04/10/2014 01:42 EDT | Updated 06/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Experts offer simple fixes to deal with voter fraud, investigative independence

OTTAWA - Parliamentarians have been offered some simple solutions to deal with the potential for voter fraud —without disenfranchising tens of thousands of Canadians that experts fear will result from the Harper government's proposed overhaul of election rules.

They've also been offered simple remedies for ensuring the independence of the chief investigator of electoral malfeasance — without the upheaval the government proposes by severing his operations entirely from Elections Canada.

Alternatives to some of the most contentious provisions in Bill C-23 were offered by experts testifying Thursday before a Senate committee, which is studying the bill at the same time as Commons committee.

Whether the Conservative majority in either parliamentary chamber will accept any of the alternatives remains to be seen.

But the government has so far shown no inclination to water down the bill, which has been almost universally panned by federal, provincial and international electoral experts.

Among other things, the bill proposes to eliminate the practice of allowing registered voters to vouch for others who don't have adequate ID. And it would simultaneously ban the use of voter information cards (VICs) as a valid document to prove place of residence.

Electoral experts have said the combined measures could strip up to 500,000 voters of their right to cast ballots — particularly students, elderly voters in long-term care facilities, aboriginals on First Nations reserves and homeless people, all of whom often have no documentation with an address on it.

Former British Columbia chief electoral office Harry Neufeld told senators Thursday that Statistics Canada estimates 250,000 Canadians will move during the course of the 2015 federal election campaign — most of whom will not have documentation showing their new address when they go to vote.

Pierre Poilievre, minister responsible for democratic reform, has frequently cited a report done by Neufeld for Elections Canada to justify ending vouching and the use of VICs in a bid to prevent voter fraud.

But Neufeld reiterated Thursday that his review of irregularities in the 2011 election identified administrative errors in filling out the vouching paperwork, not evidence of voter fraud.

Still, he told senators he's not opposed to eliminating vouching "providing you put something else in place that acts as that final safety net" for those who can't provide documentation of where they live.

As an alternative, Neufeld said the federal government could adopt the method used in Manitoba, where voters without proper ID make a written declaration which can be reviewed subsequently to determine if anyone made a false statement or filled out multiple declarations in multiple polling stations — either of which carries a stiff penalty.

Instead of eliminating VICs, which many voters use to prove their place of residence, Neufeld said fears that abandoned cards can be scooped up in apartment building lobbies could be easily resolved simply by putting the cards in addressed envelopes.

"Opening up somebody else's mail is a $5,000 fine and a jail sentence in this country," he told senators, adding that would deter potential misuse.

Another controversial provision in Bill C-23 would hive the elections commissioner, who is responsible for investigating breaches and enforcing election laws, off Elections Canada and move him under the auspices of the director of public prosecutions.

The move is supposed to ensure the independence of the commissioner from the chief electoral officer, whom the Conservatives have accused of bias against them.

Yves Cote, the current commissioner, told senators the proposal is "an attempt to solve a problem that doesn't exist." He already has "complete and unfettered independence" in conducting investigations.

Conservative senators were skeptical, noting that the chief electoral officer has the power to hire and fire the commissioner and can "direct" him to launch investigations into specific matters.

If they need reassurance, Cote suggested they simply amend the Canada Elections Act to give the commissioner a fixed term and remuneration and to specify that all investigations "shall be carried out in a manner that is completely independent" from the chief electoral officer.

That would be a simpler fix than moving the commissioner into the public prosecutor's office, which Cote said would cut him off from the expertise of those who administer and interpret elections law at Elections Canada.

"Enforcement of the (Canada Elections) Act is not something that should be done in a vacuum," he told senators.