VANCOUVER, Canada - The right-wing Conservative Party government of Stephen Harper is trying to push through U.S. Republican-style voter suppression legislation in Canada.
Christened by the conservatives the "Fair Election Act," Bill C-23 will require Canadians who want to vote to produce at least one piece of ID, either a health insurance card, bank card or phone bill. It will abolish the rule that currently allows one voter to vouch for another voter who lacks Identification. According to the Conservatives, the legislation, necessary to deter people from voting more than once, will strengthen democracy.
For tackling voter fraud allegations, a new elections commissioner will be hired whose office will be separated from Elections Canada, Canada's electoral agency, which is currently in charge of investigating election fraud. Instead, the new office will be moved into the federal prosecutor's office. Elections Canada will be barred from campaigning to encourage people to vote or doing research.
The bill will also increase allowable individual political donations from $1,200 to $1,500 (Canadian dollars) and permit candidates to donate $5,000 (Canadian) to their own campaigns. Canadian laws forbid corporations and unions to donate money to parties.
Instead of deterring fraud, critics charge that Bill C-23 is designed to deny thousands of people voting rights. Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, who heads Elections Canada, has denounced the bill as anti-democratic and said that the end of allowing voters to vouch for others and the enactment of mandatory ID requirements will adversely affect more than 100,000 voters. "Many electors still have a challenge producing proper Identifications documents at the polls - especially certain groups that come to mind are aboriginals, young people, even seniors that are increasing in terms of population and have increasing difficulty producing proper identification documents," Mayrand said.
The new elections commissioner, according to Maynard, will have no powers to act. "What worries me is whether the Commissioner will get the toolbox he needs to do his job and l'm afraid l don't see it in the act as it is currently written. There is no enhancement about transparency of political parties in that new legislation, l believe the Commissioner doesn't get the authority to compel witnesses", said Mynard. "There are few measures in the bill that are essential to make the toolbox effective and ensuring that investigations are (conducted) in a timely manner."
Maynard also said the bill will limit what he can say. "If l understand correctly, l can no longer talk about any other subject other than to know where, when and how to vote." He also made it clear that the Conservative government never consulted with him over the bill, as they claim to have.
The chief electoral officer believes the Harper government is retaliating against Elections Canada for past conflicts it has had with the Conservative Party, some of which have spilled into court.
Instead of democratic reform, the bill "would weaken democracy, and further reduce voter turnout," Green Party leader Elizabeth May told Parliament. While she supports the appointment of an elections commissioner to investigate fraud and irregularities, she said, "the problem is the government has not given that office any tools. It has not given that officer subpoena powers."
"The Conservative members of the House and the minister have utterly failed to provide any evidentiary background for the notion that we have a crisis of voter fraud in this country," May said. "There is no evidence for the notion that Canadians are covering themselves up through creating false IDs and voting more than once. The crisis in Canadian democracy is not that Canadians are voting more than once, it is that they are voting less than once, and this bill would worsen Canada's trust in the system and increase cynicism."
New Democratic Party parliamentary reform critic Craig Scott charged that, "iinstead of going after electoral fraud, the Conservatives introduced a bill that will attack democracy. Once again, the Conservatives have shown that they cannot be trusted when it comes to making our election laws better. The bill will muzzle Elections Canada and give the Conservative Party an unfair advantage."
"Bill C-23 is absolutely about the Conservative Party's personal issues with Elections Canada," stated Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux. "They have a vested interest to minimize the effectiveness of Elections Canada."
Communist Party of Canada leader Miguel Figueroa blasted Bill C-23 as "an attempt to steal the 2015 election right before our eyes. The Unfair Elections Act (Bill C-23) is intended to facilitate the Conservative 'voter suppression' strategy borrowed directly from the U.S. Republican Party. Bill C-23 will make it more difficult for hundreds of thousands of Canadians to cast a ballot, especially aboriginal people, students, low income seniors, and others who often lack all the valid ID required to vote. The legislation gives the Tories an extra edge in fundraising, raising the maximum individual donation limits by another $300."
Leadnow, an online campaign group, is collecting 25,000 signatures on a petition to deliver to a parliamentary committee examining the bill. The petition says, "Independent reports have confirmed that fraud by individual voters is so rare that it basically doesn't happen. In turn, 120,000 Canadians voted by being vouched for in the last election, and voter ID changes will hurt people who have a hard time establishing their address at election time the most. We've seen a similar strategy used by US Republicans to disenfranchise people who they know are less likely to vote for them. Thirty-seven state legislatures have enacted voter ID laws that mostly hurt the poor, people of colour, and women."
Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania, helped defeat his state's Republican-pushed voter ID legislation that restricted voting. Walczak told reporters that Bill C-23 will de-franchise Canadian voters. "They're going to show up on election day - having every right to vote, meeting all of your constitutional requirements, but not knowing that they have to bring an ID," he said. "They show up, they wait in line, they get to the front and hear, 'sorry you can't vote, you've gotta go home.' And then that person says, 'Ah screw it, l don't have time.'"
What has also alarmed critics is the haste in which the Harper Conservatives are pushing though the 242-page bill. One day after introducing Bill C-23 to Parliament, the Conservatives - who control 54% of seats - moved a motion to limit debate in Parliament. The Conservatives then refused opposition requests to hold public hearings on the bill, saying it would create a circus-like atmosphere.
Opposition forces have vowed to defeat efforts to pass Bill C-23.
Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin noted the bill comes, "interestingly enough, as Elections Canada is moving to conclude its investigation of electoral fraud in the 2011 campaign."
In 2011, opposition parties accused the Conservatives of sending tens of thousands of automated phone calls to opposition voters across Canada directing them to non-existent polling stations, and altering voting results to favor Conservative Party candidates. Elections Canada traced some of those automated phone calls to the telecommunications company Racknine in Alberta that does election work for the Conservative Party.
Opposition leaders say the voter suppression scheme could not have been carried out without callers having access to the Conservative Party database on voters' intentions. The Conservatives are widely acknowledged to have the largest and most developed database on voters in Canada, identifying not only its own voters, but those of rival parties.
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