POLITICS

NDP Vows Voter Protection Act To Empower Elections Canada, Repeal Tory Laws

10/02/2015 03:52 EDT | Updated 10/02/2015 04:59 EDT

BURNABY, B.C. — Saying they want to boost turnout in future federal elections, the New Democrats are promising new powers for Elections Canada and to mete out more serious punishments when political operatives are found guilty of voting interference.

NDP candidate Peter Julian, who's running in the New Westminster-Burnaby riding, said Friday his party would introduce the Voter Protection Act.

He said the proposed legislation would repeal the "worst provisions" of contentious new Conservative voting laws, which included stricter identification requirements among other changes.

The Fair Elections Act was passed in May 2014 amid opposition by the other parties and electoral experts. Some critics charged it would especially hinder groups like First Nations from casting a ballot.

"We have seen Mr. Harper try to drive down voter participation and make it more difficult to investigate and penalize wrongdoers," Julian said while standing outside the Burnaby, B.C. RCMP detachment.

"I think the concerns that are being expressed in this country and, in fact, outside this country, are very legitimate."

He pointed out the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe plans to send a delegation to monitor the campaign.

Julian highlighted several voting-related breaches during the Conservatives' time in power, including the 2011 robocall scandal and the conviction of Stephen Harper's former parliamentary secretary, Dean Del Mastro.

Del Mastro was convicted this year of three electoral offences: overspending, failing to report a contribution he made to his own campaign and knowingly filing a false report.

Julian said the NDP would empower the elections agency to investigate and crack down on electoral fraud, including allowing the elections commissioner to compel witnesses to testify during investigations into suspected electoral wrongdoing.

The rules as they exist now set out fines from about $1,000 to $3,000, and that amounts to "slaps on the wrist," Julian said. The NDP would create "much more severe penalties," he said, but did not elaborate.

New Democrats are particularly concerned by anecdotal evidence that the current rules suppress voting, he said. The NDP's promised changes would try to ensure low-income, young and First Nations voters are not disenfranchised, he said.

The Conservatives election law overhaul requires voters to present photo identification with an address, such as a driver's license. It also makes rules more strict around vouching, a practice that allowed a properly identified voter attest to the identity of someone without ID.

The Fair Elections Act was triggered by furor over the robocalls scandal that erupted during the last election, where automated phone services misdirected voters to the wrong polling stations. Afterwards, Commissioner Yves Cote said party operatives were unco-operative and he couldn't force them to talk to investigators.

Julian added the NDP would consult Canadians on other tools to strengthen suffrage, such as using social media and examining countries that have used electronic voting.

"The Voter Protection Act is a first step in reforming our democratic structures so we can maximize participation of Canadians right across the country."

Earlier in the day, the party released its platform geared specifically to Toronto and its surrounding suburbs — a vote-rich region of the country that could determine who wins on Oct. 19.

The platform, entitled "Building a Better Toronto," is based on the NDP's national platform but highlights the policies the party believes will most resonate with Torontonians. It takes some of the promises from the NDP's national platform and breaks down what it would mean for Toronto.

For instance, it promises $12.9 billion over 20 years for Toronto transit infrastructure and commits to create 165,000 $15-a-day child care spaces in the city.

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In Photos: Canada Election 2015