03/31/2014 12:26 EDT | Updated 05/31/2014 05:59 EDT

Why Do We Need 'Vouching' When It's So Easy To Vote?

Remember back in 2007 when parliament unanimously voted to strengthen Canada's voter ID laws? Probably not, since it was such a non-event.

In those heady days, the idea that voters should have to confirm their identity before casting a ballot was a notion so self-evidently sensible no party thought twice about endorsing it. But now the Conservatives have unveiled their Fair Elections Act and the opposition smells an opportunity, so yesterday's yawn has become today's existential threat to Canadian democracy.

Under the current terms of the Elections Act -- the ones passed unanimously by parliament in 2007 -- you have to possess valid ID to vote in Canada, with "valid ID" defined as either a piece of photo identification produced by any level of government (or any "agency" of any level of government) or two of the 40 other approved identification documents authorized by Elections Canada. They run the gamut from cable bill to hospital bracelet.

The Fair Elections Act does not change any of this. It merely states you can no longer use that little voter card they send in the mail as one of your IDs. Which is fine, since those things aren't on the approved ID list, anyway. (The approved ID list, incidentally, is created by Elections Canada, not parliament, meaning there's nothing to stop them from unilaterally authorizing 700 more documents to compensate for this one monstrous omission.)

What the new act does kill, however, is "vouching," the practice of getting someone to verify your identity before a poll clerk if you somehow can't scrape up any Elections Canada-approved ID.

Under the 2007 rules, getting vouched requires finding a qualified voter living in your electoral riding, whose name appears on that riding's list of registered electors, who possesses Elections Canada-approved identification, and who agrees to testify in person, at your polling place, in your presence, that you are legally eligible to vote. A voucher can only vouch once per election, and vouchers can't vouch for other vouchers. And the poll clerk has to buy his story.

I don't know about you, but that strikes me as a bit complicated. At the very least, recruiting a voucher seems no easier than pawing through your junk drawer to find a library card and an electricity bill -- let alone just waiting in line at the DMV for 15 minutes to get a permanent provincial ID card with all your vital stats on it (which you'll probably need for other things anyway).

The counter-argument, of course, is that by eliminating vouching, the evil scary Tories are attempting to disenfranchise those indigent Canadians who can't go to the DMV for some reason and don't have library cards or electricity bills. And lost their medicare card and birth certificate, don't have an Indian status card, can't scrape up a welfare cheque receipt, and can't be bothered to get a signed letter from a "public curator, public guardian or public trustee" or an official note from their favoured "shelter, soup kitchen, student/senior residence, or long-term care facility." In testimony to parliament last week, Harold Neufeld, the former head of Elections BC, claimed his "math" concluded the number of Canadians who inhabit this amazingly helpless category to be somewhere in the range of half a million. I'd like to see his work.

In summarizing his testimony, included a typically gratuitous anecdote in which Neufeld uttered a supposedly withering putdown to Tory MP Erin O'Toole, after the politician opened his wallet and ostentatiously observed the many valid forms of ID within. "Which one's got your address?" was Neufeld's sassy reply.

His driver's license, presumably. But even then, Neufeld's words would have been far more cutting if the Fair Elections Act didn't explicitly contain a clause (143-3.1) authorizing polling officers to give a charitable pass to an outdated piece of voter ID which "does not prove the elector's residence" yet is otherwise "consistent with information related to the elector that appears on the list of electors."

It's very easy to vote in this country. We've already stopped enforcing the requirement that voters be Canadian citizens and over 18 -- very few of the permitted Elections Canada IDs prove either. Voting would obviously be easier still if there were no obligations to prove anything at all, but since we live under a geographically-representative parliamentary system, electoral workers have a constitutional obligation to put at least some effort into making sure electors are voting for politicians seeking to represent said electors' home.

Borders of electoral districts change a lot in this country (I know I've stopped trying to keep track of my own riding's name), and as a result the state places the onus on Elections Canada to determine who's eligible to vote for who. This is the reason the nice poll ladies look up your name in that big binder, and why they'll happily redirect you elsewhere if you accidentally come to the wrong church basement --  they want to make sure you do democracy properly.

To argue the alternative -- that what matters most is to simply show up somewhere, anywhere, and scrawl an "X" on a piece of paper -- is to fetishize and cheapen the act of voting into a blind ritual, rather than a means to a specific end.

Does vouching deserve to die? Like most laws based on the honour system, it's certainly one of those ideas that seems terrible when you think about if for more than a minute, and Mr. Neufeld's famous report, the one he's since tried to back away from, claims the practice has a distressingly high rate of causing "'irregularities' that can contribute to an election being overturned," and one that should be "minimized" as a result. The issue is whether the rest of our election regime -- with its 40+ forms of permissible voter identification designed to encompass Canadians of all socioeconomic classes and lifestyles -- is robust enough to compensate for that loss.

It's fair question, I guess. But within a Canadian political discourse that's increasingly dominated by cheap leftist scaremongering -- in which any common-sense regulation or rule passed by the Conservatives is hysterically reimagined as a hideous conspiracy of oppression, bigotry, and dictatorship -- it's also one that's all but impossible to honestly debate.


Proposed Changes Under 'Fair Elections Act'