The state of the Fair Elections Act debate

More complaints, but what are the odds of compromise?

So to Marc Mayrand, Harry Neufeld, Preston Manning and assorted other critics of the Fair Elections Act, you can add 150 academics who have written an open letter to explain their concerns. For the record, here is Pierre Poilievre’s response to that letter.

The Fair Elections Act simply requires voters show some ID to demonstrate who they are and where they live. Photo ID is not and will not be required. Rather, there are 39 different forms of acceptable ID, such as an aboriginal status card, a student ID card, a utility bill or a letter from a homeless shelter. By contrast, the Liberals and NDP would allow people to vote without showing a shred of identification. That is not responsible. The letter from these professors also falsely claims that the law-enforcement Commissioner will no longer be able to report publicly on his work. Under the Fair Elections Act, his work will be reported to Parliament every single year. Additionally, any charges he lays or warrants or production orders he seeks will be public, as will his testimony before Parliamentary committees. Finally, the letter forgot to mention that the Fair Elections Act protects voters from rogue calls with a mandatory public registry for mass calling, prison time for impersonating elections officials and increased penalties for deceiving people out of their votes.

Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail editorial board has now published five editorials—here, here, herehere and here—explaining its concerns with the bill, while two professors wonder if some of the changes might actually hurt the Conservative vote. Mr. Mayrand talks to the National Post’s editorial board, Mr. Poilievre talks to Justin Ling and the NDP embarks on a nationwide tour to discuss the bill.

In his interview with Justin Ling, the minister says that, in preparing the Fair Elections Act, he reviewed the relevant proceedings of the Procedure and House Affairs committee—specifically, I’m pointed towards these hearings on political loans legislation, these hearings following the 2008 election, this report responding to the chief electoral officer’s recommendations coming out of the 2008 election and this appearance by Mr. Mayrand last May.

In the report following the 2008 election, the NDP filed a dissent on only three points—the right of individuals in federal prisons to vote, the right of Elections Canada staff to strike and the ability of the chief electoral officer to investigate party financial returns. On this last point, the New Democrats (and apparently the Liberals) agreed with Mr. Mayrand’s preference: that the chief electoral officer be authorized to request any documentation necessary to verify a return. At pages eight and nine, this issue is reviewed and it is explained that the Conservative majority on the committee preferred to recommend Mr. Mayrand’s second option: increasing the responsibility of the parties’ respective external auditors to perform compliance audits.

Vouching is referenced in that report insofar as the committee disagreed with Mr. Mayrand’s recommendation that individuals be allowed to vouch for more than one family member residing at the same address. Mr. Mayrand noted his plan to expand the use of voter information cards in his appearance at committee last year, seemingly without drawing a complaint, though that meeting seems to have been dominated by the issue or fraudulent calls.

(If you want to go further back in your reading on voter identification procedures, you might consult Bill C-31 and the committee deliberations that preceded that bill. Putting “voter information card” into openparliament.ca’s search engine also produces references on that particular issue.)

Mr. Polievre also notes in that interview that he wrote to the political parties to seek input. NDP president Rebecca Blaikie sent this letter, pointing to Craig Scott’s private member’s bill and making various other suggestions. The Liberals pointed Mr. Poilievre to Justin Trudeau’s democratic reform and open parliament proposals. And Elizabeth May sent this letter on behalf of the Greens, suggesting that photo identification no longer be required at the polls, television advertising by political parties be banned and the per-vote subsidy be restored, among other ideas. I’ve asked whether the Conservative party responded to Mr. Poilievre (and, if so, whether I might have a copy of that response), but have not been provided a direct answer.

Finally, the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial board adorably posits that “good leadership knows humility, and understands that no one is right all the time” and suggests the Fair Elections Act be amended.

What might the odds be of that happening? Mr. Poilievre might be lauded for reaching out to his critics and offering a compromise. Or such a move might be written up as a capitulation and an embarrassment. The most well-known retreat of the last few years involved the first version of the government’s “lawful access” legislation—but in that case a supremely obnoxious remark  focused attention and Conservative MPs were among those concerned. This case might be something more like the matter of the long-form census—a situation in which (nearly) every expert opinion was against the government’s preference on a (relatively) esoteric file, but the government was happy enough to proceed all the same.

That said, there is still something like a month of committee hearings between now and this bill passing the House.

See previously: Would the Fair Elections Act muzzle the chief electoral officer?Is there a spending loophole in the Fair Elections Act?The cases for and against vouchingHow often are voter information cards being abused?Preston Manning calls for the Fair Elections Act to be amendedThe anecdotal, philosophical matter of the Fair Elections Act and How would you like your electoral reform?

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.