Harry Neufeld vs. Pierre Poilievre

The sketch: The former electoral officer and the minister consult indirectly

Megan Leslie stood in the House of Commons and suggested that the Minister of State for Democratic Reform might have spoken with Harry Neufeld before the minister decided to use the work of Mr. Neufeld as the basis for parts of the minister’s bill. The minister attempt to parry this notion.

“Mr. Speaker,” Pierre Poilievre explained, “obviously the best way to consult the author is by reading his report.”

The New Democrats laughed.

By this standard, if you’ve read Moby Dick you can now claim to have consulted with Herman Melville on the best way to catch a whale. And if that consultation has occurred at any point in the last 122 years it is all the more impressive, given that Mr. Melville has been quite dead.

Possibly Mr. Poilievre was under no obligation to consult with Mr. Neufeld, but probably this was not the smartest defence he might’ve mustered here. The minister might’ve simply said that he thinks he knows better than Mr. Neufeld.

That, mind you, is a perfectly fine position to take. Open to question and challenging to defend, sure, but otherwise fine. He is the minister and he ultimately has a responsibility to do what he thinks is right. It is perhaps unfortunate that the Minister of Democratic Reform should find himself on the opposite side of five current or former chief electoral officers on a matter such as this and it is perhaps not ideal that we should find ourselves having to choose between him and them, or perhaps that is fine too. It does mean that this is now quite messy and perhaps we might’ve hoped that a matter such as this might’ve been adjudicated somewhat more peacefully, but perhaps it is the mess that ensures and enlivens our order. Perhaps it was even somehow inevitable in this case.

Or at least here we are.

The mess had resumed earlier, with this morning’s appearance of Mr. Neufeld before the Procedure and House Affairs committee.

“There is a healthy but constant tension in every voting system between the two equally important goals of providing broad accessibility … and ensuring procedural integrity that maintains citizens’ confidence in the process itself,” he mused. “In its current form, Bill C-23 creates a fundamental imbalance between accessibility and integrity.”

Shortly thereafter, Conservative MP Erin O’Toole attempted to make a point that only so many jurisdictions in this country offer voters the option of being vouched for. There was four: New Brunswick, the Yukon, Saskatchewan and Alberta. But Mr. O’Toole had also just noted that vouching was allowed in British Columbia. And Liberal MP Scott Simms would later interject that Newfoundland did too, a point that Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Simms would then debate with competing references.

“So in many ways federally we’re coming into line with what is happening provincially,” Mr. O’Toole posited.

If we are to engage in a comparison of provincial procedures, this could get messier still: it would appear that citizens in Manitoba who are on the voting list, don’t have to provide any identification; while a registration card and any piece of identification with your name seems sufficient in Ontario.

Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Neufeld would next debate the precise meaning and ramification of an “irregularity” in the voting process—a point of competing interpretations and references—and then Mr. Neufeld would tell Mr. O’Toole that, “If I take my drivers licence out of my wallet, I have no other identification with me that proves my address.” Awhile later, Mr. O’Toole would begin unpacking his own wallet to show the identification he had that would entitle him to a ballot.

Presumably if we could just give Mr. O’Toole the right to cast a ballot on behalf of every other elector in Canada this whole issue would be resolved.

There would be some debate over an old lady in the riding of Liberal MP Scott Simms. Mr. Simms would figure that she would be unable to vote without use of a voter information card (the piece of cardboard which was allowed as a proof of address for some seniors and aboriginals in 2011 and which Elections Canada would like to extend to the general electorate in 2015, but which the Conservatives have lamented for its error rate). Conservative parliamentary secretary Tom Lukiwski would later say that she merely needed to get an attestation of residence from the seniors’ centre she lived in. But then chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand has said that some facilities have been known to refuse such documentation.

Mr. Neufeld would at one point use the d-word—”disenfranchise”—to describe what might happen if vouching and the voter information card are banned. Later, speaking to reporters, he would guess that perhaps 250,000 people might have a harder time voting in 2015. (That some might find it merely somewhat harder, while some might find it a lot harder is perhaps a distinction that could be made here.)

“Address ID is a real problem in this whole equation,” he explained to the committee.

Under questioning from the NDP’s Craig Scott, Mr. Neufeld would testify that Mr. Poilievre was “selectively reading and quoting from my report.” Mr. Neufeld would say that he was waiting for the minister’s call, but it never came. And Mr. Neufeld would make his basic case: that the system needs to be overhauled and simplified, and election staff need to be better trained. (Mr. Neufeld would also add his concern about the use of partisan appointees in polling stations—something C-23 would expand.)

But Mr. O’Toole would seem to believe that change of this sort was not worth pursuing. “One key quote I have is from page 27 of your report on vouching and can we fix it,” the Conservative MP offered. “Your conclusion was: ‘Reducing the current rate of serious errors during vouching transactions forms an immense challenge that should not be underestimated.’ So fixing it appears difficult, immense, impossible.”

You might note that the immense and impossible are not synonyms.

While Mr. Neufeld testified, the minister tweeted.

The pile up of complaints here is now fairly sizeable: the elimination of vouching, a ban on the use of the voter information card, restrictions on the chief electoral officer’s public communications, the future of  Student Vote, Elections Canada’s independence from the Treasury Board, partisans in the polling stations, the power of investigators to compel cooperation and the time required for retention of records.

And amid all that the opposition cries that Mr. Neufeld has been ignored and the government maintains that Mr. Neufeld’s numbers are what matter.

But within all this, almost as a footnote, was the hint of perhaps something of a small compromise.

Late in the hour, after running out of time to explain the possibilities in an earlier round, Mr. Neufeld offered what he considered two alternatives: first, what he called a “tendered ballot” and second, what he noted was Manitoba’s system of requiring a sworn statement of address.

The questioning moved on, but later, Conservative MP Scott Reid asked Mr. Neufeld to come back to that first idea.

“If that system were in place, but vouching was removed, would it resolve the issues you’ve raised with regard to vouching and the ability of every Canadian to cast a ballot?” Mr. Reid asked.

“It could be engineered in a way where it allowed that,” Mr. Neufeld offered.

So perhaps that is something. Leaving only everything else to be messily sorted out.

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