Conservatives’ democratic reforms deserve democratic due process
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – If the federal government really is concerned about improving our democracy, it has a funny way of showing it.
Mar 10 2014. Editorial
In an effort to pass legislation supposedly designed to provide much-needed improvements to our democratic process, the federal Conservatives have taken a noteworthy tack. Instead of relying on evidence and experts, they have fabricated an anecdote to justify its contents. Rather than use our democratic institutions to study and strengthen the legislation, they are attempting to railroad 244 pages of electoral reforms into law before summer, even amid a growing chorus of concerns about whether those reforms will weaken the electoral process and disenfranchise thousands. Can you spot the irony?
For good reason, it is traditional in Canada and other democracies for the governing party to consult voters and seek all-party consent before introducing significant electoral reforms. Instead, the Conservatives buried profound changes to the Elections Act in a bill twice as long as The Great Gatsby, and have attempted to move it quickly through Parliament while curtailing debate. And no wonder. The greater the scrutiny, it seems, the larger the holes.
Last week, Harry Neufeld, B.C.’s former Chief Electoral Officer, criticized measures in the bill that would allow incumbents to appoint the polling supervisors in their riding. “It’s completely inappropriate in a democracy,” he said. Meanwhile, Neufeld’s federal counterpart, Marc Mayrand, told Parliament on Thursday that the act is in need of an overhaul. He proposed 25 changes, ranging from restoring Elections Canada outreach programs in schools and aboriginal communities to closing campaign-funding loopholes that seem to benefit the Conservatives.
Most unsettling was Mayrand’s assertion that under the new rules thousands of voters “will be denied their right to vote.” For instance, the law would prohibit the longstanding practice of “vouching,” which allows one voter to attest that another is who she says she is. This tool was used by 120,000 Canadians in the last election, the majority of whom were aboriginal, seniors, young people and low-income Canadians – not exactly the Conservative base.
The act would also end the use of voter identification cards, a relatively new tool that has been successful in boosting participation in seniors’ homes, native reserves and university residences. The government’s justification? An anecdote from Tory backbencher Brad Butt, repeated twice in the House, and rendered in vivid detail, of the time he saw voters picking cards out of the trash before repurposing them for fraudulent ends. (Butt later admitted he made the story up.)
In fact, Neufeld says there is zero evidence of such fraud. Only urban myths. And, according to Mayrand, the total number of complaints of attempted voter fraud received by Elections Canada over the last two federal elections is 18. In other words, if passed, the Fair Elections Act will exacerbate the real democratic problem of disenfranchisement in order to address the nearly non-existent one of voter fraud.
To suppress or ignore these concerns is to make a mockery of the notion that this legislation emerged from a genuine desire for a better democracy. If the name of the Fair Elections Act is to be read as anything other than eye-rollingly Orwellian, the government must stop trying to railroad this bill through Parliament. It should give MPs the time to fully study and debate the diverse legislation therein, address the many alarming questions swirling around it, and take the summer to repair it.
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