The cases for and against vouching

Pierre Poilievre and Harry Neufeld on the voting procedure


Among the more contested facets of the Fair Elections Act is its elimination of the “vouching” option, whereby anyone lacking the requisite proof of their current address can have a voter from the same polling division (neighbour, roommate) make a sworn statement that the individual is a resident of that polling division.

The constitutionality of this provision has been challenged and the numbers used by the minister to explain the change have been questioned.

After Mr. Poilievre and I spoke for this piece, he sent along a longer explanation of his views, an op-ed submitted as a response to the questions raised by Justin Ling.

Canadians can use 39 forms of authorized identification to prove who they are and where they live. If they fail to bring any of those to the polls, the law allows someone else to vouch for them. Due to massive irregularities in the use of vouching, the Fair Elections Act would end the practice.

I have pointed to an Elections Canada-commissioned “Compliance Review“, as evidence of the problem. It included audits of four ridings in which, “the level of irregularities for vouching averaged 25 percent.”(P.15)

Now, freelance journalist Justin Ling, has questioned both this fact and its importance. The fact comes from page 15 of the above-mentioned compliance review, authored in 2013 by Harry Neufeld, the former Chief Electoral Officer for the province of British Columbia. Mr. Ling correctly points out that the national rate of irregularities is actually 42%. The difference arises from the fact that the 25% number is an average of four ridings, and the 42% is a nationwide figure. At worst, I have understated the problem.

Either way, both numbers are correct-and both are shockingly high. Are they important? Mr. Ling argues that they are minor paperwork glitches having no impact on the integrity of the vote. Yet that is not what the report’s author found. Mr. Neufeld defined “irregularities” as “serious errors”—his words—not small details. “An ‘irregularity’ is a failure by an election officer to administer safeguards demonstrating that a voter is entitled to receive a ballot.” (p.63)

Mr. Ling correctly points out here that this failure does not automatically mean that the voter was not eligible to vote. But by that logic, we would not require any identification rules whatsoever and instead put the onus on elections officials to prove a person is not eligible. Someone could walk in, assert an identity and an address, and unless the officials could prove otherwise, the person would cast a ballot. We do not allow that, nor should we. ID requirements exist for a reason. Failure to properly identify voters—as so often happens with vouching—allows people to vote when they are not eligible or to vote more than once.

It should not be a guessing game. Yet that is what vouching has become in nearly half of cases where it is used, if you believe facts in the Elections Canada compliance report. “Serious errors, of a type the courts consider ‘irregularities’ that can contribute to an election being overturned, were found to occur in 12 percent of all Election Day cases involving voter registration, and 42 percent of cases involving identity vouching.” (P. 6). The latter point is particularly devastating. Judges don’t overturn election results for nothing. Yet the report says that “vouching” irregularities—which occurred 50,735 times (p.69)—are serious enough for a judge to consider doing so.

But that is not all. While vouching is theoretically intended to extend the right to vote, it may rob people of that very same right. When courts invalidate votes because of serious irregularities, there is significant chance that legitimate ballots can be invalidated along with them. In other words, a contaminated process can deprive even honest votes of being counted.

So why not simply administer vouching more competently, instead of ending it altogether? The answer is that quality assurances seem to do little to improve the situation, according to Neufeld. “During two of these elections, quality assurance programs involving Onsite Conformity Advisors (OCAs) were applied. However, vouching irregularities still averaged 21 percent during the OCA monitored elections. This indicates that overly complex procedures cannot be remedied simply by improved quality assurance.” (P.15)

It is important to let every eligible voter cast a ballot. That is why the Fair Elections Act allows another day of advanced voting and requires Elections Canada to advertise voter ID requirements. Every citizen is entitled to the voting franchise. Let us never forget that a fraudulent vote has the same mathematical effect as denying someone their constitutional right to cast a ballot. It cancels out the ballot of an honest person. Now, that is serious. Our voter identity laws must be too.

