The federal government defended its stringent voting requirements in court Friday, saying it may have become harder to cast a ballot, but there's no evidence it's impossible for anyone.
Countries around the world are adopting tighter voter identification requirements, and Canada is under no constitutional obligation to make voting convenient, argued Crown lawyer Christine Mohr.
Ms. Mohr asked the Ontario Superior Court to turn down what the Crown calls an "extraordinary" and precedent-setting request to suspend part of the Fair Elections Act, passed last year, before the looming fall election.
Advocacy groups the Council of Canadians and Canadian Federation of Students have asked for the emergency injunction against the act, which will require Canadians to produce more identification to vote than in any previous election. The Fair Elections Act requires either government-issued ID with a photo, name and current address; or two pieces of ID in which one has the voter's address; or two pieces ID and to have someone who knows you attest to your address.
They want the court to allow Canadians to use as official ID the voter information cards they receive in the mail. Elections Canada had planned to allow all voters to use the cards this year for the first time, hoping to increase voter participation, but the Fair Elections Act nixed that idea.
Relaxing the rules will create a risk of voter fraud and other inconsistencies, Ms. Mohr argued. The list of electors, which supplies the names and addresses for the mass mailout, is never entirely accurate, so it's reasonable to ask people to prove their current name and address when they vote, she said.
"It may well be more convenient for many electors" to use the cards, Ms. Mohr said. In a perfect world, voting would be effortless, but making it effortless isn't the government's job any more than it's the government's job to set up a special polling station for each individual Canadian, she said.
The two groups asking for the injunction say tens of thousands of eligible voters lack drivers' licences and other acceptable ID and won't be able to vote under the new rules, especially many elderly people living in care homes, aboriginals, students and the homeless. Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, called the act "anti-democratic."
The possible exclusion of so many voters will jeopardize Canadians' ability to accept the legitimacy of the election, the groups' lawyer argued.
In the 2011 election, as a pilot program, Elections Canada allowed 900,000 people in those groups to use voter information cards as official ID. Around 400,000 took advantage of the option.
However, there's no evidence that those 400,000 people couldn't have voted another way that required more effort, Ms. Mohr said. At the time, no one asked them what other ID they had.
"The evidence is speculative and remote and amounts to no more than a 'web of instinct,'" the Crown wrote in a factum to the court. "The repeated claim that 'tens of thousands electors' will be prevented from voting … is wholly unsupported."
Ms. Mohr went through the various options available to students and the homeless, saying that they may need to plan ahead, but there are options available. Students, who often have trouble finding proof of address while living away from home, can show cellphone bills on their phones, mail from school or other documents, she said.
Homeless people often aren't registered as voters, so they wouldn't receive voter information cards in the first place, the Crown factum said. But Ms. Mohr described the process by which the homeless can submit the right paperwork to use the addresses of shelters, soup kitchens or other places to register themselves and cast a ballot.
There's little downside to easing the voting process, argued a lawyer for the applicants, Steven Shrybman. There isn't any evidence of intentional voter fraud in Canada, he said.
The court will make its decision by July 20. "I am mindful of the need to release a decision as quickly as possible, and I'll get it out as soon as I can," Justice David Stinson said.
Until 2007, Canadians who were on the list of electors were not required to show ID at the polls – they could simply state their name and address to be provided with a ballot.
The Harper government brought in voter ID rules that year, then toughened them further with the Fair Elections Act.