Young and Indigenous voters could have a harder time casting ballots in Canada's fall election thanks to the contentious new Fair Elections Act. On Thursday, two groups went to court to ask a judge for an urgent injunction to put the Act on hold.
"The public confidence in the election may hang in the balance," Steven Shrybman, a lawyer representing the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), told the Ontario Superior Court Thursday afternoon.
The Fair Elections Act, which the applicants compared to voter suppression efforts in the US, removes the ability of electors to use voter information cards they receive through the mail, and could prevent tens of thousands of Canadians from casting ballots in the upcoming Oct. 19 election, Shrybman argued.
"The tenor of all this is basically, we don't want you to vote," Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, told VICE outside the court Thursday afternoon. "Our other concern is that fewer people are voting every year."
Only 39 percent of eligible voters aged 18 to 25 voted in the last election, she pointed out.
"This kind of legislation basically says: you're not welcome, don't bother. And that's the big concern—that it's just anti-democratic," she argued. "It dissuades people from voting."
The applicants say measures in the Fair Elections Act would disenfranchise young Canadians, Indigenous voters, homeless electors, and the elderly, and would interfere with their Charter right to vote.
Before 2007, Canadians on the list of electors only needed to state their name and address at the polling station—they didn't need ID. But the Elections Act was amended in 2007 making it mandatory for voters to produce ID stating their name and address.
After the 2008 federal election, the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) realized certain groups had found it harder to meet the new ID requirements, so during the 2011 election he allowed 900,000 electors from those groups—students on campus, Indigenous voters on reserves, and seniors in long-term care homes—to use only their voter information cards to vote. About 400,000 people took advantage of his permission slip and cast ballots in this manner.
Before the Fair Elections Act was introduced, the CEO said he would allow all eligible voters across the country to vote in the Oct. 19 election using their voter information cards as proof of address plus one other piece of ID.
But when the Fair Elections Act came into effect on Dec. 19, it removed that option, meaning if you only have one piece of valid ID and it doesn't have your current address, you may be shit out of luck. The new voter information cards would carry a disclaimer saying they are not a valid piece of ID.
Previously, electors could have someone in their polling district vouch for them if they didn't have proof of address, but that too has been ditched under the Fair Elections Act. Now someone in your district can vouch for your address in writing, but only if you have two pieces of valid ID that establish your name.
Certain groups have more difficulty proving their current address, Shrybman argued, specifically Indigenous electors who live on reserves, seniors who live in long-term care homes, students who are more likely to live away from home, homeless electors, and Canadians who have recently moved.
Of the 400,000 electors the CEO allowed to use voter information cards in the last election, Shrybman admits that it wasn't clear whether they would have been able to vote in another manner.
If the applicants are successful, however, it will mean Canadians can use the voter information cards as ID on Oct. 19 after all. Though the case was heard in the Ontario Superior Court and the injunction would only apply in Ontario, the CEO has said he will allow the use of voter information cards from coast to coast in the upcoming election if Justice David Stinson grants the injunction.
Voter turnout in Canada is already abysmally low. Only about 60 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the last federal election, with fewer than 40 percent of people under the age of 25 casting a ballot. And the Fair Elections Act could further suppress young voters, the applicants argued.
Jessica McCormick, former chair of CFS and one of the applicants asking for the injunction, knows how hard it can be to vote as a young Canadian.
When the last federal election rolled around, the Nova Scotian was studying in Newfoundland and had recently moved to a new apartment, so she didn't have any official documents displaying her address.
McCormick decided to bring someone who could vouch for her, but when they arrived at the polling station, she was told that person didn't live in her district so they couldn't vouch for her. She had to leave the polling station and return with someone who could vouch for her. It was only then that she was able to cast a ballot.
"It was incredibly difficult for me to vote, and I felt very discouraged in that process," McCormick told VICE.
"And I know that a lot of other young people, and students in particular, maybe wouldn't return to the polling station a second time if they didn't have the proper identification," she said. "It's for that reason that I feel really passionately about these changes that are being made into the elections law that will likely make it even more difficult for people to vote in the next election."
So why would the Conservative government pass legislation that would restrict the use of vouching and voter information cards? The Attorney General of Canada is expected to argue that voter fraud is a real and widespread issue that would be prevented by the measures in the Fair Elections Act.
But the lawyer for the applicants argued Thursday that voter fraud isn't a thing.
"We simply don't have examples of people showing up at polls pretending to be someone else to vote," Shrybman told the court. "There is virtually no evidence of that happening."
He argued that the minuscule risk of voter fraud is far outweighed by the irreparable harm electors would experience if they are not able to vote this fall.
VICE asked the lawyer for the Attorney General of Canada for her thoughts on the case, but she declined to comment and directed us to communications. They did not respond to requests for comment before deadline.
The lawyers for the Attorney General are expected to make submissions in court today.
Stinson said he would decide the fate of the injunction—the last ditch effort to halt the Fair Elections Act—by July 20.
Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter.