Breaking Democracy

The Conservatives want to make voting harder. Just FYI.

by Gregory Beatty

illustration by Chris MorinPolitical parties, by their very nature, are partisan. Driven by whatever philosophy they embrace, they draft policies, recruit candidates and compete against other parties to win favour with voters. If they get elected they earn the right to implement their policies and shape the direction of government.

That’s politics, right? Except for one vital area — the process we use to elect our government. There, non-partisanship is a sacred principle.

Not so much for the ruling federal Conservatives, unfortunately.  Right now they’re ramming a bill through parliament called the Fair Elections Act that critics coast to coast have condemned for its partisanship.

“When issues related to the Elections Act, Elections Canada and electoral boundaries have come before Parliament in the past,” says long-time Regina Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, “there’s been extra effort made by the government of the day — be it Liberal or Conservative — to go across party lines and build consensus to ensure a fair, honest, inclusive, democratic result.”

Not this time.

With Bill C-23 the Cons have refused to consult with other parties and Canadians in general and have, in Goodale’s words, engaged in “character assassination” to discredit expert analysis and criticism of the bill.

It’s not the first time the Harperites have practiced dirty politics. During the Saskatchewan electoral boundary review last year, they worked tirelessly to undermine the process for partisan advantage.

So What’s Wrong With It?

Lots. Bill C-23 covers a lot of ground, but critics have focused on three areas. The first is restrictions on voter ID. Before each election, Elections Canada mails out voter cards. Canadians used to be able to take those cards to polling stations, present ID, and vote.

Now, voters will be required to produce ID with their address on it.

“If you think about your wallet, there’s actually very few pieces of ID that have your address on it,” says Saskatoon political scientist David McGrane. “There’s your driver’s license, but your social insurance card, health card, birth certificate, passport, credit card — none of them have your address.”

Even Canadians who couldn’t produce ID could vote through vouching.

“With First Nations people on reserves, a lot of times the band office would vouch for the person,” says McGrane. “Now, that can’t happen. Everyone might know who they are, and where they live, but under the rules, if they don’t have the proper ID with an address on it, they’re out of luck.”

The Cons say the revamp is needed to halt voter fraud. They’re mistaken at best. At worst? They’re flat-out lying, and deliberately changing the rules to gain an unfair advantage.

“The government has yet to produce solid evidence that there is fraud — at least of the type they’re talking about, which is people voting who aren’t supposed to be voting or double-voting,” says McGrane. “In fact, the only electoral fraud we’ve seen recently is from the Conservative Party of Canada, and voter suppression through robocalls.”

If the Cons want to tighten up vouching and ID provisions, there are legitimate ways to do that. In Queensland, Australia, for instance, a signed declaration is included with the ballot so the voter’s identity can be verified before the vote is counted.

Instead, Bill C-23 threatens to prevent hundreds of thousands of Canadians — most of whom are from marginalized communities where Conservative support is weak — from voting.

Bill C-23 also hikes the individual donation limit from $2400 to $3000 (and from $3600 to $4500 in an election year).

Do you have that kind of money to use to get a politician’s attention? Me neither. Most people don’t.

It’s a problem.

“The donation levels are already much higher than an average voter can afford,” says Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch. “The increase gives wealthy donors more ability to influence candidates and parties. It will also facilitate corruption.

“The fundamental principle of democracy is one person, one vote,” Conacher adds. “Quebec recently lowered its donation limit to $100. [Ottawa] should do the same and reinstate per-vote public [funding] for parties [which the Conservatives got rid of]. That’s the way to [advance democracy], because parties receive money for each vote they get — which encourages them to propose things voters actually want.”

Bill C-23 also exempts fundraising costs from campaign spending limits.

“If you pay a third party now, or for computers, a website and other infrastructure to fundraise, that counts as campaign spending,” says McGrane. “That’s as it should be, because fundraising is part of campaigning. Under the new bill, those expenses are no longer [counted].”

“It’s the first loophole since campaign spending limits were established in 1974,” says Conacher. “You’re only supposed to ask for donations and not urge people to vote for you. But what’s the line between those two? Parties could claim that almost all their communications were for fundraising. And because Elections Canada doesn’t have the power to audit parties and require them to produce documents to prove they followed the rules, there’ll be no way to check whether the loophole’s been abused.”

The Harper Attack On Elections Canada

A third area of concern is changes to Elections Canada.

“Some people say it’s political payback,” says Goodale. “In 2006, Elections Canada smelled a rat in the Conservative campaign with $1 million of illegal spending. They investigated, and even had a police raid on Conservative headquarters. The party denied any wrongdoing, but charges were laid, and they pled guilty.”

Following the 2011 election, Elections Canada launched another investigation into the robocalls scandal linked to a top-secret Conservative database. One high-ranking staffer will face charges in May, but the party has successfully stonewalled investigators, and many unanswered questions remain.

If the Harper government were truly interested in promoting democracy, says Conacher, they’d give Elections Canada the power to compel parties to produce documents and audit their books rather than relying on third-party auditors who are usually “party loyalists.”

Instead, Bill C-23 strips Elections Canada of the power to appoint election workers to serve under the returning officer, and gives that right to the winning party in each riding. And it transfers Elections Canada’s power to investigate misconduct to the Director of Public Prosecutions — which is a branch of government.

It also muzzles the agency’s ability to communicate with Canadians about the importance of voting.

Critics are divided as to the impact of the changes. Nevertheless, the bottom line isn’t good for democracy, says McGrane.

“It allows the governing party to become involved in the administration of elections,” says McGrane. “And that’s a problem in any dictatorship in the world.”

Can this bill be stopped? To take effect before the next election in October 2015, says Goodale, the bill must pass before the end of June.

“The government’s assumption is this is a very technical discussion,” Goodale says. “Political scientists are interested, but nobody else cares. What will be required to stop them is for ordinary Canadians to say loud and clear to Conservative MPs: ‘You are destroying democracy, and if you do this we will defeat you.’”

Get on it, Saskatchewan.

2014-04-17