Fair Elections Act to introduce extensive changes to electoral process

Legislation met with criticism from opposition parties, civil society groups

On Feb. 10, the Harper government introduced the Fair Elections Act to parliament. Pierre Poilievre, minister of state for democratic reform, tabled the bill.

The bill would see numerous changes introduced to the democratic process in Canada, and has drawn widespread criticism from the other parties in the House of Commons, as well as civil society groups.

The many changes introduced by the bill include alterations to campaign spending rules, voter identification at the polls, and Elections Canada – the body that oversees Canadian elections and enforces the Canada Elections Act.

Among the proposed campaign spending changes, the bill would increase the limits for donations to registered parties and the amount that candidates may contribute to their own campaigns.

The Conservatives have heralded this legislation as keeping big money out of politics by allowing small donors to give more, and by keeping large special interests from dominating funding through loan arrangements.

Another proposed change would see the elimination of the voucher system that allows one voter to vouch for the identity of another. Some experts have warned that this would deal a blow to the voting rights of Canadians.

Canadian Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand warned that eliminating vouching would affect over 100,000 voters, with the consequences falling disproportionately on young voters who move frequently and Aboriginal Canadians.

The opposition parties have cried foul, saying there will be a negative impact on voter participation in the democratic process.

“This is a form of voter suppression that reminds us of what we have seen south of the border. I never thought I would see it in Canada. We have the kind of policies being put forward in the bill that would absolutely disenfranchise our most vulnerable, including the low income, transients, and our youth,” said Jinny Sims, official opposition critic for employment and social development, in parliament on Feb. 10.

“We have a government that is absolutely suppressing the voters who might have the most complaints against its policies and who are very disturbed by how they are being marginalized more and more,” she added.

Voter turnout has been low in recent elections, with only 53.8 per cent of adult Canadians voting in the 2011 federal election, up slightly from the nadir of 53.6 per cent in 2008.

One of the proposed changes would see Elections Canada, the body that oversees the electoral process, have its power to investigate electoral irregularities stripped and placed in a separate office.

Investigative powers would be removed from this non-partisan bureaucratic body and transferred to the Department of Justice, which is accountable not to parliament but to the government.

At least one Conservative MP, Cheryl Gallant, has argued that Elections Canada unfairly targets the Conservative party for investigation.

“[I]t seems that Conservatives are held to a different standard by Elections Canada than other political parties,” said Gallant during a House debate.

The Conservatives were found guilty of numerous electoral irregularities in the 2011 federal elections. The most publicized of these was the so-called robocall scandal. Voters not likely to vote for the Conservatives were targeted by misleading calls, which came from callers claiming to be from Elections Canada, giving false information on the locations of polling stations.

The Fair Elections Act will seek to prevent such abuses in the future by proposing a “mandatory public registry for mass calling” and prison sentences for the impersonation of elections officials.

The NDP is hoping to start a broader debate on the bill, with cross-country committee hearings.

The Conservatives have hurried this bill through the House, using their majority to minimize debate on the second reading.