03/29/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/29/2014 05:59 EDT

Do You Have The Right ID To Cast A Ballot In A Federal Election?


Much of the debate over the government's proposed changes to Canadian election laws has focused on its plan to eliminate vouching, a process that lets those without proper identification have someone else in the same polling division swear to their name and address.

A less-discussed change proposed in Bill C-23 would also roll back a pilot program that allowed 400,000 people to use their voter information card as proof of address in the 2011 election.

Those who work to promote democracy — the current and former heads of Elections Canada, along with other experts — say removing those options would essentially deny the vote to tens of thousands of people. Harry Neufeld, who studied problems in the 2011 campaign, says 520,000 people could lose their right to vote.

The Conservatives say there are 39 forms of ID that let people prove their name and address when they vote in a federal election, arguing that's enough to get rid of vouching and the use of the voter information cards as proof of address.

But how easy is it to prove you are who you say you are when you cast a ballot?

The experts who so far have appeared before the procedure and House affairs committee have raised concerns about the list provided by Elections Canada, and defended by Pierre Poilievre, minister of state for democratic reform.

The biggest catch seems to be the need for voters to prove where they live. Take away the driver's licence, and it gets complicated.

Here are three things to know about the way Bill C-23 would change how Canadians could identify themselves to cast ballots in federal elections.

1. Few pieces of ID list address

Voters don't just prove their identity to cast a ballot: they have to prove where they live too. And while Elections Canada says 85 per cent of Canadians have a driver's licence — based on the numbers they get from provincial licensing offices — that penetration drops in urban areas like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, where better public transit systems mean fewer people require cars to get around. 

One of the democracy experts appearing before the committee Thursday made that point. Student Vote's Taylor Gunn, who lives in Toronto, told the committee that he doesn't have a driver's licence.

"My health card, embarrassingly enough, is my only piece of official ID and it doesn't have my address on it. My wife couldn't vouch for me right now [under Bill C-23]," Gunn said.

Government issued ID like passports, social insurance number cards and birth certificates do not show an address.

2. Originals required

No driver's licence? No problem. Poilievre told MPs in question period Friday that photo ID and government-issued ID aren't required. His critics, however, say it's not that easy.

The list of accepted identification includes "things like utility bills, [Old Age Security] or Employment Insurance cheques, statement of attestation from aboriginal reserve, Indian status card, a student card, the list goes on and on. It's 39 different options. We just think it's reasonable that people bring some form of ID when they show up to vote," Poilievre said.

The list also includes bank statements and insurance policies. Unless, that is, the documents are delivered by email. A printed version of emailed documents won't suffice. Instead, voters would have to go to the bank or the hydro or insurance company — or dig through their paper files at home — to find an original copy. And they'll have to know that before they head to the polling station to cast a ballot on the advance polling day or election day.

3. Other options

For those who don't have a driver's licence, they could present a lease or have a letter of attestation from a shelter, soup kitchen, student or senior residence, or long-term care facility. But that requires more planning than simply heading to the polling station on election day.

Neufeld, the former chief electoral officer in British Columbia and now a consultant, says if the government is worried about vouching, there are ways to make it more secure.

There are problems, he says, including rushed poll clerks not keeping detailed records of who is vouching, or for whom they are vouching.

He said he likes a method used in Manitoba elections.

"If they have two pieces of ID but neither of them definitively proves their residential address, then they have to sign a declaration that the address they're claiming to live at is indeed their address," Neufeld said Thursday after speaking to MPs.

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