The federal Conservative government recently announced the Fair Elections Act, a controversial proposal to amend the Canada Elections Act. Ironically, the act is being criticized for taking steps to suppress voter turnout by implementing new rules for verifying who is an eligible voter at the polls. This new piece of legislation poses significant issues for minority voters, low-income families, and, unfortunately, students. At present, eligible voters can vouch for another person’s eligibility, such as a roommate or neighbour, at polling stations, allowing them to vote. The Conservatives’ proposal places unnecessarily stringent limits on reasonable and useful forms of identification, which will inevitably prevent young people from voting.
One form of identification targeted for elemination is vouching. While the act will leave 39 indentification options, these are often onerous or impossible for students or marginalized voters. Other identification options — including providing phone bills, bank statements, or ID — work for voters who have a well-established life in the riding. Students — who often live in a given riding for only one federal election, and marginalized citizens — who might not have a mailing address or ID — rely on vouching to facilitate their democratic right.
While it has been presented as a measure to crack down on voter fraud in Canada, the Fair Elections Act really represents a direct attempt on the part of the federal Conservatives to suppress voter turnout among groups that habitually oppose them. By ending the practice of voter vouching, the government risks effectively disenfranchising entire demographics, from new citizens to students.
Another troubling detail is the lack of any convincing evidence that individual voter fraud is a major problem in Canada — one that calls for a legislative solution. The Conservatives have cited Elections Canada research, saying that it shows vouching is problematic. However, many experts have conivincingly argued that the Conservatives are distorting this research for their political purposes. That the Conservatives have chosen to target vouching, without proving that it is really a problem, speaks volumes on their motives. These are political, not public-spirited.
In addition to eliminating vouching, the act includes new limitations on the implementation of online voting. Under the current election laws, the testing and implementation of electronic voting by Elections Canada, as well as other forms of alternative voting, is permitted, as long as it is approved by Canada’s chief electoral officer and a parliamentary oversight committee. Under the Conservatives’ proposal, online voting in any form would have to be passed by the House of Commons and the Senate. It’s worth remembering that the latter body is itself unelected and currently has an iron-clad Conservative majority.
Many believe that implementing online voting at a national level would drastically improve voter turnout by increasing ease and accessibility. In particular, online voting would almost certainly increase youth voter turnout. With the bill in place, the Conservative government would have to appove any move to implement, or even test, online voting. This power is better left in the hands of Elections Canada, which is an arms-length and impartial organization.
Experts such as Jon Pammett, a political science professor at Carleton University, argue that the chief electoral officer should decide when online voting should be implemented, and that the Senate shouldn’t have a say in the matter. With the act, he argues, the decision would be rendered “more difficult, if not impossible.”
The measures proposed in this Act will make it more difficult for demographics who generally oppose the Conservatives — including students — to vote. Youth voter turnout is already dropping. Steps should be taken to encourage student voters, not bar them from the polls.
Any genuine attempt to ensure fairness in this country’s elections is a progressive step in the right direction, but the Act is not such an attempt. By placing unnecessary barriers between voters and the democratic process, the Conservative government is making a calculated move to frustrate a demographic that has traditionally supported its opponents.