Canadian conservative senators back off of voter suppression efforts

VANCOUVER –  To calm growing anger, a Senate Committee – composed mostly of Conservatives – has joined the ranks of critics who are demanding that the Conservative government revise Republican-style voter suppression legislation that it is determined to implement.   

The Senate Committee – two-thirds of its membership consisting of Conservative Senators – is recommending the following set of changes to Bill C-23 in a report issued to the government: Ensure the Chief Electoral Officer and the Commissioner of Canada Elections can warn the public of problems they find in the electoral system which they are restricted from doing with the new bill; give retirement homes and homeless sheltesr the right to issue letters to clients that can be used as ID at a voting booth as well as allowing electronic correspondence to corroborate ID; requiring robo call firms to keep certain records for three years, rather the proposed one year; loosening restrictions on allowing Election Canada to promote voter turnout; ensure the Chief Electoral Officer and the Commissioner of Canada Elections can share information.   

Until now, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper – whose party controls 54 percent of seats in Parliament – has brushed off criticism of the legislation.  He said Bill C-23, dubbed “the Fair Elections Act”  by the Conservatives, will ” increase the integrity of our elections system” and rejected opposition calls to drop or modify the legislation.  Now, the Conservative Minister in charge of promoting Bill C-23, Pierre Poilievre – who has been attacking opponents until now rather than listening to them – said he will read the Senate report and consider the recommended changes.  

The Senate Committee’s objections to Bill C-23 is the most serious hurdle the Harper government faces in its determination to pass Bill C-23 by June.  If the government does not revise the legislation, the Senate could reject the bill and send it back to Parliament.  

The Bill is stirring up a hornets nest of opposition in Canada.  The most controversial change proposed by the legislation is the abolition of vouching whereby one voter can swear to the identity of another voter who has their voter identification card but no additional ID to verify name and residence, so they can vote.   The Conservatives say the change is necessary to prevent vote fraud.    Instead of deterring fraud, critics charge that Bill C-23 is designed to disenfranchise thousands of Canadians who don’t vote Conservative – the poor, young people and natives.  Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, who heads Elections Canada, (the electoral agency in charge of running elections) has denounced the bill as anti-democratic and said 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.   In 2011, 120,000 people voted through vouching. Elections Canada has found no evidence of widespread voter fraud through vouching.  

The bill will also limit the Chief Electoral Officer’s right to communicate with the public and bar Elections Canada from encouraging voting and publishing research reports; remove the investigative capacity of Elections Canada to monitor and prevent electoral fraud, placing it instead under the authority of the Director of Public Prosecutions, a Cabinet appointee who is in turn answerable to Cabinet and the Prime Minister, not parliament; increase the role of big money in election campaigns by increasing allowable donations, from $1,200 to $1,500 and $1,200 to $5,000 for candidates to their own campaigns ; exempt fundraising from spending limits which will benefit the large parties with big donors lists; Enable the winning political party to recommend names for supervisors who oversee elections in each polling station.  

So far a long list of experts and organizations have spoken out against Bill C-23, among them : the opposition New Democratic Party, Greens, Liberals, Communists, Canadian Federation of Students, Leadnow, Council of Canadians, the Chief Electoral Officer of Ontario Greg Essensa, former right wing Reform Party leader Preston Manning, 150 Political Scientists who signed an open letter, former Auditor General Sheila Fraser and Commissioner of Canadian Elections Yves Cote; an open letter signed by 19 international scholars.   

Critics charge the Bill is designed to give the Conservatives, who only received 39.6 % of the vote in 2011, an advantage in the 2015 elections.