How inspiring has the Fair Elections Act been so far?

The sketch: Jean-Pierre Kingsley testifies and Pierre Poilievre defends

It was seven weeks ago that Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the bald and bespectacled former chief electoral officer, gave the Fair Elections Act an A-minus, a high grade the Minister of State for Democratic Reform duly noted and hoped to turn into an A-plus. But the space between a low A and a perfect score would seem to include concerns about the eliminating vouching, limiting the chief electoral officer’s ability to communicate publicly, excluding fundraising expenses from campaign spending limits and failing to give election officials the power to compel testimony and properly audit party expenses. Most concerning to Mr. Kingsley: this matter of vouching and this matter of the chief electoral officer’s communication.

“This will directly affect the constitutional right to vote of a significant number of Canadians without justification,” Mr. Kingsley told the Procedure and House Affairs committee of vouching.

“Absent the rescinding of the proposed Section 18 in Bill C-23, Canadians will lose their trust and their confidence in our elections. That is not acceptable,” Mr. Kingsley added of the Fair Elections Act’s limits on the chief electoral officer’s ability to communicate.

Other than that, the bill seems great—Mr. Kingsley commending the bill’s measures on the policing of voter contact, the addition of a fourth day of advance voting and new restrictions on political loans, while describing as “neutral” the decision to put the election commissioner under the purview of the director of public prosecutions.

So perhaps the former chief electoral officer is something of a generous marker (or perhaps he shouldn’t have let himself be goaded into answering the grade question).

“Mr. Speaker, the former CEO of Elections Canada has had very positive things to say about the Fair Elections Act in the past. Today, he repeated many of those comments,” Pierre Poilievre reminded the House this afternoon, a couple hours after Mr. Kingsley had finished testifying down the hall.

Other than that the minister seemed unmoved, or at least only willing to accept Mr. Kingsley’s wisdom on certain points.

“Mr. Speaker, there are obvious risks of fraud associated with allowing people to vote without presenting any form of physical identification,” Mr. Poilievre explained to the NDP’s Alexandrine Latendresse. “The safeguards in place to protect against those risks were violated 50,735 times in the last election, and these are not small violations.”

And on this point, Mr. Poilievre seems to have recently discovered something Mr. Mulcair said last May.

“According to the leader of the NDP, ‘If we can’t even guarantee that the people who are voting are entitled to vote, and that can throw off the results of the elections, all is being lost.’ Those were the words of the leader of the NDP when this compliance review came forward,” Mr. Poilievre now reported. “He could not have been more right.”

Granted, Mr. Mulcair’s comments that day on the Neufeld report included his concern that Elections Canada’s budget was being reduced and his suggestion that the Conservatives had a tendency to transgress against election law, but it is at least heartening to see a minister showing some deference to the judgment of the leader of the opposition.

On this day, Mr. Kingsley was followed by the chief electoral officers for British Columbia and the Northwest Territories (the latter’s opening statement can be viewed here), who added their respective concerns about vouching, the elimination of the voter information card, the limits on the chief electoral officer’s ability to communicate and what C-23 would mean for Elections Canada’s independence from the government of the day. They were preceded, two weeks ago, by Marc Mayrand, the current chief electoral officer. They will be followed, on Thursday, by Harry Neufeld, author of the oft-cited study of election procedures, who disagrees with the solutions Mr. Polievre has offered.

In Question Period, the NDP’s Ms. Latendresse ventured that voters had more confidence in Messrs Kingsley and Mayrand than in Mr. Poilievre (across the way, the minister pretended to be hurt). That might be true, but then no official should be considered beyond doubt. The more operative question might be, at what point should we feel compelled to heed the opinions of those whose occupation and responsibility has been administering free and fair elections? (In fairness to the Conservatives, the last time they heeded expert opinion, it didn’t go so well.)

At this point, the witness count is not going the Conservatives’ way, but the government surely has numbers (including the 10% error rate on voter information cards) and anecdotes. There was that time Infoman got a couple people to try to vote twice. And Brad Butt has heard about voter information cards being left in piles in apartment buildings. And Paul Calandra once saw that his late mother had been marked down as voting somehow after she died. And eight years ago someone called up Laurie Hawn and offered to give him a bunch of voter information cards (and apparently Mr. Hawn will now be called as a witness to testify before the committee about his experiences). And if you don’t presently know that Scott Reid once got three voter information cards in the mail it must be because you weren’t paying attention the first six times he told the story.

(I’ve asked Mr. Hawn’s office to explain the call he received—whether he knows the identity of the caller, whether the call was ever reported to Elections Canada—but was told, in response, that he would explain himself to the committee.)

To what extent do these anecdotes reflect on the current system? If we accept that these anecdotes are meaningful, does C-23 propose the appropriate responses or could there be better alternatives? Possibly we will now have to spend the next month chasing down every story of any irregularity. The problem now might be that, amid much acrimony, there is only another month to get to the bottom of everything.

Possibly this is what you see if you stare at any piece of legislation long enough. Possibly we should hope that our election might be handled differently.

To defend the contested amendments to Section 18 of the Elections Act, Mr. Poilievre offered something of a philosophical take on the official actors of our democracy.

“With respect to Elections Canada ads, two things motivate voters: first, information, and secondly, inspiration,” he mused. “The information should come from Elections Canada, where, when and how to vote. However, the inspiration should come from candidates and political parties.”

So how inspired should we be by the matter of the Fair Elections Act?

In hindsight, the bill should’ve—as the New Democrats and Liberals have proposed—been sent off to committee for study before being voted on at second reading. And perhaps that should have happened months ago. Indeed, perhaps the government could have hesitated even before introducing a bill and instead offered a white paper or some set of proposals for a parliamentary committee to study and consider and then used that committee’s report and recommendations to craft a bill. Perhaps that committee could have spent several months hashing out these divergent opinions on how our elections should be conducted. Perhaps the process of amending of the laws by which we give structure to our democratic expression would have somehow been a matter of all relevant parties coming together and finding something they could all be reasonably satisfied with. Oh, how inspiring that would have been.

Finding some compromises, as with any debate, might not be possible. But perhaps somehow this might’ve gone more pleasantly.

As it is, this committee is facing a deadline of something like May 1 to finish with a bill that the chief electoral officer must have in hand by this spring if Elections Canada is to conduct the 2015 election under a new set of rules. And as of now, we have a matter of deep dispute—with the New Democrats crying outrage (I don’t think I put much in the official opposition’s suggestion that the Conservatives designed this bill with their own partisan interests in mind) and the Conservatives proclaiming righteousness. There are perhaps compromises to be made: the disputes over vouching and the use of voter information cards being the most difficult to resolve, those being matters not only of practicality, but also perspective.

Whatever happens it will be inspiring somehow.

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