Fair Elections Act strengthens Canadian democracy

In February, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre introduced the Fair Elections Act. The bill reforms federal elections legislation by eliminating forms of voter identification prone to abuse, and aims to prevent voter repression.

In response, the Canadian Federation of Students(CFS)—a coalition of Canadian students’ unions including Memorial University of Newfoundland Students’ Union (MUNSU)—and the Council of Canadians, a left-wing lobby group, launched a campaign against the proposed legislation. The chairperson of the CFS’s provincial branch, Michael Walsh, took aim at the Fair Elections Act in an interview with the Muse.

Walsh says that the Fair Elections Act demonstrates that politicians do not care about youth issues. But any connection between the Act and youth as a particular constituency is fleeting. This spurious criticism has stemmed from a component of the bill that ends vouching—a practice by which prospective voters can get references to swear to their eligibility—and phases out Voter Information Cards as acceptable identification at polling stations.

These measures have not been taken on a political whim. Elections Canada has found the rate of voting irregularities associated with vouching and Voter Information Cards to be disproportionately high. The federal government’s Neufeld Report, in fact, found that irregularities were irregularities in roughly 25 per cent in votes involving vouching in the 2011 election. And each illegitimate vote cast by abusing the vouching system could counts just as much as a perfectly legitimately one from a student. Youth, like all groups, suffer when elections are undermined in this way.

These reforms will not make voting more difficult for many people at all, other than those who wish to subvert democracy. Prospective voters can still present one of 39 forms of identification at the polls in order to vote. And those without driver’s licences, passports, health cards, or other forms of ID are in a tremendously distinct minority. It is especially odd that student groups are complaining about the Act when student ID cards—which almost all students have—will still be accepted as identification.

The controversy surrounding the end of vouching and Voter Information Cards has distracted from other provisions in the Harper Government’s new elections legislation that warrant attention. The Fair Elections Act both stops and deters potential violations of election law.

First, it prevents campaigns and rogues from deceiving voters. During the 2011 general election, a Conservative campaign worker using the alias “Pierre Poutine” used his party’s constituency database and a mass call firm to send automated “robocalls” to falsely inform residents of Guelph that their polling stations had changed. The intent of these calls, of course, was to supress the vote .The intent of these calls, of course, was to supress the vote by making it more difficult for political opponents to vote.

The Fair Elections Act compels individuals and telephone service providers to verify their identities before making mass calls. This would have stopped Mr. Poutine in his tracks. And by keeping information on such mass calls in a public database, the bill makes it easier for authorities to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate calls.

It is funny to hear the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS)—an organisation known to sue member unions that democratically choose to leave it—talk of the federal government stymieing democracy. I don’t remember voting for Walsh as chairperson of the provincial wing of the CFS. Despite leading Newfoundland and Labrador’s students’ unions, he has not received a popular mandate to do so, and there appears to be no mechanism allowing local unions to remove the provincial CFS chairperson.

This is no criticism of Walsh or any other individual member of the CFS. It is merely a recommendation that the CFS improve its own democratic structures before speaking so blithely of ones that are working quite well, and that will only be strengthened by the Fair Elections Act.