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Fair Elections Act Amendments Miss the Mark

04/17/2014 08:39 EDT | Updated 06/17/2014 05:59 EDT

Tuesday's amendments proposed by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs do remarkably little to change the spirit of the Fair Elections Act. The Act is and continues to be an affront to the democratic rights of Canadians.

The controversial Bill has been criticized from every direction, and calls for changes that have followed on nearly every substantive provision it contains. Critics and experts have registered their concerns, and nearly universal condemnation has been the result. Put simply, under the bill citizens who are no less eligible to cast a ballot could be prohibited from doing so because the burden of proof to vote is being set higher.

For young people, and many other groups, meeting the new requirements of the Canada Elections Act, should it be amended by Bill C-23, will be quite difficult. I am deeply concerned that more young voters will be discouraged from participating in Canadian elections due to the new regulations which would be imposed.

Young people are mobile, and they are subject to the expectation that they will chase opportunities as they arise on their path to independence. Youth frequently travel to attend college or university, to obtain the hours needed on the path to a trade, or simply to find adequate work.

Mobility results in a host of other issues that are difficult to work around. Moving from place to place frequently deems personal addresses on identification obsolete. Billing addresses can change for young people at a moment's notice. That is, if they even receive paper bills anymore.

As a result, many young people do not have the documentation that the Fair Elections Act would require of them to cast a ballot. Under the Act, even a voter who could prove who they are, but not where they live, would be prohibited from casting a ballot. Under the current regulations, a registered voter with the proper identification can vouch that they live in that area.

In 2007, when the Canadian Government brought in new rules requiring identification at the polls, Federal Government lawyers argued that vouching would act as a 'failsafe' if voters did not have identification. Now, the government's aim is to remove that vital failsafe. This move is a step in the wrong direction. It is estimated by electoral experts that the removal of vouching and voter identification cards could disenfranchise almost 500,000 Canadians.

The proposed legislation would also strip the Chief Electoral Officer of the ability to conduct public outreach campaigns and targeted campaigns to demographics which traditionally have a lower voter turnout -- such as youth. While the Standing Committee's recommendations include the protection of the right of the CEO to continue to collaborate with organizations offering voter education and engagement programming in elementary and high schools, it stops short of recommending the outreach work of the CEO continue unabated. Elections Canada's work to increase voter turnout and engagement among underrepresented groups is vital, and it is work that must continue. The Chief Electoral Officer must maintain the right to conduct public outreach and information campaigns.

I understand that many of my peers have failed to exercise their right to vote in the past. It is well-documented that youth show up to vote in low numbers. But we're not alone: in fact, voter turnout was below the national average for all Canadians under the age of 45. A decreased Elections Canada focus on encouraging democratic participation will do little to help these voting rates.

The Fair Elections Act will do nothing to make elections fair -- in fact, it will do just the opposite. The Fair Elections Act will impact all Canadians, and will disenfranchise a significant amount of our citizenry. If we aim for a Canada in which all citizens have the right to vote, as laid out in section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, then the Fair Elections Act as it reads cannot pass. The proclamation of the Bill in its current form would be nothing short of an affront to Canadian democracy.

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