There were no doubt problems with vouching in the 2011 election. The Neufeld report counts 120,171 voters who were vouched for in 2011 (one percent of total voters). Of those vouchings, there were 45,868 cases in which the record in the poll book did not identify both a voter and a voucher, 4,866 cases in which the voucher was not from within the voter’s polling division (not to be confused with a riding) and 361 cases in which the voucher vouched more than once.

That said, the author of the Neufeld report, Harry Neufeld, thinks vouching could be fixed and that it should remain an option. “Vouching was completely fixable, absolutely. You need vouching,” he told me this week. “It’s kind of like the safety valve on your pressure cooker. People have a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote and if you’re in a situation where you’ve got somebody in front of you and they cannot provide ID that satisfies the identification requirements—and if you moved within a month of an election, I would defy you to be able to produce the documentation—but if your neighbour was there and they could vouch for you and say, ‘oh yeah, Aaron just moved in next door, he lives there’ … it gets somebody a ballot. And I think at the end of the day that’s really important.”

Mr. Neufeld argues that the trouble here is having a second piece of identification that includes your current address.  “If I take my driver’s license out of my wallet, I don’t have any ID that is acceptable under the 39 pieces that keep getting touted that have my current address on it … you’ve got to have two pieces, one that absolutely shows your identity and the second one that confirms your identity and absolutely indicates your residential address,” he says. “People who just moved for example. If you just moved and you took the time to get updated on the voter’s list, but you walked in, ostensibly to the next election, with your passport and with the card that Elections Canada sends to you in the mail saying this is where you go to vote–so you’re registered, you have a passport, [but] your passport doesn’t indicate your current address, it’s not acceptable, you’d be turned away from voting.”

Who might the elimination of vouching impact? Students, the homeless, aboriginals and those living in seniors’ residences. Mr. Neufeld notes that vouching is already restricted—”Somebody can only vouch for one other person and they have to live in the exact same polling division, they have to vote at the exact same polling station as somebody else that they’re vouching for and they have to be able to show all their ID and they have to be on the list and registered”—and that, in the case of Etobicoke Centre, the Supreme Court found no evidence that anyone who shouldn’t have been able to vote was able to vote as a result of errors in the vouching process.

Instead of eliminating the vouching option, Mr. Neufeld argues that the process has to be clarified. “There are so many exception procedures that election officials have to learn how to handle that they just don’t learn how to handle them all well enough. That whole process needs to be streamlined. They need to make it less legalistic, more straightforward in terms of filling out the forms. The language in the poll book was confusing, the language in the Act doesn’t help. It’s all very, very Byzantine,” he says. “It’s not easy for a person who’s doing a one-day job and is getting two, two-and-a-half hours of training to master one of something like 17 different exception situations that they had to be able to handle. And they got it wrong. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be fixed. And I know that Elections Canada was doing work on streamlining the forms, streamlining the instructions, making it really, really clear who the voucher and the vouchee was, providing some really good training materials on this particular aspect of the election and I think the number of problems, while they probably wouldn’t have gone to zero, they would have been greatly, greatly minimized in this next election, if vouching had been allowed to stay on.”

Mr. Neufeld points to the New Brunswick model for voting. In his report, he also recommended “widening use of the Voter Information Card as a valid piece of address identification for all voters.”

Mr. Poilievre maintains that all eligible voters will be able to vote without the vouching option—aided by an expanded public awareness campaign by Elections Canada—that the vouching system can’t be sufficiently fixed with improved administration and that the voter-information-card system is itself too fraught with errors to be used reliably. “My view,” he said in an interview today, “is that given the enormity of the error rate, it is impossible for administrative changes to render vouching secure and that we’re better off to remove it and replace it with better information from the agency.”


