03/21/2014 07:45 EDT | Updated 05/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Election Bill Sends 'Very Poor Message' To Budding Democracies

The Conservative government is trying to change Canadian election law in a way that is "deeply disturbing" and "sends a very poor message" to countries trying to become democracies, an international democracy expert says.

The proposed changes, contained in Bill C-23, include limiting the topics on which Canada's chief electoral officer could speak, and eliminating vouching, a process that lets a voter vouch for another person in his or her riding to prove that person's identity.  

Andrew Reynolds, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was one of 18 professors from around the world who earlier this week signed an open letter about their concerns. Their letter came the week after an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper by 159 Canadian political science and law professors.

Reynolds calls Elections Canada "the pre-eminent example of an elections administration body."

"Its autonomy, its independence, its capacity to enforce free and fair elections is something that is transported around the world," he told Rosemary Barton in an interview on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

"Now, this legislation would severely do damage to the autonomy, to the independence, to the capacity of Elections Canada to manage good elections."

'Partisan mechanism?'

Reynolds said democracy advisers face a challenge in trying to persuade new governments to set up independent, autonomous election authorities.

"When a democratic, established democracy in the west like Canada seems to be curtailing its own ability to do that, it sends a very poor message to new countries in the Arab world, in Africa, in Asia, who are attempting to move from authoritarianism to democracy," he said.

Reynolds said many of the bill's measures would weaken Elections Canada in its ability to "enforce legitimate elections."

Pierre Poilievre, the minister of state for democratic reform and the MP who tabled the bill, says Elections Canada's numbers show "irregularities" in 25 per cent of vouching cases from the 2011 election. But Harry Neufeld, the election expert on whose report Poilievre bases his claims, says Poilievre is "selectively" reading the report.

Reynolds says there's almost no evidence that vouching "is a window to voter fraud."

"There's huge evidence to show that vouching would, if it was taken away, curtail the rights and accessibility of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Canadians to vote," Reynolds said, adding that the question is what is driving the proposal.

"Is it really fear of fraud and malfeasance? Or is it in fact a partisan mechanism to try and preclude some people from voting who should be legitimately voting?" 

"In every case that we've seen a similar type of proposal, it has been about tilting the balance in favour of a given party," he added.

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