OTTAWA – The Harper government is getting some serious push-back from Conservative senators on its controversial overhaul of elections laws, with a Senate committee unanimously recommending nine major changes to the legislation.
In an interim report to be tabled Tuesday, the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee recommends that the government drop provisions to muzzle the chief electoral officer and the elections commissioner, The Canadian Press has learned.
It also recommends removing another provision which electoral experts have said would give an unfair, potentially huge, financial advantage to established parties — particularly the ruling Conservatives — during election campaigns.
However, the committee is not recommending any change to the government’s plan to ban the practice of allowing registered voters to vouch for those who don’t have adequate ID.
Nor is it recommending that the government back off its plan to ban the use of voter information cards (VICs) as proof of address.
Electoral experts have said the ban on vouching and VICs is a double whammy that could rob up to 500,000 Canadians of their fundamental right to vote.
The committee does make a couple of recommendations that would make it easier for voters to obtain the required ID, including at least one piece of documentation that shows their address.
For instance, it recommends that seniors’ homes, First Nations bands and homeless shelters be legally required to provide attestations of name and address for those residents who seek them
And it recommends that Elections Canada be encouraged to accept electronic correspondence — not just original paper copies of bills and bank statements — as valid ID.
While three Liberal senators on the committee have agreed to the nine recommendations, they’ve also crafted a minority report which argues the proposed changes don’t go far enough. Unless the proposed ban on vouching and VICs is repealed, they maintain the bill is unconstitutional because it fails to provide sufficient safeguards to ensure voters without ID aren’t disenfranchised.
Still, the changes agreed to by Conservative senators are significant and could signal an impending confrontation between the Tory-dominated Senate and the elected House of Commons over a bill dubbed the Fair Elections Act.
The Senate committee last week started a rare “pre-study” of the bill before a Commons committee finishes its own hearings and begins consideration of possible amendments at the end of the month.
In issuing the interim report, the Senate committee is signalling the minimum changes necessary to win approval of the bill in the unelected upper house. And it could yet add more recommendations as it continues its pre-study when Parliament returns after a two week break on April 28.
The interim report recommends:
— Removing a provision which would allow political parties to exempt from their election expenses any money spent to raise donations from anyone who has donated at least $20 over the previous five years. Experts have called this an unenforceable loophole that would allow rich, established parties with big donors’ lists to spend untold millions more during campaigns.
— Requiring automated call service providers to retain records of campaign robocalls for three years, rather than the one year retention proposed in the bill.
— Clarifying that Elections Canada’s reduced role in promoting democracy and voter participation will not affect the independent agency’s involvement in Student Vote or other educational programs aimed at elementary and high school students.
— Specifying that both the chief electoral officer, who administers election laws, and the commissioner of elections, who enforces the law and investigates breaches, be able to inform the public of any problems they uncover in the electoral system.
— Specifically authorizing continued communications between the chief electoral officer and the commissioner, whom the bill proposes to hive off Elections Canada and move under the auspices of the director of public prosecutions.
— Encouraging Elections Canada to post photos of candidates on ballots, to help voters who can’t read.
— Encouraging Elections Canada to provide information about braille ballots to blind voters and to conduct a pilot project using specialized voting kiosks for the blind.
The three Liberal senators on the committee want vouching and the use of VICs restored, as well as the chief electoral officer’s existing broad mandate to provide information to the public on any matter relating to democracy and the electoral process.
They also recommend repeal of a provision that would require the chief electoral officer to get Treasury Board approval for hiring temporary specialists. And they propose giving the commissioner power to compel witness testimony during investigations.
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