Three ways Harper’s Bill C-23 undermines democracy
TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – The Conservative government’s Bill C-23 includes changes that would undermine the democratic legitimacy of our electoral process.
Mar 12 2014. By: Janique Dubois
It’s no secret that Canadian democracy is in trouble. Fewer and fewer Canadians are exercising their democratic right to vote. Through its so-called “Fair Elections Act,” the federal government is proposing to rewrite Canada’s electoral laws. However, far from of fixing the problems facing Canadian democracy, Bill C-23 includes changes that undermine the democratic legitimacy of our electoral process.
Here are three reasons why the federal government is playing a dangerous game that puts Canada’s democracy at risk.
First, the bill proposes to get rid of Voter Information Cards (VICs). These cards are designed to allow Canadians already marginalized from the electoral process, such as students living away from home, seniors in long-term care facilities, and aboriginal people living on reserve to vote by showing their VIC alongside other officially recognized identification. The government claims that eliminating VICs will cut down on electoral fraud, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his team have been unable to provide evidence that citizens are deliberately trying to cast illegal ballots with VICs.
In fact, Conservative MP Brad Butt retracted his statement last week that he apparently saw people using VICs for fraudulent purposes. Butt’s misleading statement leaves Canadians to wonder whether the government is proposing to change the rules to fix real problems or is instead making up stories to justify excluding already marginalized Canadians from exercising their democratic right to vote.
Second, the bill proposes to crack down on vouching – that is, allowing individuals who don’t have the proper identification to take an oath affirming their identity, citizenship, and residence. The minister for democratic reform, Pierre Poilievre, insists that this will help eliminate “irregularities” in the system.
Yet the Neufeld report, which was commissioned by Elections Canada to look into non-compliance of electoral rules, did not find that voters were deliberately trying to cast illegal ballots. Instead, the report concludes that irregularities are due to an entirely different problem – one that is tied to administrative challenges, such as poor record-keeping at polling stations.
Instead of fixing what are largely paperwork errors by election officers, Bill C-23 risks exacerbating the very source of the irregularities the government is purportedly trying to eliminate. In a truly bizarre move, the Fair Elections Act proposes that the candidate or party that came first in the previous election choose poll supervisors.
This would mean that the majority of polls in Canada’s next election would be supervised by an individual appointed by the Conservative Party of Canada, instead of by Elections Canada (a non-partisan body). While this move may help the Conservatives get ahead in the game, it certainly won’t help level the playing field.
The most dangerous aspect of the bill is that it prevents Elections Canada from doing its job, which is to protect the fairness of the electoral process on which the legitimacy of our democracy depends. Under the new rules, the Commissioner of Elections will no longer have the power to properly investigate electoral infractions, compel witness testimony, or enforce the necessary compliance on rules such as spending limits.
Moreover, the bill forbids Elections Canada from promoting democratic participation through campaigns that encourage citizens to exercise their democratic right to vote. In a twist of logic, this bill suggests that encouraging Canadians to get out and vote somehow poses a threat to democracy. By taking Elections Canada – which acts as an umpire in the impartial administration of the electoral process – out of the game, the proposed Fair Elections Act fails to live up to its name.
When we look at the game plan, Bill C-23 would make it harder for already marginalized Canadians to vote, gives the Conservatives an unfair advantage and disempowers Elections Canada from safeguarding our country’s democratic processes.
Access to a free and fair vote – for all Canadians – isn’t a game. It’s a right. Imagine what this government could accomplish if it spent as much energy upholding this right as it does coming up with unfair solutions to fictitious problems.
Janique Dubois teaches Canadian politics as an assistant professor of political science at Brock University. She is one of more than 150 scholars at Canadian universities to sign an open letter to the Prime Minister on the Fair Elections Act.
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