Over the Easter weekend, you might find yourself surrounded by family members when someone strikes up a conversation about the Fair Elections Act and asks for your opinion. We wouldn’t want you to be caught out in such a moment with nothing to say and so we have prepared the following guide to the most contentious bill of the season.
What is the Fair Elections Act?
The Fair Elections Act, otherwise known as Bill C-23, is the Conservative government’s attempt to reform the laws around federal elections, tabled in the House of Commons by Minister of Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre. In theory, it is meant to address the trouble of misleading robocalls, limit the possibilities of voter fraud, refocus Elections Canada’s public efforts and change some of the rules around political financing, among various other measures. Here is the pitch Pierre Poilievre, minister of state for democratic reform, made when the bill was first debated in the House.
I have a hard time understanding why anyone would oppose fair elections.
I know, right?
So who has concerns about the bill?
Among those lining up to quibble are the current chief electoral officer, the former chief electoral officer, the commissioner of elections, the chief electoral officers of Ontario, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, the former chair of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, a former electoral officer whose report is the basis for some of the government’s concerns, seniors groups, student groups, aboriginal groups. Dozens of academics signed an open letter last month outlining their concerns. The NDP’s Craig Scott earlier penned this compendium of his concerns. And the chief electoral officer has compiled a table of amendments he’d like to see made. The Globe and Mail editorial board had, at last count, written something like 302 editorials about all of this.
What concerns these people?
The concerns here are many. It is feared that C-23’s elimination of the vouching option—whereby a family member of neighbour could attest at a polling station to your current address if you didn’t have a recognized piece of identification that demonstrated as much—and the ban on any use of the voter information card to substantiate a voter’s address could make it too difficult for some people to vote. Vouching, in particular, is viewed as a necessary safety valve by Harry Neufeld, author of an oft-cited study of federal voting procedures.
The idea that some eligible voters might not be able to vote, or at least might have a harder time voting than they might otherwise have, has captured much of the attention—and started a second point of debate as to how real the problem of voter fraud is or could be—but there are various other parts of this bill that have been questioned.
There are concerns that the rewriting of the chief electoral officer’s mandate for public communication might muzzle him and limit the ability of Elections Canada to participate in educational activities like Student Vote. The utility of moving the elections commissioner out of the office of Elections Canada and into the office of the director of public prosecutions has been questioned (the minister insists this will make the commissioner independent). Harry Neufeld has questioned the provision that would have incumbent MPs nominate central polling supervisors. A new provision would allow some fundraising expenses to be excluded from a party’s campaign spending tally, possibly opening something of a loophole in spending limits. The bill does not give the elections commissioner new powers to compel testimony, nor does it give the chief electoral officer the power to require receipts for campaign expenses, though the minister of democratic reform has dismissed both concerns. The bill also does not address the obstacles faced by independent candidates.
This issue of voter identification strikes me as particularly fraught.
Indeed. Because it goes to such a fundamental right, this part of C-23 has attracted the most emotional responses. The government’s argument is basically two-fold: that the vouching option and the voter information card are too easily exploited by those that would commit voter fraud and that if Elections Canada does a better job of informing people of what identification is required to demonstrate one’s entitlement to a ballot, then eligible voters will be aware of what they need to bring with them when they vote. The minister is particularly fond of pointing to the 39 pieces of identification that Elections Canada currently recognizes.
The crux of the dispute is the need for voters to substantiate their current address—something that not all of those 39 pieces of identification include. Proponents of vouching and the voter information card argue that those options would assist people who might otherwise have a harder time confirming their current address. The government argues that both options are too prone to error to be reliable.
Underneath this is a philosophical argument: how do you balance the need to protect the integrity of the voting system with the need to ensure that every eligible voter is able to cast a ballot with relative ease? How you answer that question depends to some degree on how you assess the threat of voter fraud and how you assess the difficulty of meeting the identification requirements.
Is there some subtext here?
Elections Canada and the Conservatives have some history.
Who is this Pierre Poilievre?
Mr. Poilievre is a talented and audacious and still relatively young politician, who regularly frustrates his rivals. He became a minister after a controversial run as a parliamentary secretary and this is the first major piece of legislation he’s captained as a member of cabinet. He was once described by Canadian Press as “often unctuous.” Possibly in hopes of softening his image, he recently appeared on television wearing a comfy sweater. He is a formidable politician. Mr. Poilievre spoke with Maclean’s on the Hill last month after the bill was tabled and defended his position in an interview with Maclean’s on the Hill earlier this month.
What did he say about the chief electoral officer?
Earlier this month when he appeared before the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee, the minister accused the chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, of seeking “more power, a bigger budget and less accountability.” In a perfect world, ministers of the crown would not be challenging the motivations of the officer charged with ensuring free and fair federal elections.
Former auditor general Sheila Fraser promptly declared the minister’s comments to be “totally inappropriate” and worried that if we continued in this way, we risked undermining our democratic institutions.
How’d Sheila Fraser get involved in this anyway?
The highly regarded Ms. Fraser gave an interview to the Canadian Press in which she described the bill as “an attack on democracy.” That Ms. Fraser is paid by Elections Canada to be the co-chair of a committee that advises the chief electoral officer then became a point of some controversy and her precise expertise in regards to elections law could be debated, but her status as a highly respected former officer of Parliament bolstered, at least briefly, the enthusiasm of the bill’s critics.
And what about this Brad Butt fellow and did I hear something about a filibuster?
In the screenplay for the 12-part CBC mini-series I’m working on about this bill—starring Jay Baruchel as Pierre Poilievre, Rick Moranis as Marc Mayrand and Ryan Gosling as the plucky parliamentary reporter trying to explain the bill to his readers—there will be subplots dedicated to Conservative MP Brad Butt’s retracted claim to have witnessed voter fraud and NDP MP David Christopherson’s filibuster of the procedure and House affairs committee, the latter as part of a procedural war the official opposition fought with the government over the handling of this bill (assisted by the likes of these guys). The last two months have been a remarkable display of our political system at work (and we’ve not even gotten into how this bill was supposed to have been introduced a year ago under a different minister, but was apparently rejected in its original form by the Conservative caucus).
So where do things stand now?
At present, the House of Commons is on a break and due to return on April 28. When it reconvenes, the procedure and House affairs committee will complete its hearings on C-23 and move to the consideration of amendments. The Senate committee studying the bill has already suggested nine changes. One of those suggestions, notably, is to close the aforementioned fundraising loophole, but most of the complaints about the bill are unaddressed. That leaves much to be decided by the House committee. A possible compromise on vouching has received fleeting mention. A middle ground on other points might be harder to find. In the meantime, the New Democrats have decided to start singling-out Conservative MPs for pressure.
How might I go about reviewing the issues with this bill in even greater detail?
Here are the proceedings of the House committee that has been studying the bill and here are the proceedings of the Senate committee that did likewise. Here is the official backgrounder that the government issued when the bill was released.