Editorial – What’s Fair About It?

I’m angry today. If you haven’t heard, and apparently somewhere around 85% of Canadians haven’t, our Conservative Government is attempting to rapidly put through a new Elections law. They’re euphemistically calling the bill the “Fair Elections Act”, but on reading it, there’s very little that’s fair about it. Almost every constitutional or elections expert has denounced the bill as being damaging to democracy, including former auditor general, Sheila Fraser. As of yet, however, the Conservative government remains adamant that the bill is just fine, and that changes, if any, will be confined to minor tweaks.

If you have heard about it, odds are what you’ve heard has something to do with vouching. Students groups, the blind, aboriginals, all have declared that this bill has serious problems which will likely prevent large numbers of them from voting. The removal of vouching, in tandem with the removal of voter identification cards, is probably the most direct attack on our democratic right to vote within the bill, but while very serious, also is unlikely to affect many of us. There are other, broader problems with the bill, but we’ll get to them in a minute.

On the face of it, vouching seems unnecessary. As has been reported many times, there are 39 pieces of ID that are acceptable, and for most Canadians, any one of them will suffice. Why then, should we care if some individual hasn’t bothered to get theirs? The problem is that, at the time of the vote, many individuals are not living in their home or registered ridings. And if they’ve moved shortly before the election, or are living in the area temporarily (as many post-secondary students do), they may not have any proof of address. They can prove who they are, sure, but to vote, they’d need to prove they lived in that riding, and that simply might not be possible. Before this bill, somebody who was registered in the riding and knew them could then vouch for that person and they could vote.

The argument the conservatives have against this is that it is too open to fraud. However, this is actually one of the harder ways to commit voter fraud, as it requires that you find an eligible person who is not only willing to lie for you, but willing to lie when the penalty may include criminal charges and a prison sentence. As has been pointed out, a lease agreement is considered a valid piece of ID that shows your address. That and one other piece of identification is all that’s needed to vote. Since you can buy blank lease agreements at staples, and since Elections Canada has no way of verifying that what’s written on a lease agreement is actually true, fraud is both easier and safer without vouching than it is with it. But that’s not what I’m angry about.

As troubling as that is, it is one of the lesser problems with this bill. One of the bigger problems is that this bill makes a mockery of any election spending limits we care to set. With donations of under $20 not needed to be recorded at all, and donations of $200 or less not needing any donor identification, donation limits are nearly meaningless. In addition, the bill now also exempts any spending during a campaign that may be used to gain donations from being reported as a campaign expense. While Elections Canada does have the ability to determine if any particular material sent is either campaign advertising or donation seeking, the bill provides no means for Elections Canada to demand materials from a campaign. But that’s not what I’m angry about.

Worse, the bill legalizes the “in-and-out” scheme that the Conservative government plead guilty to from the 2006 election. Let me restate that, the government that plead guilty to breaking a law in 2006 is attempting to change the law to match their behavior. This is little different from a mayor of a city being caught speeding in a playground zone and then choosing to remove all playground zones from the city. It doesn’t make our country, our elections, any safer. It makes them worse. Under this bill, a locked-in riding, such as the Medicine Hat riding here in Alberta, can use any of its unspent campaign expense limit to purchase an advertisement for the tightly contested riding in, say, Nippissing. This might not seem too bad until you remember that we, the taxpayer, reimburse all riding associations for the bulk of the expenses undertaken during a campaign ? if the campaign in Medicine Hat really didn’t need the money for it, should we, the taxpayers, be paying for it anyway? But that’s not what I’m angry about.

The bill also lets the winning party from the previous election determine who will act as the poll supervisor in any riding. The poll supervisor has significant power when it comes to determining if somebody is allowed to vote or not. While the conservative party notes that the current elections act already allows that to happen for other positions at the riding, those people all have to defer to the polling supervisor, who, before this bill, was hired impartially by Elections Canada. Regardless of your political party, this should be concerning because it will only benefit corrupt parties and individuals at the expense of honest ones. If you believe that the people in your opponent’s party are more likely to be corrupt, this change in the law will only help to ensure that if they ever get into power, it will be much harder to remove them from it. But that’s not what I’m angry about.

Another problem with this bill is that it takes investigative powers away from Elections Canada, which reports to parliament as a whole, and puts it into a parallel office that reports directly to the government of the day. Put another way, a government that wins by illegitimate means is the government that gets to decide if there will be any sort of investigation into those means. Again, whichever party you support, this should be extremely worrying. But that’s not what I’m angry about.

No, what I’m angry about is that despite all of this, despite how this bill, whether through malice or simple short-sightedness, is almost designed to make things better for parties and candidates who are willing to cheat, it is a concern to only 15% of Canadians. Most Canadians don’t even know it’s happening, and this is a massive failure on the part of our media and on the part of us as Canadians. Well, I’m doing my part. I’m telling you. Now I want you to do your part. Tell somebody. Strike up a conversation with your neighbour, your co-worker, your tutor, perhaps, and ask them if they know about what’s happening here. Ask them if they want our democracy made easier for cheaters.

And when you’re done doing that? Write your MP.