In the end, the clock ran out. A committee tasked with combing through the government’s 244-page overhaul of its election law altogether cut off its debate, no further through the bill than Page 47.
The government had set a May 1 deadline for the committee’s work, but it hadn’t finished with the divisive Fair Elections Act. And so the Conservative-dominated committee sped through the rest, with only voting and no debate. The government’s 45 amendments were passed and more than 200 from the opposition – all but a few minor ones – were rejected.
(What is the Fair Elections Act? Read The Globe and Mail’s easy explanation.)
It was the latest step for the bill, which was widely panned by critics and on which the government partly backtracked a week ago. The bill is now expected to be in, or very near, its final form and on a fast-track to become law by summer. Critics warn it’s still flawed.
Tempers flared in the waning hours of the committee’s work Thursday. NDP MP David Christopherson accused the Conservatives of ramming through a bill that will make it harder to vote and therefore amounted to voter suppression – a tactic typically seen as targeting minority groups. One Tory MP, Scott Reid, interpreted that as an accusation the Tories were racists, and angrily denied that, saying a wide range of ID is available and he was ashamed to sit across from Mr. Christopherson.
Clashes aside, the amendments went as expected. The government backed down, partly, on some of the bill’s most controversial initial proposals – to eliminate “vouching,” a sort of catch-all for voters who don’t have enough ID; to exempt certain fundraising costs from spending limits; to allow partisan appointments of central poll supervisors on election day; and to introduce robocall rules – but only require call records to be kept for a year, a time period dismissed by many as far too short.
Instead, after roughly 19 hours of the committee’s clause-by-clause deliberation, the amended Bill C-23 compromises on vouching with a provision that a voter who has ID but can’t prove an address can sign an oath, so long as a second voter signs a similar one on the first voter’s behalf, and still cast a ballot. The fundraising exemption and central poll supervisor provision were scrapped entirely. Some robocall records will now need to be kept for three years, others not at all.
The opposition celebrated the government’s partial retreat, but lamented the breakneck pace of the bill’s passage, despite the opposition parties’ complaints. The government refused cross-country consultations, sent the bill to the Senate for a week-long, now-finished “pre-study” and set Thursday’s committee deadline weeks ago.
“The process from the get-go was undemocratic. It was never meant to be an improvement in the election laws in Canada. It was meant to give the government an advantage,” Mr. Christopherson said Thursday.
Liberal MP Scott Simms called the process a charade and warned the bill will leave some people unable to vote next year. “People are going to get upset and it’s going to be proven in the next election,” he said.
Once passed, Bill C-23 will require Canadian voters to have ID. It eliminates use of the voter information card to corroborate a voter’s current address, which a voter must also now prove, or sign an oath. The bill puts new limits on Elections Canada, effectively killing some civic literacy programs and advertisements aimed at boosting voter turnout. Instead, Elections Canada may only to advertise the basics of where, when and how to vote.
The bill adds an additional advance voting day and new, tougher penalties for fraud, though it doesn’t give elections investigators the power to ask a court to force a witness to co-operate – without which investigations will stall, observers have warned. The bill does not subject robust party voter databases to any oversight or scrutiny under privacy laws; instead, it expands them by giving parties “bingo cards,” or a comprehensive list of which registered voters cast a ballot, after an election.
A spokesperson for Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre issued a brief statement after the committee finished. “The Fair Elections Act is a common-sense bill that will require ID for voting and improve our democracy. Canadians support it. There has been enough talk. It’s time to pass the bill,” the statement said.
Opposition MPs, however lamented a process that saw critics nearly unanimously call for changes, only for the government to agree to some before pushing the law through.
“This has been an incredibly disappointing exercise,” NDP MP and committee member Craig Scott said. “Without Canadians alongside a really active Official Opposition, this bill would be an absolute travesty. Right now, it’s going to go to the House as just a travesty.”