The author of a report cited repeatedly to justify cracking down on potential voter fraud says the Harper government is misrepresenting his report and ignoring his recommendations.
Indeed, Harry Neufeld says there’s not a shred of evidence that there have been more than “a handful” of cases of deliberate voter fraud in either federal or provincial elections.
“I never said there was voter fraud,” Neufeld said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“Nor did the Supreme Court, who looked at this extremely carefully.”
Neufeld said the government’s efforts to prevent voter fraud are aimed at a non-existent problem. And he predicted they’ll wind up disenfranchising thousands of voters and resulting in a rash of court challenges.
The former chief electoral officer for British Columbia was commissioned by Elections Canada to review the problem of non-compliance with the rules for casting ballots after a challenge to the 2011 results in the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre disclosed numerous irregularities. That case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which last year rejected a bid by the failed Liberal candidate to overturn the results.
Pierre Poilievre, the minister for democratic reform, has repeatedly cited Neufeld’s report to justify two controversial provisions in his bill to overhaul the Canada Elections Act: prohibiting voter information cards as a valid piece of identification and ending the practice of allowing people to “vouch” for voters who do not have the proper identification documents.
He referred to the report again Thursday in response to chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand, who told a Commons committee earlier in the day that the vast majority of the irregularities identified by Neufeld were mistakes by election officials in administering oaths and filling out the vouching paperwork.
“This gives me occasion to correct the explicit factual error in the CEO’s testimony when he said that the errors linked to vouching were strictly record-keeping that would not compromise an election,” Poilievre told the House of Commons.
“This is what page 10 of his own report says: The Supreme Court made it clear that such errors in other circumstances could contribute to a court overturning an election. That sounds pretty serious to me.”
But Neufeld said Poilievre is being “selective” in his reading of the report and urged him to read it in its entirety.
“He’s a bright guy, obviously. He can read and, you know, he should go to the recommendations and he should look at the entire context of the issues that were behind the problems with vouching.”
In his report, Neufeld estimated that an average of 500 “serious administrative errors” were committed in each of the country’s 308 ridings.
“Serious errors of a type the courts consider irregularities that can contribute to an election being overturned were found to occur in 12 per cent of all election day cases involving voter registration and 42 per cent of cases involving identity vouching,” he reported.
Neufeld concluded there were multiple causes for the errors, including “complexity, supervision, recruitment (of poll officials), training, updating the list of electors.” At no point did he suggest ineligible voters were deliberately trying to cast illegal ballots.
Neufeld recommended that voter information cards should be more widely allowed as valid pieces of i.d. And he recommended that the vouching process and paperwork should be simplified and elections officials better trained to avoid irregularities in future.
In the Etobicoke Centre case, Neufeld noted in the interview that the Supreme Court specifically said there was no evidence of deliberate voter fraud.
Nevertheless, he said enduring “urban myths” abound about voter fraud. For decades, he’s heard stories about busloads of out-of-riding people arriving at polling stations to vote illegally or nefarious individuals scooping up dozens of discarded voter information cards in apartment building lobbies and using them to orchestrate illegal voting schemes.
Conservative MP Brad Butt last month claimed several times to have personally witnessed the latter scheme but, after Elections Canada began investigating his claim, he eventually apologized and clarified that he was recounting anecdotal stories.
“You hear it so often, I think some people believe it,” said Neufeld, who has 33 years of experience overseeing elections.
“I don’t believe it. I’ve heard it from politicians and I’ve said to them, ‘Please, provide me some evidence’ ... Never, never a single shred of evidence has been provided.”
Like Mayrand, Neufeld said he fears Poilievre’s efforts to prevent voter fraud will end up disenfranchising people who have trouble producing identification with proof of their address – primarily students, seniors, the poor and aboriginals.
He predicted that the bill will eventually lead to court challenges by those deprived of their fundamental democratic right to cast ballots.
“I think we would see a huge outpouring of absolute anger because my experience is, when people are denied the right to vote and they feel they’re legitimately qualified and that there’s not a good basis for denying them that vote, they get very angry,” he said.
“And I would not be surprised if there was a rash of court challenges from people following the (next) election if Bill C-23 goes through the way it is.”
If the Conservatives’ argument about the threat of voter fraud is accepted, Neufeld said he’s worried that the government will eventually move to eliminate other special balloting procedures, such as voting by mail or registering at the time of voting, and impose more and more identification requirements, such as proof of citizenship.
“The argument doesn’t have any logical, factual grounding but, nevertheless, it keeps being used and I think it’s a slippery slope to say, ‘Oh yeah, we can’t trust anyone, we gotta have them prove everything in terms of eligibility before we give them a ballot.“’