OTTAWA — The Liberal government is throwing open the doors to voting in federal elections, including expanding the franchise to more than a million Canadians living abroad.
Maryam Monsef, the minister for democratic institutions, has introduced legislation that will roll back a number of controversial changes to Canada's voting process.
That includes relaxing voter identification rules tightened by the previous Conservative government and restoring Elections Canada's mandate to educate and encourage voters.
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef speaks to reporters in Ottawa with parliamentary secretary Mark Holland on Nov. 24, 2016. (Photo: Justin Tang/CP)
She is also proposing to significantly expand voting into previously uncharted waters by permitting any expatriate Canadian citizen who's ever lived in Canada to cast a ballot.
"We're removing barriers that never needed to be there in the first place," Monsef told a news conference Thursday.
Prior to 1993, most Canadians living abroad — with some exceptions, such as military and diplomatic postings — were not allowed to vote. Since then, rules have limited voting rights to those who have spent no more than five continuous years living outside the country.
Expats haven't 'forgotten about this place'
That provision is currently being challenged before the Supreme Court of Canada — a case that appears likely to be dropped now that Liberal legislation proposes to make the legal issues moot.
Monsef called the current five-year limit for expatriate voters "relatively arbitrary" and said the new bill recognizes the value in the mobility of Canadians.
"Just because they're living abroad doesn't mean that they've forgotten about this place," said Monsef.
The Liberals are also breaking new ground by allowing Elections Canada to pre-register Canadian youths aged 14-17 in an effort to encourage voting once they turn 18.
Bill guts Fair Elections Act
But most of the seven voting changes announced Thursday reverse changes made under the controversial Fair Elections Act of 2014.
The Liberal bill would restore the ability of a voter to vouch for the identity of another citizen in their polling area who lacks identification. And it will allow voters to use the ubiquitous voter information card — which includes a person's address — as a piece of identification.
The government said more than 172,000 Canadians who wanted to vote in last October's federal election reported being unable to do so because they lacked either photo ID with their current address or two pieces of corroborating ID with an address included.
The previous Conservative government tightened voting rules in an effort to combat voter fraud, despite repeated investigations that failed to turn up verifiable incidents. Critics said the measures were aimed at suppressing the vote of people unlikely to support Conservative options.
"We're removing barriers that never needed to be there in the first place."
"In the last election, we promised to repeal the anti-democratic elements of the former government's Fair Elections Act," Monsef said.
"Our legislation will make seven reforms that will break down unnecessary barriers to voting, while enhancing the efficiency and the integrity of our elections."
The new bill will also place the commissioner of elections, who investigates election irregularities and fraud, back under the independent office of Elections Canada, rather than reporting to the public prosecutors office and, ultimately, the federal attorney general.
The Liberals promised during last year's election campaign that 2015 would be the last federal election held under Canada's traditional first-past-the-post voting system. A Commons committee is due to deliver its recommendations on that front by the end of next week.
'Just getting started'
The Liberals also promised a suite of other electoral reforms, including limiting how much money political parties can spend between elections, reviewing spending limits during elections and creating an independent commission to organize leaders' debates during elections.
Monsef said those measures will come in later legislation.
"We're just getting started," she said.