Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is attempting to bring US style voter suppression to Canada in what some critics believe is a new legislative bid masquerading as electoral reform. Bill C-23, named the “Fair Elections Act” by proponents, was tabled on February 4 by Minister for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre and pushed through a second reading by the majority just two days later when Parliament moved for time allocation.
The bill is currently being filibustered in committee by NDP MP David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre, Ont.), where it is undergoing a clause-by-clause negotiation. Christopherson, who has shut down debate by filibustering for two straight committee meetings, says he will continue to speak out against the bill until his request to take the committee hearings on the road is met. Christopherson and the official opposition have asked Harper to take the committee hearings—of which there could be upwards of 12 or 13—to the Canadian public in a campaign to educate and spread awareness about the reforms that the government is pushing through with minimal consultation. Conservatives have opposed this resolutely, explaining that awareness and visibility would constitute a smear campaign against the bill.
Critics of the legislation say Bill C-23 is a transparent attempt to depress voter turnout—a move which always statistically favours Conservatives. The so-called Fair Elections Act proposes to eliminate the practice of vouching which enabled upwards of 100,000 Canadians to vote in the last election, according to Marc Mayrand, Chief Electoral Officer of Elections Canada. The legislation would also eliminate Voter Identification Cards (VICs)—which are used by those who lack common ID like a driver's license or passport a proof of eligibility to vote. Statistically these are often students, First Nations people who live on reserves, and the elderly. Bill C-23 will also put an end to Elections Canada’s ability to conduct voter outreach campaigns; if it passes, the Chief Electoral Officer will not even be allowed to publicly speak.
By depressing voter turnout in target demographics that typically do not vote for them, Conservatives will make it harder for these voters to cast their ballot, and more likely for them to secure a majority in future. The bill also works to loosen campaign finance regulations by increasing the limit on individual campaign donations and removing the cap on fundraising from previous donors altogether, a move which also favours Conservatives, who have an existing corporate donor base and fundraising structure in place.
The arrival of this legislation comes as no surprise to those who are aware that the Harper government continues to take both inspiration and cues in crafting policy from their Republican counterparts south of the border. Voter suppression efforts are well under way in the US since a 2013 Supreme Court ruling invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a key gain and direct result of the US civil rights movement. Fittingly, Bill C-23 has attracted the attention of American civil liberties experts like Pennsylvania ACLU legal director, Witold Walczak, who warns that efforts to suppress voting on the part of the government should be cause for worry. Official Opposition Critic for Democratic Reform NDP MP Craig Scott (Toronto—Danforth) echoed Walczak’s concerns when he spoke with VICE.
“There is a conscious exclusion of voters by getting rid of a couple of forms of identification. Given the history of using that exact same tactic of restricting IDs and use of IDs—particularly for certain groups that one knows may not be inclined to vote for your party—and given that we know in the US this has been a conscious strategy, and given the crowd that's running our government are sort of aficionados of the Republican Party… Basically, I'm saying they know what voter suppression looks like and then when they use the same tactics to produce voter exclusion, the presumption becomes that their intentions are to do it,” Scott told VICE.
There are important structural differences in governance that distinguish Canadian parliamentary democracy from its counterpart in the American presidential system. Namely, there are much stricter regulations on campaign finance in Canada and, up until recently, electoral practices like voter suppression and gerrymandering have been essentially nonexistent. The reason we don’t have to worry about money in politics, voter suppression or partisan districting to the same extent as US voters is because we don’t leave it to politicians to be fair when it comes electoral policy. Elections Canada is the nonpartisan body that acts to administer free and fair elections in this country.
But Harper wants to change that, and gut Elections Canada by reducing it to a sort of bare bones functionality: telling voters when to vote, how and where. With this legislation, Elections Canada will lose its power to conduct campaigns encouraging Canadians, and young Canadians in particular whose turnout is always abysmal, to vote. Pierre Poilievre has justified this decision by stating that Elections Canada’s outreach efforts have not been successful in combating declining turnout, a claim which political statisticians say makes no sense. The US, which has much more lax campaign finance regulations can funnel big dollar donations into voter outreach campaigns that can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. In Canada where that is not a possibility, it is unclear how voter outreach efforts will make up for the loss of Elections Canada’s campaigns.
Perhaps even more dire, Elections Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer will have lost all prosecutorial power when it comes to investigating matters of electoral fraud. If Bill C-23 passes, the Department of Justice will overtake these duties—a move which many see as retribution for an ongoing investigation into robocalls made by Conservatives during the 2011 election that deliberately misinformed voters about their polling place. It's hard not to read this as anything other than Harper using his office and majority government he leads to take apart the very structures attempting to hold him accountable. The deep irony there is that Harper, Poilievre, and the Conservative majority claim that this legislation is about combating fraud on the part of voters.
Not unlike Republicans, Conservatives claim that voter fraud is a widespread issue despite evidence to the contrary. Last month, Conservative MP Brad Butt (Mississauga—Streetsville) made up and then walked back from a story claiming that he had personally been witness to widespread voter fraud. There have been only eight convictions for voter fraud since 1992. By turning the conversation on its head and lying outright about fraud on the part of voters, the Conservatives are effectively distracting us from the fact that it is the government which is committing widespread electoral fraud and orchestrating what is a thinly veiled attempt to pin this mess on someone else: the electorate. Scott called the flipping of the script on electoral fraud by Conservatives “Orwellian” and noted that Harper’s government has no interest in combating fraud when they themselves are guilty of it.
“The thing it does apart from voter exclusion or suppression is that it's a phony attempt to stop fraud […] it pretends that it's going to be dealing with fraud with a few changes that are not unwelcome but they're just minor compared to what was needed to go after the kind of organized fraud that we know occurred in the 2011 election year,” said Scott.
It is hard to believe that in looking to the policies espoused by U.S. Republicans, Harper’s Conservatives are not thinking in terms of the bigger picture. Voter suppression, unlimited campaign spending, and fights over partisan districting have not been in Canada’s political domain, historically. If Stephen Harper wants to overhaul the entire electoral structure of the country—and Bill C-23 is a good indicator that he does—the landscape of Canadian elections may look very different soon.