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Fair Elections Act: An Exercise in False Marketing

04/25/2014 08:00 EDT | Updated 06/25/2014 05:59 EDT

It's time to get "un-political" and just plain old "reasonable." Let's hope that time off from the hectic pace of Parliament Hill over a long weekend offered an opportunity for reflection -- especially around Bill C-23, the so-called Fair Elections Act, which has been hotly contested, reviewed, analyzed and refuted for the past two months. Aimed directly at the principles of democracy, this bill is poised to silence Elections Canada and potentially disenfranchise over 100,000 people. Tenets hardly worthy of the title 'fair'.

In the face of growing public discontent and damning reviews by renowned experts, the Senate has come forward with recommendations for amendments.

Before the House of Commons had the chance to finish reviewing the Bill, the Senate had a rare opportunity to pre-study the Act in what has become an opportunity for revision (or to save face?). Last week the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs released an interim report that was essentially a list of nine unanimously supported recommendations for changes to the Act. Dominated by Conservative politicians, the report makes a clear statement: Let it be known that the Senate is not happy with the bill as it currently stands.

This is a welcome change from the continuous promotion of the Bill by Minister Poilievre, who as recently as last Saturday described the bill as 'terrific', 'reasonable' and 'common sense' -- a complete hijacking of language for a Bill that would potentially restrict the right to vote of over 100,000 people (largely marginalized individuals who are homeless, Aboriginal people living on reserve, students and seniors) by eliminating vouching. Juxtaposed against this scene is a strategic marketing effort by the Harper government to discredit experts and associate vouching with illegal behaviour -- a claim they have been told repeatedly lacks evidence.

The main reason the current government offers for eliminating vouching is an erroneous claim that it has lead to voter fraud. Recent inaccurate comments in the House of Commons by MPs saying they witnessed this so-called fraud and continued hammering by Mr. Poilievre, who for about two weeks straight was misquoting a report by Elections Canada, proves vouching is actually not the problem. It is a scapegoat to justify a flawed piece of legislation. The conclusion by experts is that no evidence of fraud exists. Any irregularities from the last election were administrative; not attempts by individuals to lie about their identity.

The marketing exercise doesn't end there."39 forms of ID," a phrase consistently used in defence of eliminating vouching, seems to have become the mantra of this government and Minister Poilievre, who insists that this selection of identification will somehow ensure the most marginalized will continue to be able to vote. However, service providers who testified before the House of Commons Committee on Procedure and House Affairs this month have said otherwise challenging these claims and offering concrete examples of why vouching needs to stay.

Representing the voices of some of the most impoverished areas of Canada, including Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the testimony of grassroots organizations clearly shows that most of the 39 forms of ID listed by government simply are not accessible, nor will they solve the problem of providing a current address.

One witness pointed to the fact that to get an ID you need an ID -- a challenge for most homeless people who do not have their birth certificate or driver's license. Meanwhile a majority of the other 37 pieces of ID that could be used do not show an address or are not.

A few examples of the issues: consider the suggested solution of a bank card or bank statement -- in the Downtown Eastside it was noted that people are more likely to use cheque cashing services, not banks, to access money. And insurance policies, hunting cards/licenses, library cards, employee cards, residential leases and even hydro bills are not documents homeless people possess.

Considering that estimates of the visibly homeless population range from 150,000 - 300,000, with another 450,000 - 900,000 invisible homeless (couch surfing, living in overcrowded spaces, staying with friends), eliminating vouching could restrict access to voting for almost one million people who do not have a steady address. And this is just the homeless population -- add in students, seniors and Aboriginal people on reserve and the numbers could swell. People who are in dire circumstances or rural areas do not always have official documents to prove where they live. They can, however, bring a friend from the same polling station to vouch for their address, which is how vouching currently works.

In an effort to knock the argument about vouching off the table, Conservative MP's pressed witnesses about the possibility of shelters providing a form or letter of "attestation" verifying that the homeless voter has been resident at the shelter. While this sounds like a solution for some, of course it doesn't address the barriers to voting for hidden homeless not using shelters. Also, many witnesses explained that filling out this form just adds to the workload of an already overworked, underfunded and busy shelter. In effect, it's yet another way government is downloading responsibility onto local authorities saying "you deal with it," without providing any compensatory resources to make it happen.

Does this sound "reasonable"? What would be reasonable is if the government listened to witnesses and experts about maintaining vouching and agreed to amend this section of the bill. After all, it is the responsibility of governments, not non-profit service providers, to ensure a person's right to vote is protected.

Three Liberal Senators submitted a minority report recommending that the proposal to eliminate vouching be removed from the bill. Considering the reports and testimony, "common sense" would suggest that the Harper government accept this recommendation and improve the current vouching system to address the administrative issues.

Finally, the government should spend the same amount of effort to promote voting and protect the Charter right to vote as they have towards marketing a flawed and chastised Bill. Let's move past the false advertising. Democracy is fundamentally about equality and protecting individual rights. Now this would be "terrific," no?

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