said he will listen to committee testimony.