The cases for and against vouching

  1. Maybe the application of the rules has something to do with the people we have overseeing the local voting process. Partisanship is a determining factor in the selection of Returning Officers who are appointed by Order in Council, and those RO’s hire the DRO’s and polling clerks. Although they are legally bound to carry out the instructions of the Chief Electoral Officer, even if they are grossly incompetent, they can only be removed by Order in Council, which is unlikely to occur during an election, if ever. A recommendation that they be hired on merit instead seems to have been ignored in the proposed legislation:

    • The problem might not be so much the people overseeing the local voting process as the fact that the process is rooted in the past, when a DRO and polling clerk, being chosen locally, knew pretty well everybody and anybody that was allowed to vote at the poll they were in charge of. It worked for the longest time in the rural areas of the country, and even in urban areas when you knew your neighbors on the street, or at the community centre, or at the local church. Today, when you don’t know who lives two doors down from you, that part of the system doesn’t function anymore and vouching becomes problematic. I don’t know that putting RO hired on merit would solve the problem.

      • The problems that were identified were related to compliance with procedures, specifically one person, possibly a party agent, vouching for more than one person (not allowed) and without the DRO completing the required documentation showing who vouched for whom.

        Knowing the voter or your neighbours was long ago made irrelevant with the requirement to either present documents or be vouched for. Allowing someone you know to vote without seeing their documents is essentially vouching without the procedure.

        In other words, good old days of knowing your neighbours or not, the people hired to follow the rules didn’t follow them, so now we’re going to deny eligible voters the right to vote instead of changing the flawed and corrupt appointment process that allowed that to happen.

        • From my observations during my many years of voting, I believe a big part of the problem is due to the seniors that are manning the polling stations. Have you been in the lineup waiting to be crossed off the voter list when there is some type of problem? I am not talking about someone that must be vouched for but just simple little problems like looking for a particular name. The senior at your particular table gets flustered because they have not been trained properly for all the different issues that may come up and they do not have any concise directions or examples that they can follow to ensure that a person gets to vote. I know that there appears to be a problem getting people to work for the one day but I agree that voting today is totally different from in the past due to the movement and individual situations of Canadians. I think that it is time to look at a different approach to staffing polling stations including the use of university or college students who I believe would be better equipped to handle the training and various issues that can occur during voting. Fixing the problem is the way to go instead of getting rid of vouching altogether, which I believe the government wants to do only because they believe that it will disenfranchise many Canadians who will be voting for a party other than the Conservative Party. Canadians must not let this happen.

      • That can’t be it if it were the poll clerk would do the vouching.

  2. I found no fraud whatsoever in the last election. I did find lots of errors, but not one person found a signature where theirs should have been. Fix it, not trash it.

  3. Removing the VIC card as valid id. is a poor decision.

  4. I suspect that someday soon, obscured somewhere in the fine print of a Con omnibus bill purporting to deal with other matters altogether, there will be a sub-sub-sub-clause establishing that the only acceptable ID at polling stations will be a CPC membership card.

  5. Anyone that can’t manage to obtain valid ID before the next election does not deserve to vote.

    • You’re a credit to democratic ideals, Billy.

    • My grandfather never held a drivers license. Had a devil of a time getting any kind of ID and even some gov’t benefits, because the only proof of his existence was a pre-Confederation Newfoundland birth certificate issued by a local clergyman in the 1920s. You would have denied him the right to vote. So, to hell with you.

      • A person does not have to have a drivers license to vote.

        Try reading the regulations before throwing around “to hell with you” comments.

        • Option 1

          Show one original piece of identification with your photo, name and address. It must be issued by a government agency.


          Driver’s Licence

          Ontario Health Card

          Note: Not all electors in Ontario will have cards with photo, name and address

          Provincial/Territorial Identification Card for the provinces/territories of

          Newfoundland and Labrador

          Prince Edward Island

          Nova Scotia

          New Brunswick




          British Columbia

          Northwest Territories


          Top of page

          Option 2

          Show two original pieces of authorized identification. Both pieces must have your name and one must also have your address.

