02/13/2014 05:13 EST | Updated 04/15/2014 05:59 EDT

The Fair Elections Act Will Make It Harder For Canadians to Vote

Conservatives have a bad record when it comes to respecting our elections laws. From the in-and-out scandal to fraudulent "robocalls" to the spending violations of Dean del Maestro and Peter Penashue, Conservatives simply cannot be trusted when it comes to enhancing our democracy.

Their so-called "Fair Elections Act" -- Bill C-23 -- is no different. In fact, this proposed legislation will actually make it harder for many Canadians to vote, it muzzles Elections Canada and it gives the Conservative party an unfair advantage. This unfair bill is nothing short of a serious attack on our democracy.

The bill eliminates two methods of voting that have proven effective in enfranchising voters. One is the long-standing Canadian practice of vouching that allowed 120,000 people to vote in 2011. The other is Elections Canada's expanded use of its Voter Identification Cards (VICs) for youth attending university, seniors in residence, and Aboriginal people living on reserve.

Conservatives claim that vouching and VICs are the source of widespread fraud, but there is zero evidence to support this. Instead, this appears to be a concerted attempt to disenfranchise those with lower incomes or more transient lives with U.S.-style voter suppression tactics.

This bill also prohibits the Chief Electoral Officer from engaging in public education or democratic outreach to groups that are less likely to vote. At a time of record low voter turnout, this just does not make any sense. As the Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand pointed out, "there are no other jurisdictions in the world where the electoral body cannot talk about democracy".

This measure means Elections Canada's civics-outreach Student Vote Program will now be illegal for the Chief Electoral Officer to run. During the 2011 election, over 500,000 students across Canada cast mock ballots through the program, an effort designed to encourage them to vote when they turn 18.

Shockingly, the bill even bars Elections Canada from conducting electronic-voting pilot projects that might be attractive to younger voters -- unless it gets permission from not only the House of Commons but also, wait for it, the unelected Senate. It is unbelievable, but true.

After widespread voter suppression and fraud during the 2011 election, Bill C-23 was supposed to offer the tools to crack down on this abuse. But Conservatives refused to enact the single most effective measure to enhance investigations -- namely, giving Elections Canada the power to compel testimony. And they ignored a 2012 NDP motion that would have given Elections Canada the power to request political party documents, which would help uncover shady schemes.

To add insult to injury, the bill will actually make it easier for big-money interests to influence our elections by raising the donation limit to $1,500 and introducing loopholes to party fundraising spending.

Finally, passing major changes to the Elections Act should be done in a non-partisan way, consulting with experts and all parties. Instead, the Conservatives failed to consult the top expert on elections law -- the Chief Electoral Officer -- and then moved to shut down debate an hour after the Minister introduced the bill.

Canadians deserve better. They deserve genuine electoral reform to stop fraud, prevent big money from distorting elections and ensure every Canadian can exercise their right to vote. Unfortunately, Stephen Harper's Conservatives gave them the opposite.


Proposed Changes Under 'Fair Elections Act'