OTTAWA – Groups representing both seniors and students are the latest to weigh in on controversial Conservative changes to federal elections law that have been almost universally panned.
MPs looking at Bill C-23 are holding evening hearings as the Harper government pushes to have the massive elections overhaul through the committee process — where potential changes could be made — and back before Parliament by the beginning of May.
But with the Commons beginning a 16-day break at the end of the week, time for examining and fixing the bill is running out.
Many of the interveners, including those testifying Monday night, have zeroed in on new rules that will make it more difficult for a significant subset of voters to prove their residency and be eligible to vote.
Before 2007, no identification at all was required to vote.
Since the Conservatives brought in voting ID requirements in 2007, voters must present a piece of government-issued photo ID with their address (a driver’s licence is one of the few such pieces in most provinces). Without photo ID including an address, voters must have two pieces of ID, at least one of which must show a home address.
If a voter did not have proof of address, another fully identified person could “vouch” for them.
The new law eliminates the practice of vouching. It also forbids the use of voter information cards, mailed by Elections Canada to everyone on the voters’ list, as proof of residency.
For the roughly four million Canadians without driver’s licences, this is where matters get tricky.
Pierre Poilievre, the minister for democratic reform, says there are ample and easy ways for voters to meet the new, stiffer identification requirements.
“There are 39 different ways that people can identify themselves currently,” Poilievre said Monday in the Commons. “That will not change under the Fair Elections Act.”
However, only 13 of those different ways include a residential address.
Poilievre cited everything from utility bills, bank, credit card and pension statements, to a residential lease or mortgage statement.
Witness after witness, including the chief electoral officer, have testified that while these provisions work for the vast majority of voters, they can leave some groups without options.
A citizen showing up at their polling station with a social insurance card, credit card, Ontario health card, birth certificate and passport, for instance, would be ineligible to vote without a document showing their residential address. Electronic bills, or copies, cannot be used.
A student without a driver’s licence who sublets a room at university; First Nations on remote reserves whose only mailing address is a Post Office box; seniors in homes who have their adult children handle their finances — elections experts say tens of thousands of would-be voters will be shut out.
The Canadian Association of Retired Persons, or CARP, has already released survey results from its membership that suggest overwhelming opposition to Bill C-23, dubbed the Fair Elections Act.
CARP was among three seniors groups, along with groups representing students and teachers, appearing before the committee Monday night as MPs hold back-to-back evening hearings this week.
Former auditor general Sheila Fraser and former Reform party leader Preston Manning headline a group of witnesses who will testify on Tuesday night.