          Identity Cards

          Driver’s Licence

          Health Card

          Canadian Passport

          Certificate of Canadian Citizenship (Citizenship Card)

          Birth Certificate

          Certificate of Indian Status (Status Card)

          Social Insurance Number Card

          Old Age Security Card

          Student ID Card

          Provincial/Territorial Identification Card

          Liquor Identification Card

          Hospital/Medical Clinic Card

          Credit/Debit Card

          Employee Card

          Public Transportation Card

          Library Card

          Canadian Forces Identity Card

          Veterans Affairs Canada Health Card

          Canadian Blood Services/Héma-Québec Card

          CNIB ID Card

          Firearm Possession and Acquisition Licence or Possession Only Licence

          Fishing, Trapping or Hunting Licence

          Outdoors or Wildlife Card/Licence

          Hospital bracelet worn by residents of long-term care facilities

          Parolee Identification Card

          Original documents
          (with name and address)

          Utility Bill (telephone, TV, public utilities commission, hydro, gas or water)

          Bank/Credit Card Statement

          Vehicle Ownership/Insurance

          Correspondence issued by a school, college or university

          Statement of Government Benefits (employment
          insurance, old age security, social assistance, disability support or
          child tax benefit)

          Attestation of Residence issued by the responsible authority of a First Nations band or reserve

          Government Cheque or Cheque Stub

          Pension Plan Statement of Benefits, Contributions or Participation

          Residential Lease/Mortgage Statement

          Income/Property Tax Assessment Notice

          Insurance Policy

          Letter from a public curator, public guardian or public trustee

          One of the following, issued by the responsible
          authority of a shelter, soup kitchen, student/senior residence, or
          long-term care facility: Attestation of Residence, Letter of Stay,
          Admission Form or Statement of Benefits


          For electors residing in seniors’
          residences and long-term care facilities, a photocopy of an item on the
          list is acceptable. This exception is made to address the fact that when
          residents are admitted, they routinely transfer their original ID to
          the administrator or to members of their family.

          A document with an address may be used as
          proof of the elector’s residential address only if it was written by the
          issuer of the document. For example, a passport cannot
          be used as proof of address because the address is filled in by the
          passport holder. A passport can still be used to prove your name.

          No document other than those included on this list may be accepted to establish the name and address of an elector.

          • Isn’t the point rather that the whole reason we’re supposedly making this change is to crack down on fraud, and yet then the government presents a list of items that wouldn’t crack down on fraud anyway?

            I happen to think that we don’t need to crack down on fraud so long as the numbers from the last election suggest that the number of vouchered votes with irregularities (not the number of fraudulent votes mind you, just the number with irregularities that therefore MIGHT be illegitimate) amounted to 0.34% of votes cast in 2011. I think that a 99.6% legitimacy rate is more than enough for us to leave things be, and not even make it SLIGHTLY harder for anyone to vote.

            That said, if we’re of the opinion that nothing short of 100% is acceptable, how does this change even BEGIN to achieve that? How does my presentation of a public library card and a Visa bill establish with ANY authority that I’m a Canadian citizen who is eligible to vote? It seem to me that this change is addressing a problem that barely exists anyway, and then on top of that doesn’t even fix the problem that’s barely a problem. Either we need to decide that voter fraud is a big deal and FIX it, or not. Deciding that 99% accuracy is fine makes sense to me. Deciding that anything less than 100% is unacceptable and fixing things makes sense to me. Deciding that voter fraud is a big deal and then NOT fixing it makes no sense to me.

    • Please tell me where the charter says that lazy people are not allowed to participate in democracy?

      • Or poor people/homeless etc…

  6. Are there times in one’s life when you lack those two pieces if ID? Most of us have been there at some time.

    • So you forgot your ID at home, that means we should just trust you? Go home and get your ID. Or don’t vote. You also don’t get to vote if you forgot there was an election that day. We can’t structure every law in the country to account for every single time a person screws something up for themselves.

      • Does an 18 year old in a wheelchair (without a driver’s licence) who lives with his parents (doesn’t have a utility bill, hunting licence in his name) and does not work – does that person have the right to vote?

        • Birth certificate and a bank statement. Likely your person is also on many government programs, meaning they would have needed ID to enroll.

          Also, what does the person being in a wheel chair have to do with anything?

