The Liberal government has introduced legislation that makes changes to Canada’s voting system and replaces some of the controversial elements in the former Conservative government’s law.
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef said Thursday the changes in Bill C-33 are part of her mandate to repeal parts of the Conservatives’ Fair Elections Act, which she said made it harder for Canadians to vote.
“If passed, our legislation will make seven reforms that will break down unnecessary barriers to voting while enhancing the efficiency and the integrity of our elections,” Ms. Monsef said at a news conference.
The Liberal government is also staking new ground with a promise to preregister teenagers to encourage them to vote when they turn 18 and expand the rights of expatriates abroad.
The changes also include reinstating the voter information card, which contains a person’s address, as a piece of identification to vote in federal elections. It also restores vouching for another eligible voter who does not have proper identification.
Ms. Monsef cited a recent Statistics Canada survey that indicated 172,700 electors listed lack of identification as a reason not to vote in the 2015 federal election. Ms. Monsef said the voter identification cards are also used by seniors in long-term care facilities and retirement residences.
“We will reinstate it,” she said.
The bill would also expand voting rights to one million Canadians living abroad, even if they have been outside Canada for more than five years.
Prior to 1993, most Canadians living abroad – with some exceptions, such as military and diplomatic postings – were not allowed to vote. Since then, rules have limited voting rights to those who have spent no more than five continuous years living outside the country.
That provision is currently being challenged before the Supreme Court of Canada, although it is now likely to be dropped.
Other changes in the bill include: expanding the chief electoral officer’s mandate to include broad public education campaigns; creating a national register of electors to preregister youth aged 14 to 17; helping Elections Canada clean up data; and having the Commissioner of Canada Elections, who investigates complaints of fraud, report to the chief electoral officer again, as opposed to the office of the director of public prosecutions.
Ms. Monsef said the moves represent “a strong package for change,” and asked opposition members to work with the government to make improvements.
Conservative MP Blake Richards, who sits on the parliamentary committee studying electoral reform, said he hadn’t looked at the bill in detail but in general it reverses changes that his government made “to try to ensure Canadians have confidence in their voting system.”
He said he’s most interested in the fact that the bill was introduced a week before the committee makes its own recommendations.
“I think this is just a distraction,” he said.
The previous Conservative government tightened voting rules in an effort it said was needed to combat voter fraud, despite repeated investigations that failed to turn up verifiable incidents. Critics said the measures were aimed at suppressing the vote of people unlikely to support Conservative options.
The government’s legislation comes as an all-party parliamentary committee, on which the Liberals do not have a majority, meets behind closed doors to complete a report to be released next Thursday about suggested changes to Canada’s electoral system. The Liberal government promised during last year’s election campaign that it would be the last under the first-past-the-post voting system.
The Conservatives have been pushing for a national referendum on electoral reform, and the NDP, which supports a proportional representation system, agreed last week to back a referendum as well. The Bloc Québécois has also called for one.
Ms. Monsef said she looked forward to the committee’s report but said referendums are expensive and “divisive in our communities.”
“I’ve been quite clear from the very beginning that I don’t believe that a referendum is the best way to go about having a really complex conversation about an important public-policy issue like electoral reform,” she said.