          • I don’t think you understand the day-to-day of the disabled. My son who needs a wheelchair to get around has a good job, owns a house, etc, but he has never benefitted
            from a government program, except for the tax credit, and
            personally that was only after he started to earn income. Before that, the benefit was in one of his parents’ name for tax purposes. So at the age of 18 he did not have a governmental program for the disabled ID card of any sort (and still does not) and he did not have a bank account.

            The first time he voted he used his birth certificate to prove his name, but he didn’t have a utility bill, a credit card, a lease, an insurance policy, etc. that associates his name with his address. We had to go to his school weeks in advance of voting day to obtain a special letter.
            Government is not there to make it difficult for people to vote. It is a citizen’s right, one that is not bigger if you drive a car. It should be as easy for a disabled person as it is for one who can drive a car or walk with his two feet, but it isn’t. If every citizen had to go to some institution weeks in advance to obtain a letter to prove their place of residence not many people would bother to vote. So think twice before you write again that only lazy people don’t have the necessary papers to vote.

  7. A photograph at the polling station, and a signed statement, should suffice for identity. I think we have the technology.

    • Completely useless. I could go into every polling station in my riding and do this. Once they’ve found out that I was ineligible to vote, there’s nothing they can do about it aside from punish me. The illegal votes will stand. They can’t “uncount” my illegal votes because they don’t know which party I voted for.

      • Meh. John g dealt with this problem.. unverified voters ballots go into sealed ballot-envelopes, which then go into a separate envelope that has their ID number on it. When their ID is verified, the inner ballot-envelope is dropped into the box. When all IDs are verified or discarded, all the ballot-envelopes in that box are then opened and counted.

      • Not with the new drivers licences in Canada, which track your use of identification. We don’t need any of the other security devices as long as the public is using trackable identification to vote.

    • The basis for the electoral lists are civic addresses. When you show up to vote the first thing you will be asked is ‘what is your address”. You have to prove that you live at that address. A passport alone is not a valid ID for voting, as the address is not ‘official’ – you write in your address by hand. That’s why two utility bills associating an address with a name are accepted, and a passport alone is not.
      It doesn’t matter what you look like, that you are the person that you say you are. What matters is that you can associate your name with an address that is part of a polling district.

  8. This all sounds downright reasonable. It’s a delicate balancing act between ensuring that everybody who’s allowed to vote is allowed to vote, and those who aren’t allowed to vote aren’t allowed to vote. There is no silver bullet that satisfies both.

    Ask yourself this: would you be satisfied with your bank if they allowed people to withdraw money from your account based on a single individual’s “vouching”?

    • Ask yourself this, are you a moron who doesn’t understand that voting only happens once every four years, is an integral part of democracy, and that allowing any person to vote does not take away you’re own right to vote?

      Or ask yourself if you’re a complete idiot who doesn’t know that anybody who wants to vote fraudulently can just go to the local registries office, pick up a blank land-lord rental agreement, put whatever hell address they want on it, and then show up at a poll with that and their driver’s license and get to vote? That the only people who will be stopped from voting due to eliminating vouching are the honest people who happen, for whatever reason, to not have the required ID?

      Of course, I suppose it makes sense coming from you that you think dishonest people should be allowed to vote over disadvantaged people.

      • allowing any person to vote does not take away you’re own right to vote

        Completely untrue. If somebody votes who isn’t eligible to vote, they are cancelling out a legitimate vote.

        That the only people who will be stopped from voting due to eliminating vouching are the honest people who happen, for whatever reason, to not have the required ID

        You have no idea if that’s true or not. If 42% of vouching cases were found to have had irregularities, you can’t possibly say that none of those were cases of voter fraud. You’re simply making things up.

        Just because there are ways to commit voter fraud is not a reason to NOT secure the vote in cases where it can be. Would you also support legalizing murder just because we can’t completely end murder?

        • If 42% of vouching cases were found to have had irregularities, you can’t possibly say that none of those were cases of voter fraud.

          I suppose that’s true, but it’s also worth pointing out that if every single one of those vouching cases with irregularities was actually a fraudulent vote, then those fraudulent votes account for a total of 0.42% of votes cast. I guess I just don’t see the need to make it even slightly more difficult for people to vote because we’re worried about the fact that it’s possible that only 99.58% of the votes cast in the 2011 election were legit.

          ETA: Actually, I see now that Poilivere’s quote includes a total number for all vouching-related “irregularities”, which would be the more accurate number to look at in this context. So, I divided the number of voucher votes with “irregularities” by the number of votes cast in 2011, and, for the record, I was wrong, as that number does not represent 0.42% of votes cast. It represents 0.34% of votes cast.

          • So you’d rather have the an insecure vote than asking voters to go through the arduous task of presenting ID? At what % of illegitimate votes would you draw the line?

          • I’m gonna suggest that we shouldn’t bother making any changes until the maximum percentage of POSSIBLY fraudulent votes is shown to be over 0.5%.

          • What’s “insecure” exactly about a 99.6% legitimacy rate?

            If our justice system caught and successfully prosecuted 99.6% of criminals, while sending almost no innocent people to jail, would you consider the country to be “insecure”. And if so, what would be the acceptable number of additional innocent people that you’d be willing to risk perhaps sending to jail in an effort to move the dial from 99.6% to 100%? 1 innocent person? 10 innocent people? 1,000?

            Frankly, I view disenfranchising even a single Canadian to be a pretty serious matter. I put it in a similar category to Blackstone’s formulation that it’s better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent person suffer. So long as the stats seem to show that over 99% of votes cast are legitimate, I’d rather accept the 0.5% illegitimacy rate than do anything that makes it even nominally harder to vote, and risks disenfranchising even a single legitimate voter. I suppose there’s a line at which I’d agree that the rate of possible fraud warranted more serious action, and I’m not sure where that line is for me. But it’s not 1%, that’s for sure.

        • False analogy. Voting is a charter right and is essential to democracy. When we deny anybody their right to vote *we* are the ones who have committed the crime. The real analogy would be closer to “Just because some killings are in self defense doesn’t mean we should allow self-defense as an excuse to get away with killing someone.”

          You do not have the right to murder anybody in the first place, so taking steps to reduce the occurrence of it, even if not perfect, are appropriate.

          You DO have the right to vote. It can even be argued that the right to vote is where *all other rights* stem from. Given that, unless the manner of ending voter fraud does not disenfranchise legitimate voters, it is unacceptable.

          That removing vouching both disenfranchises some legitimate voters and does exactly nothing toward the prevention of voter fraud means it is completely unacceptable.

  9. If you do the math, you start to see what a serious problem we’re dealing with here.

    If all of the votes that were cast via vouchers and had “irregularities” were, in fact, fraudulent votes, then those fraudulent votes represent a disturbing 0.34% of votes cast in 2011. If you take Poilievre’s numbers at face value, and look at the worst case scenario, it’s entirely possible that only 99.66% of votes cast in the 2011 were legitimate votes.

    Head for the hills!

    • I would be interested to compare that number to the number of Canadians who aren’t able to come up with the newly required forms of ID.

      • That would be interesting.

        That said, so long as the worst case scenario for potential voter fraud appears to be under 1% of votes, I’m going to suggest that any change that could potentially disenfranchise just ONE eligible voter is a bad change.

        I’m willing to accept a system that ensures that no eligible voter is turned away if it seems that said system simultaneously results in more than 99% of votes cast being legit.

  10. Who vouched for Pierre Poutine to get access to those data base numbers ?

    • Now that is a question worth asking, again and again.
      People, parties, who use the electoral lists as a basis for a data base and use the data, or allow the data to be used, for fraudulent activities should be severely punished. The law does not touch on that at all.
      I think citizens should have the right to verify the information contained in political parties’ databases, in the same manner as we have the right the check our credit files.

  11. Any person who is determined to vote must also be determined to take all necessary measures to prove who they are and where they live. If they’re determined one way but not the other then they’re not determined enough.

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  13. Poliviere seems to be of the “Ready, Fire, Aim” brigade.
    Seeing an imaginary problem.

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